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- June 2012 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Ian Pfennigwerth. Published by Bellona, Sydney, 2012. Paperback, 334 pages with b&w photographs and illustrations. rrp $29.95. Also available for purchase from the author at: www.nautilushistory.com.au.
In providing this biography the author has undertaken painstaking and worthy research in Australia and overseas to access records that might otherwise be denied. He also contacted many who have first-hand knowledge of these experiences. We are taken through naval history, the trials of being a prisoner of war and given an insight into the advances in medical care, especially of children. Much is encompassed in this engrossing story.
Samuel (Sam) Stening began his early years living in Bondi where he was brought up in a prosperous business class family. He was one of four brothers and two sisters, one of whom died young, which may have influenced his eventual career and chosen medical specialisation. The family was unusual with all four boys becoming medical doctors; with wartime service two joined the Army and the other two the Navy. Sam was an outstanding student who at age 15 was admitted to the Medical School of the University of Sydney, graduating with honours degrees as Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery at only 21 years of age.
Sam appears a rather shy and retiring character but with a strong sense of responsibility to his fellow man. His brother Malcolm, also a naval doctor, who followed a career in obstetrics and gynaecology, reveals a little when he says Sam …always had an affinity for children. The early days of his career in paediatrics show him as dedicated and serious but rather courageous in his choice of specialty, as at that time there was virtually no separation of adult and children’s diseases and illnesses in accepted medical practice. He is a strong traditionalist, telling his daughter in his later years that …a person’s priorities ought to be country, family, self, in that order.
His early medical career quickly flourished, and it was not long before he established himself as a junior consultant at the Camperdown Children’s Hospital. In 1937 Sam met the attractive Olivia Thompson but it took the shy young man some time to cement this relationship. With the threat of war Sam volunteered for naval service and despite mild colour blindness was commissioned as a Surgeon Lieutenant in the RANR in September 1939, but was not called up until his thirtieth birthday on 14 May 1940, joining HMAS Penguin for initial training.
Sam’s first sea postings were short periods in the cruisers HMA Ships Perth and Canberra engaged in convoy escort duties in the Indian Ocean and South Atlantic. This quiet introduction to naval life quickly increased in tempo through a posting to the famous ‘Scrap Iron Flotilla’ in the Eastern Mediterranean, commanded by Captain ‘Hec’ Waller. Sam served in the destroyer HMAS Waterhen where he first experienced action during an intense period of activity which included providing medical assistance to wounded troops being ferried away from advancing Axis forces, and to Italian prisoners. Whilst Waterhen was a lucky ship and always seemed to escape the worst enemy air attacks, eventually her luck ran out and on the evening of 29 June 1941, when approximately 18 Stuka dive bombers attacked, she was sunk but fortunately all aboard were saved.
Upon his return home for survivor’s leave Sam married Olivia, who had joined the WRANS. Their time together was short with a posting as second medical officer of Perth with ‘Hec’ Waller in command. There is a vivid description of the unimaginable horrors of the loss of Perth and USS Houston at the Battle of Sunda Strait. Sam was amongst about 190 survivors who were picked up by the Japanese and taken ashore before transfer to Japan, where they arrived on 5 May 1942.
Sam Stening’s experience of internment in eight prison camps throughout Japan gave him a unique insight into how these camps were run and the conditions under which prisoners were held. In two of the camps, in addition to being a medical officer he was also the senior officer with the added responsibility of command of up to 300 men of mixed nationalities. The camps were little more than pools of hard labour necessary to support war-time industries. Given poor and unsanitary living conditions, inadequate and often near starvation diets and only the most basic of medical supplies to combat illness and disease, it is little wonder that physical and mental exhaustion was evident. Vivid descriptions are given of the prison camps and how prisoners were treated by their Japanese and Korean guards. At each of these camps Sam Stening used his skill and ingenuity in finding ways to obtain better treatment for his men from their captors, even when this meant he suffered humiliation and personal and physical abuse.
Sam Stening returned to Sydney aboard the destroyer HMAS Quiberon on 9 October 1945; shortly afterwards he was promoted to Surgeon Lieutenant Commander and demobilised to the Reserve in December 1945. In March 1946 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry and devotion to duty in Perth in her action against superior Japanese forces on 1 March 1942. Suffering from exhaustion through his experiences he needed to rely on the strength of his wife and family to help readjust to normal life. Liberation was not the end of Sam’s war as he was involved in the gathering of evidence against his former gaolers. While a prisoner, he had kept not only case notes on all his patients but also a great deal of information in his diaries. From these he was able to produce a list of denunciations of Japanese personnel who were considered war criminals.
Sam experienced a sense of depression with regard to his ‘lost years’ and ‘the wasted time and opportunities’ particularly in the area of his career in paediatrics, feeling that he had been left behind in his chosen field. The latter part of the book describes his attempts to re-establish himself in paediatrics and how he rose to the top of his profession in an area that was only in its infancy when he had joined it, but which was now becoming a ‘proper’ field of medicine. The difficulties experienced in dealing with child health in the early 1950s are described, and many of the advances made largely due to doctors such as Stening are to be admired. So well regarded was he in his work that an intensive care ward was named after him at the Women’s Hospital in Crown Street. The staff and patients at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children had enormous respect for him as well as gratitude for his caring and diligent devotion to their wellbeing.
Sam’s former patients from the POW camps in Japan certainly agreed with his civilian patients in the way they held him in high esteem. He was a guest speaker at the 9th Division Reunion Dinner on 23 October 1982 and a report on the dinner states: Many men still alive today owe their lives to his medical skill, devotion and encouragement. Sam and Olivia were unable to have children of their own, and adopted a small girl always known by the nickname ‘Putch’. She brought them great joy, especially when she married and produced three grandchildren, including Sam Junior. Sam reached the pinnacle of professional life when in 1977 he became President of the Australian College of Paediatrics. Olivia died of cancer in 1982 and on 9 March 1983, just short of his 73rd birthday, Sam Stening died of a stroke at St Luke’s Hospital in Sydney.
This biography is important as it is likely to be the last of its genre containing first-hand experiences from the few living survivors, both ex-prisoners of war and Japanese who experienced these war-torn years. It is of interest not only in wartime recollections but in showing how the human spirit overcomes adversity. It tells of a man who said of himself that he was not brave. However, he did not shrink from responsibility and stood for those principles he knew were right. He had the courage to confront and face down his captors, which is something most men feared.
Reviewed by Liz Colthorpe