Anzac Day can seem to be a fairly “blokey” affair but there are three names on the World War II honour rolls in the Memorial Hall definitely worthy of recognition.

Miss Kay Parker, then respected Matron of Yass hospital and her fellow sisters Mavis Cullen and Eileen Callaghan knew little about what was ahead of them when they enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service in 1940.

Energetic and out-going, Kay was a popular President of the Hospital Auxiliary Younger set, regularly throwing herself enthusiastically into starring roles in the fundraising concerts and balls, or compering the children’s mannequin parade at the Scottish Fair and the dog show judging for the RSPCA of whom she was voted Vice President.

When the three nurses were captured by the Japanese at Rabaul on 23 January 1942 Kay Parker would need all her leadership skills and strength. Their three and a half years of captivity were to make them the longest-held Australian POWs in the Pacific.

After repatriation in September 1945 Sisters Parker and Cullen and Callaghan along with Sister Whyte, a fellow ex-P.O.W. returned to Yass and resumed duty for six months at Yass Hospital after which Kay Parker gained the position of Matron at Adelaide Memorial hospital. Sister Callaghan, semi-invalided since returning home died in Adelaide in March 1954.

In June 1947, Matron Parker gave a moving but apparently humorous account of their POW ordeal to the local CWA. At Rabaul, where there were six nurses to one hundred patients, they were machine-gunned and bombed from the air but none of them were hit. The nurses and patients sought refuge in a Convent where they lived for four months. Eighteen of them were then taken by the Japanese from Rabaul to Yokohama, Japan, spending eleven days in the hold of a ship.

They were employed in the bombed-out shell of a hotel for six months making envelopes and little bags and paid a small amount in Japanese currency. All they had to eat was rice, a little salmon mixed with it occasionally, greens of a sort, and seaweed. It helped to fill them but they were so terribly hungry they resorted to licking the gum of the envelopes. They stole curtains to make undies.

After two years in Yokohama, the girls were to be loaned to Japanese farmers to work in their fields. The farmers called them “men” and Matron Parker was No. 1 man. Jobs included carting coal in cold weather at the foot of Fujiyama, digging paths, sweeping streets, cleaning gutters and even cleaning sewers when they became blocked.  Miss Parker explained “It was a very dreary life with hard manual work all day long and the food getting worse and worse” She wore no shoes for 18 months and made shorts from sun-bleached calico. On one occasion she had her hair shaved off. Sister Callaghan became too sick to work. Their task was to sow rice and sweet potatoes and do the gardening. At night they pinched pumpkins to help supplement their meagre rations. A lucky discovery was a grave nearby. “The Japanese, believing in the spirits of their dead, took food and put it on the graves of their departed relatives. The gifts comprised nice cakes, pickles and all sorts of good things for the spirits to eat. Believe me, we POWs made very good spirits each night.”

The hunger was worse to bear than the cold.  When one of the girls fell into a hole, they were too weak to pull her out. To make matters more trying, the Americans were bombing nearby.

Eventually, they were rescued by the Americans.

Anzac Day-Captain Kay Parker, Lorna Whyte, Daisy Keast and Mavis Cullen arriving at Mascot 13 September 1945 after their ordeal as POWs Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial

At her farewell, before departing for Adelaide in 1947 Kay Parker was praised for her management style whilst Matron. While discipline was maintained there was no emphasis on the difference in status of superior and subordinates but rather the staff felt they were part of one happy family.  Perhaps it was this approach, her sense of humour and indomitable spirit that enabled “No 1 Man” to bring her friends safely home.

Judith Davidson for Yass and District Historical Society