While a P.O.W., Betty Jeffrey kept a diary, recording the physical and mental battle for survival, and the death of friends. The Japanese searched for diaries and there were severe consequences for those who kept them. Diaries were carefully hidden or thrown down the lavatory. Betty kept her diary sewn inside a small pillow for much of the time.
Extracts from her diary were published in the Sunday Mail in 1954.
Reproduced courtesy National Library of Australia
Readers are warned that there may be words and descriptions that may be culturally sensitive and which might not normally be used in certain public or community contexts. They are used here as they appear in original historical sources.
23rd January, 1945
Thirty-One of our 32 sisters now have malaria quite badly, and we are all so tired we are hoping and praying for our freedom. If it doesn't happen soon we shall all be messes for the rest of our lives. You can't treat tropical fevers, ulcers etc., on this diet and lack of water: it just won't work.
There have been many more deaths; there are no old people left in camp now. We have six of our girls in hospital, four of them very ill. Ray, Blanche Hempstead, Shirley Gardham, and Rene Singleton. We are all doing everything we can for them, 'special-ling' them day and night when they have their bad moments.
26th January, 1945
Vivian and lole have had an accident carrying. Something slipped, they both juggled with the long pole they carry on their shoulders, one behind the other. lole missed it and it poked her in the chest heavily. As the pain didn't die down at all she reported to the doctor, who has bandaged a fractured rib. This is the first fracture we have had in camp. Just as well, we could do little with fractured arms and legs, and as for surgery, if anybody needed immediate surgery she would have to go without; there is no equipment here at all.
7th February, 1945
The camp is full of desperately ill women with beriberi and Banka fever; it is not letting up at all.
8th February. 1945
Our own Ray, Sister Raymont, died today after 36 hours of being desperately ill. Ray had an attack of malaria, suddenly became unconscious, and didn't recover. We are all absolutely rocked. Ray has never really recovered properly since that damned Jap made her stand in the sun for so long a few months ago, just because a small knot in the wood on the wall behind her bed-space had fallen out. Val Smith has lost her best friend. OUR girls gave Ray a military funeral, all wearing their uniforms. It made the Japs sit up; they even stood to attention and removed their caps as it went past their quarters, a thing they had never done before.
17th February, 1945
Am back in hospital again, this time alongside Kong, who is recovering from malaria and overwork. Today she produced some Pond's Vanishing Cream from Heaven knows where and let me have a little of it. The first face cream for three years! My skin seems gloriously soft at the moment. It seemed to have an almost overpowering perfume.
20th February, 1945
Dear old Rene Singleton died today of beri after being in hospital for some weeks. We are all terribly sad; everyone liked Rene so much, she was always the life of the party at our worst moments. She was in her early thirties.
20th March, 1954
Find it very hard to write these days as there is nothing pleasant to write about. Camp life is just an existence now. No more concerts or charades or sing-songs; when the day's work is done people go off to their beds and lie there until morning. We are going back to Sumatra. Thank God we are going to get away from this camp! We all thought we would be right in this new, large camp, but it is mainly the lack of water that has started this terrible illness here. The tiny creek the water comes from is surely filthy now and full of wogs, and there is well water only after rain. The mud and heat and mosquitoes of Palembang are preferable to this. We are told Banka Island is known as Dead Man's Island. Sister Blanche Hempsted of Queensland, died yesterday - malnutrition and beri once more. Blanche had been very ill in hospital for some time. In the end she must have known she would not get well, because she apologised to one of her friends who was sitting there with her for taking so long to die. She died half an hour later.
Everybody is blaming the white rice we were getting for all this beri beri. When we used to get a little red rice on odd occasions things were much better. We are told there is no nourishment in white rice.
So far we have had 61 deaths in the short time we have been here.
4th April, 1945
Our Shirley Gardham from Tasmania, collapsed and died this afternoon in hospital. It was very sudden, a matter of minutes only. It has knocked us all sideways. As Shirley always loved flowers so much the girls are busy arranging some beautiful wildflowers for her now.
8th April, 1945
The first group from our camp has left for Sumatra. One-third of the people took off this morning, packed as usual, in trucks. We hope they have a good trip; it is a tough one this time. Half of our sisters have gone with them. We hate being separated like this, even if it is only temporarily.
20th April, 1945
On 12th April the second group of prisoners started off in the rain on the three days trek to Loebok Lingau. This group consisted of hospital patients and about 100 other people. Those remaining in camp were to follow us in about four days' time. What a business! About six people were desperately ill, some of them unconscious, and in spite of the doctors' begging the Japs to allow them to remain until the last party left, they had to travel that day. They obviously had only a few hours to live, and it seemed criminal to move them.
We were told to be ready at 6 a.m., so we all dined on hard cold rice cooked the night before, which stuck in our throats, and waited until 11 a.m. before we left in the pouring rain in open trucks. What a way to transport sick people.
We were driven at break-neck speed to the pier, and there the stretcher patients were unloaded and put on the grass beneath trees, the only shelter from the rain. It was ghastly. One Dutch woman died there. Those who could walk started off carrying their own baggage as best they could, along that long, long pier, resting every few yards. Half a dozen of our Sisters were stretcher-bearers and walked that pier many times, carrying and helping those too ill to walk. How they kept it up nobody knows. We all noticed a big difference in the pier this time. There were camouflaged gun emplacements every few yards and dozens of armed Japs everywhere. But they didn't help us: they only stared with an expression of horror on their faces at the pitiful, long, strung-out file of weary and terribly ill people. After some hours everybody was at last at the end of the pier, where we were all helped into a small launch by Sister James and Iole, the two smallest amongst our group of sisters. They also managed to get the stretcher patients aboard this awkward, bumping little launch without dropping them in the water. When the launch was full it went off tossing and bumping about until it came alongside an old wooden hulk of a thing, like a small coastal cargo vessel.
As Pat Blake and I were walking patients we were made to go down into the hatch and squat on crawling rice sacks with so many other women and children and babes that it was impossible for anyone to stretch her legs. And hot; it was like a furnace. The thought of 24 hours of that didn't help matters, especially as we both had dysentery, and we knew it was not fair to these people to stay there with them, since they were not, as yet, suffering from this complaint. So just before we started I scrambled out and back to the crowded deck where the stretchers were packed like sardines, and patients were lying, facing the glaring sun. Fortunately the rain had stopped. I saw a tiny ledge just below the tiny ship's bridge and out of everybody's way, so climbed up there and sent a message to Pat down below to join me. It was very hot there in the sun. The ledge was about four feet square, and Val Smith and Iole joined us. Our sisters did a superb job getting all those sick people on board without an accident, and then they proceeded to nurse them. As long as I live I will never forget Iole emptying and dragging bedpans in the sea. The Dutch nuns managed to get some bedpans with handles on board. We hadn't seen them before. Iole would tie a piece of rope through the handle, then she would get out on the six-inch ledge that ran round the outside of the ship. Pat and I would hold her hand and arm while she tossed the bedpan in the sea, and the drag every time nearly pulled her into the water. I can't remember how often that girl did that, but she must have done it 50 times. If ever anyone deserved a Victoria Cross she did.
During the afternoon a young Englishwoman died and was buried at sea. Extraordinarily enough, she had said some months before that she would like that to happen to her if she died in captivity. That burial was a nightmare. That night we were very cold on our ledge. We took it in turns to sleep; only one could curl up on her side at a time.
We set off again up the river at dawn, the third trip in that same river, and arrived at Palembang well after midday. Twenty-six hours in that awful tub for those sick people, and everyone was sunburnt to glory.
As we pulled in — our ship was so small we were below the level of the wharf — we noticed some Japanese officers waiting there and looking down at us. We were quite pleased to see Yamasaki, one-time commandant of our camp for a month or so. We don't know why we were pleased to see him, but we were, not that any one of us liked him, but he had never worried us unduly. He took one look at our deck, which was covered with dying women, and at the feeble efforts to protect them from the hot sun, and the smile went off his face very suddenly. He turned and spoke to another officer, who sent a third Jap running away for something. A few minutes later this person returned and gave something to the Jap we didn't know, who then jumped on to the deck and gave some injections to those desperately ill people. This is the first time we have seen a Jap actually do something to help the sick. We had to get out on to the wharf and stand there for about an hour… while our nursing staff, the same six girls, once more carried the stretcher patients across the wharf, over dozens of railway tracks, and put them down on the grass. Jap orders. As soon as they got the last patient over there they were told to bring them all back to be counted! We were all counted, then once more the trek across the rails. It was a relief to sit on grass for an hour or so. We were then given something to drink, which came along in buckets carried by Jap underlings. It was hot and wet and we all enjoyed it. At last a train came in, and we were told to get in. The stretcher patients were put into cattle trucks, the walking patients and others into carriages, filthy with black grit, but with padded seats, which rather surprised us. This was better than that blazing sun. We had to sit there on a siding all night, with windows and doors closed, blinds down and no light. It was airless and pitch dark… Six of the patients in the cattle trucks died that night before we ever left the siding. There is no doubt about it, everything is done that can be done to break up our morale and kill us off, but we are not cracking, Mr. Jap! As we had eaten sour, cold rice only on that journey, we were quite amazed when a Jap boarded the train during the night and called out, 'Roti!' — which means 'bread'. We haven't seen bread since we were first interned, and it sounded too good to be true. It wasn't actually bread; nobody ever found out what it was, but it was good. It was hard and brown and very heavy, each loaf was about 4 inches long and about two inches thick and must have weighed about a pound.
Some said it was made of rubber because it was very chewy, but as one of these loaves each was our ration until we arrived in camp two days later we found it much better than rice, in spite of its toughness. We found it so hard to break a mouthful off. It did wonders for most people and seemed to stop diarrhoea at once. At 7 a.m. we started and, once on the move, were allowed to raise the blinds and windows a little to get some fresh air. Each time we passed a station we had to pull the blinds down again so the locals could not see us. This was a silly idea, because it didn't stop a few pineapples and bananas being bought from natives enroute. The Japs had also sold us some very expensive, very green bananas and a few green pineapples, far too green to eat. Val Smith was OC fruit and walked the length of the train many times trying to please everybody. Iole was busy organising one carriage as a hospital; it had two long seats down the side and a long table down the centre. So many people were ill and more getting ill, and everybody was absolutely worn out. Iole arranged for every sick person to be able to lie down on these long seats and stretch out for a couple of hours at a time until all had a rest. A Jap doctor appeared during the day and Iole and Val said they must have quinine, since so many patients were down with malaria. He staggered the two girls by asking how much they needed and gave them the amount they asked for!
We passed some very interesting country going across Sumatra in this train. We saw the most peculiar-shaped mountains, very steep and abrupt looking, and some beautiful rivers, lush-looking green jungles, and thousands of tropical fruit-trees, most of them laden with fruit. We eventually arrived at Loebok Linggau at 8 p.m. Most of us jumped off the train to get a breath of fresh air, but we were made to get back in again to spend the night once more in that thick atmosphere. For three nights running we all sat up; we were nearly dead with weariness, thirst and hunger, yet those two Sisters of ours had to put up with these conditions and help the sick, who were getting worse, and others becoming ill all the time. Iole and Val didn't sit down for more than 10 minutes at a time during the whole of the journey in that train. At 5 a.m. just before dawn, we were all hurried out by screaming Japs with notice for all
to get ready. We were just pushed out and, as they were swinging their bayonets in the region of our legs again, we were out pretty smartly. The very sick people on stretchers were taken out of the cattle trucks and once more put on the wet glass, where all were given a hot drink, nobody knows what. Those women lying there in the half-light looked shocking. Dr. McDowell looked like a limp rag; she had worked hard all night and all day in the cattle trucks with the sick. She was marvellous. Of course, more died during the journey and we had many more people who would have to go straight into hospital on arrival. About an hour or so later we were all bundled into trucks and driven at that Jap crazy speed through the freezing early morning air to a rubber plantation about 12 miles out from the town. We passed hundreds of laden banana palms, and the roadside was lined with tapioca plants. We arrived at the camp soon after 8 a.m. and were met by Woodie. Jennie Greer, Win Davis. Jess Doyle, and a few English nurses. It was good to see them. They thought we all looked awful and were very concerned about us, but what a relief to have that hell journey behind us! The first thing I saw was a huge heap of sweet potatoes. What a change from sour, dry, cold rice! Win said they had been given sweet potato stew that had carrot in it, and she had kept a spoonful each for us. That is Win, always doing something for others. It was luscious. The stretcher patients were carried up a slope, then down a muddy and treacherous incline to a creek, across a narrow, wet, and slippery bridge, past the community kitchen, and across flat ground for about 300 yards alongside the creek to the tiny hospital. We walking patients collected our gear and started off behind the others! What a thrill to have plenty of shade from hundreds of rubber-trees and to have running water in the creek for the camp! This camp is in the middle of an unused rubber estate, which appears to have been wrecked by the Dutch before they left it and to have grown wild ever since. Most internees are living in large, badly built huts with leaking roofs and sides and mud floors.
Very soon after we arrived in this camp Miss Dryburgh died. That awful move from Muntok was too much for her. What a wonderful person she was, and how hard she worked to give the people in the camp such pleasure! With the help of Norah Chambers she wrote all the music for the 'orchestra', the words and music of all the songs for the glee singers; anthems for the church choir, two books of poems, stories, etc. She was also co-editor of a camp magazine which was sent round to all internees twice a month in the early days— a magazine with interest for everybody, containing articles, camp news, crossword puzzles, competitions, recipes, and so on. Unfortunately the magazine only lasted a few months owing to the lack of paper. Miss Dryburgh's death has caused much sadness throughout whole camp.
We have been here for nearly a month, and so far no sign of the Red Cross parcels promised us. They are here, up at the guardhouse, but the japs won't give them to us…
A few days ago mail arrived, and what a day! Every one of us received a large bundle from home. Iole at last has heard from her family; we both received 20 letters, most of them containing 25 words only. They were all dated 1942 and 1943 — only three years old! Some of us received our first snaps from home. I get my three out twice a day and gaze with increasing wonder at the fat on everybody, such fat legs on the children compared with the poor little children in camp here. We must all look pretty skinny and have got used to seeing thin people around the place. Very few of us have a tail to sit on these days, mostly bone, and our legs look just like bones re-covered with some skin. I know I can grip my wrist and my upper arm and lap over with finger and thumb. Well under six stone now. Starvation has set in again. We were so thrilled with the different vegetables here, carrots, chokos, bringals, decent long beans— certainly in small quantities, but definitely a change. Now they have all stopped, and the diet is rice and sweet potatoes. The potatoes are brought to the guardhouse just outside the barrier, dumped in the nearest pool of water, and left there in the sun and rain for three or four days. When they are thoroughly bad we may take them into the camp and eat them.
14th May, 1945
My fourth birthday in this camp. Iole said that 'fortunately' she had malaria yesterday, so couldn't eat her rice at tea-time. It was produced early this morning, fried up with sweet potato leaves from the new garden we made alongside Hut 13 as a present. We both thoroughly enjoyed it. Val Smith produced a miniature model of Jap guard 'Bully’, complete with three stars on his collar, which she made from a piece of old khaki shirt and stuffed with rag. Later in the day I was found to be carrying a small flea on me, and the doctor told me I had a spot on my lung, so everything is fine! We are finding it hard to cope with fleas and bugs in spite of keeping our hut spotlessly clean. Every morning we take everything we own out into the sun for a while for airing and have to de-bug our mosquito nets well and truly. We have so many dozens of joins and seams in these nets that bugs creep in and settle down so quickly that we are forced to do this revolting chore each morning. We are all getting malaria every few days, temperatures range about the 104-105 deg mark, but Blanchie is still immune. She is the only one of us who has not had malaria. She often laughs about it and says she is missing out on something. Most of us have beri beri as well. Chris Oxley and I go nearly mad with what we call our 'red patches.' They are red, hot, terribly painful patches which show up on our legs about once a week. They make us feel quite sick. The next day the redness disappears, but is replaced by stiffness in the muscles of our legs - so much so that we can hardly walk and certainly cannot bend our knees. The third day the stiffness has gone, but we are so swollen we look like fat pigs, the swelling and puffiness going farther up our bodies with each attack. Fourth day, everything normal once more and peace reigns in our bodies.
16th May, 1945
We are all very amused today. These Japs have done mighty little for us other than starve us and keep our Red Cross parcels, and now they have announced that a Jap band, of all awful things, is coming to entertain us tomorrow. We suppose that is the last item on their list of 'How to Treat Prisoners.' This is to cheer us up we suppose.
27th May, 1945
We are tasting life in the raw now… In Muntok we had thin, very thin, wild goat, and had two soft turtle eggs. Last week we had one tiny monkey brought in to make a stew for over 600 people, it was horrible. Hungry as we are, we won't eat monkey again. It smelt to high heaven.
Last night we celebrated some excellent news we heard. Nobody knows the source of the story, but we were told that the war with Germany is finished. Thank goodness for that! Those wonderfully brave people in England will have some peace at last. We thought the war in Europe finished just before last Christmas, but we must have been a bit previous. We have also been told that the Americans have taken a small island beginning with O to the south of Japan, and taken it at a terrific cost. This should give them a good base for attacking Japan direct. That is what we have been wanting to hear for ages. If this is all true, it should not be long now before these little yellow devils are finished off. How they hate us!
31st May, 1945
Another one of our Sisters died today, Gladys Hughes, the only New Zealander amongst our group of Army nurses. This is getting worse and worse.
10th June, 1945
We are still eating peculiar things. We had deer one day about a week ago, a huge old animal, and it was excellent. A few days later we had what we thought was tiger meat, bad and very high. It was eaten because the smell left it after it was cooked. So far, no ill effects. The carrots didn't last long and we are back to the old diet of tapioca leaves and that bitter jack fruit. Rations are still left outside in the weather for a couple of days before we get them, but we are getting used to it now. The creek has flooded again and down the stream came logs of wood, fallen trees, and other debris. As we are desperate for wood Blanchie, Flo Trotter, and I went in after a tree. We dragged it on to the bank, then got back into the stream and had a grand old swim! The water was deep and cold and it was most stimulating being rushed down with the tide. We did not allow ourselves to go far because of the rocks, now hidden. We were blue with cold when we came out, but soon warmed up — couldn't help it in this hot place.
We need and use such a lot of wood here. All rice for the day is cooked by 10 o'clock in the morning in the community kitchen, and then handed out to the blocks. The cooks are not strong enough to do more than this. We always re-heat the rice by frying it for midday and evening meals behind our little hut in what we call our kitchen. The fireplace is made from two pieces of train line we found, which are balanced on bricks. Quite effective, too, if we have enough wood. There are plenty of dead rubber trees outside the barbed wire, but we are not allowed to get it, so when the crack of a falling branch inside the camp area is heard everyone drops everything and dashes off to recover the wood.
The cemetery is just outside the camp on a hill about 300 yards up from the hospital. It is quite a pretty spot among trees, ferns, and wildflowers. Many people go to funerals just to get firewood. Most of them come back into camp dragging dead branches of trees behind them. It does seem so awful to be forced to do this, but it is the only way to get enough wood to cook meals. More of our Sisters are in hospital now, all of them very ill. If we don't get out of here within the next few months many more of our girls won't make it. Food is coming into the camp, but not for us who do all the nursing without a let-up. It is for the 'hard workers.' But every now and then we can buy a little from a Chinese who calls sometimes.
We were all invited to a dance and pork supper by the Japanese a few days ago! Dance! Why, we can hardly walk! Next day we had what was left of the pork. The Japanese order was to divide it between hospital patients and hospital staff. It was jolly good, too. We had one pig's trotter between us as our share, and sucked the bones all dry. Workers belong to squads who go out of camp and chop down rubber-trees. We did it for a while, but could not last too long and had no energy at all. The first working squads in this camp had to go for quite a long walk to a main road, then they had to remove a great heap of stones from the side of the road and put them all in a heap on the other side about 20 yards further down. Next time they went out they had to put the same stones back in their original position!
We Australians have done more than our fair share of chopping trees, digging drains, and clearing roadways for the last three years and simply haven't time or strength to go out on these squads now. We are all working ourselves to a standstill nursing and doing our own chores in order to make life bearable.
17th June, 1945
What are we coming to? Life here is certainly interesting. Two Indonesian families, each with half a dozen children, have taken to eating snake and as this camp is full of them they are not hard to obtain. We also heard that they are eating rats, since they must have their protein. Maybe they are right, maybe they are wrong, but one member of the snake-and-rat-eating family was taken to hospital very suddenly in a most peculiar condition and died a few hours later. We have been told these families will pay two guilders and 50 cents for a rat, so yesterday we tried them out. A small rat was discovered swinging in Blanchie's corn basket which was hanging from the roof on a piece of wire. Blanchie jumped up out of bed— it was very early in the morning — and called out 'Hooray, I've got two fifty in my basket!' She dressed herself quickly and went off with it to the Indos in Hut 11. Unfortunately the rat got out of the basket just as she was delivering it, so Blanchie went without her money. However, the price was wrong, she was offered only one guilder 20 cents. Perhaps it was on the small side.
Another snap arrived, it just popped out of an envelope and showed my sister's family. Anthony, a little boy of three when I left home now a lanky schoolboy, and a little girl of about two sitting there, quite a stranger to me, but somehow familiar. What fun meeting these children when I go home!
If we don't yet out of here soon, more of our girls won't make it.
This doll was given to Sister Betty Jeffrey on her birthday in 1944. It was made from a khaki shirt-tail, stolen from a Japanese soldier. The nurses named it ‘Bully’ after one of the Japanese guards.
Courtesy Australian War Memorial