Over recent timeswhat was the Naval Health Services has undergone a significant transformation, becoming part of a unified Defence Health Services organisation. To many past members of the wider naval community this has gone largely unnoticed. It is therefore fitting that a tribute to the valiant deeds performed by these dedicated men and women is recalled in a memorial located in the Mosman War Memorial Remembrance Gardens, situated near the site of our former largest naval hospital, at HMAS Penguin.
The Mosman War Memorial was originally dedicated to servicemen and women of the First World War but has since included those who served in the Second World War and subsequent conflicts. The poignant smaller memorial in commemoration of the men and women of the Royal Australian Naval Health Services was jointly unveiled on 30 August 2015 by the then Director General Health Capability and Director General Navy Health Services, Commodore Elizabeth Rushbrook, RAN and the President of the NSW Branch of the Naval Health Services Association and great stalwart of the Association, ex-POSBA Ron Rosenberg.
The ceremony was well attended by past and present members of the naval medical fraternity and their families. The guest speaker was Dr. Ken Hay. For this task he was well qualified as a former Sick Berth Attendant, becoming a POSBA (L), who left the service in 1967 to pursue a medical degree in Perth, WA. Ken later served as a Surgeon Lieutenant RANR but because of other commitments has since retired. Dr. Hay’s fine speech is worthy of a wider audience.
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
It is an honour and privilege to be asked to speak at this ceremony and to witness the culmination of the project to establish this memorial.
The project was conceived in 2013 over a lunch in Secret Harbour, WA, attended by John and Barbara Rae, Ian and Jan Lorimer and my wife Maureen and me. John, Ian and I had served together at Cerberusand Penguinin the early 1960s. At the lunch we discussed the closure of the naval hospitals at Penguin, Cerberusand Tarangauon Manus Island, where I served through 1965. We came to the conclusion that there should be a memorial to those hospitals and to those who served in them.
John committed to doing something about it and set about the recruitment or, more precisely, the shanghai-ing of Ron Rosenberg, President of the New South Wales Branch of the Naval Health Services Association, Jim Chapman, Jock and Tina Heath and others, all with the able assistance of Barbara. And here we are today.
I must say that without the optimism, dogged persistence and determination of John and Barbara the whole thing would most likely have been just another bright idea, the flame of which flared, fluttered and died.
Now, back to the navy hospitals and, by way of example I will focus on Balmoral Naval Hospital but most of what I say applies also to the Cerberushospital. I am acutely aware of, and ask you to bear in mind, that the time frame for my comments began 55 years ago. Also, the inevitable and continuous processes of change have rendered my navy experience incompatible with today’s navy.
Balmoral Naval Hospital was more than just a place where ill and injured sailors, of allranks, were sent for medical or surgical treatment. In my view, the presence of that hospital, and the others, projected a powerful image of a navy that cared for and looked after its people in sickness as well as in health.
It also enabled the ill and injured sailors to be treated without leaving the comfort zone and the camaraderie of the mess decks. While in hospital they were in the company of, and were treated by, their peers.
These hospitals were the prime training venues for Sick Bay Staff. There was a Medical Training School at both Cerberusand Penguin hospitals. We junior Sick Berth Attendants learned the basics and the refinements of good nursing care under the supervision of some wonderful, old school nursing sisters likeMatron Maud Jones and Sisters Patti Vines, Barbara Lawry, Carmel Scarfe and others. We learned to understand and to dispense compassion. We learned the tolerance and patience required to nurse the ill and injured.
We were instructed in the ways of the navy by senior Sick Berth Attendants like Chief Petty Officers George Powell, Ron Josey, Doug Hay (not related), Reg Black, Les Hart and Bill Pope. Most of these senior sailors were World War Two or Korean War veterans.
There were senior doctors like Surgeon Captain Brian (BTT) Treloar, Surgeon Captain Armstrong and Surgeon Commanders John Cotterell and John Mitchell. Then there were a number of very junior, inexperienced Surgeon Lieutenants mostly serving out four year, post graduate, navy scholarship commitments. They were not much older than us and some envied our lifestyle. They contributed to our medical education. Many of them, after completing their naval service, went on to become highly respected specialists in various fields.
We worked in the hospital wards on general nursing duties and did the occasional one week of night duty. We were rotated through outpatients, laboratory, x-ray, specialist clinics, medical stores and ambulance escort and attended lectures in the Medical Training School.
After we had proven our worth most of us, by now Able Bodied Sick Berth Attendants, were seconded off to places like Royal Prince AlfredHospitaltobetrainedasLaboratory, Operating Theatre and X-ray Technicians. There was no formal or structured learning process, we just went off and learned what we could. It was probably not the best way for us to learn those skills but we did it and brought the skills back to the navy – and sewed on our right arm rates.
Penguinwas certainly not a bed of roses but, in the best traditions of the services everywhere, we made the most of it and it helped build our characters. As junior sailors we lived in an open mess deck housing about thirty people devoid of privacy, with just a single wooden locker and a bunk to call home. Relationships were sometimes strained but I never did witness a mess deck fight. We learned all about tolerance. We worked in two watches which meant we could only go ashore on alternate nights and alternate weekends. Our average age was about 21 and, while we were working, our long haired, red blooded, sun tanned, civilian peers flopped about on Bondi Beach and raised Cain in Kings Cross etc. We resented that and tried our hardest to offer them a little competition. The wet canteen was only one flight of stairs away and the entertainment highlight of each week was watching The Flintstones on a black and white TV set up in the mess hall. We were lucky to see the screen through the pall of smoke.
There was the occasional drama: at about 1030 on 11 October 1960 HMAS Woomera, while dumping obsolete ammunition, suffered an accidental explosion and sank with the loss of two lives about 20 miles off Sydney Heads. We were still undergoing training but most of us, still wearing our hospital whites, were despatched to the wharf at Penguin and put aboard a workboat. Surgeon Commander Mitchell was also there, as well as a few seamen. The boat got under way and we progressed through the heads and out into the Pacific Ocean. Some time later we saw a naval ship approaching. We had no radio so a seaman rating climbed onto the roof of the workboat with a couple of us holding his legs and proceeded to semaphore the ship using two sailor’s caps. It turned out the ship was HMAS Quickmatchand with all the survivors aboard was proceeding post haste into Sydney. So we turned about and wallowed back to Penguin.
And, of course, Balmoral Naval Hospital played a significant role after the terribleVoyagerdisaster. I had been posted to Leeuwin only a few weeks before. Don Nash, one of my contemporaries, was still there and wrote an excellent account of his involvement that was published in LCDR Jeppesen’s book, Constant Care.
We endured Penguin for about three and a half years during which time sailors who had enlisted with us in other branches had been posted to ships at sea, many for the second or third time. Then eventually our postings started to come through and we went our separate ways but sharing friendships that have lasted lifetimes and countless memories both good and bad. Not by design, but I never did go to sea.
The hospital at Tarangau was different. There we cared for navy personnel, their wives and children and the civil administration population at Lorengau. Then there was the estimated 14,000 indigenous population of Manus Island. They rarely required our services but when they did it was usually serious stuff.
Our one doctor worked hard at general practice medicine, surgery and obstetrics. The nursing sister administered anaesthetics. There was one Operating Theatre Technician, a Chief Petty Officer Pharmacist Rate and one Laboratory Technician – me. When we had serious surgical problems my job was to arrange blood transfusions by taking blood from donors, doing the blood groups and crossmatch then scrubbing up to assist the doctor. We did have the support of civilian, indigenous and some PNG navy people trained in these various fields. Another of my roles was to supervise the native hospital where we admitted those with non-life-threatening illness but requiring admission. Seriously ill native patients were admitted to the main hospital. The native hospital had a maternity ward run by a very competent native male midwife.
The nearest medical help was at Rabaul but only rarely did we need it, usually for worrisome obstetric patients.
My experiences there, with the support and encouragement of an enlightened and extremely competent doctor, Surg. Lt Brian McDonald, cemented my ambition to become a doctor.
The early 1960s were relatively quiet in terms of hostilities and natural disasters. The Vietnam War was still ramping up but it wasn’t long before some of my peers were on active service there with the helicopter squadrons serving ashore or in the destroyers on the gun line. The period since has seen medical staff who were trained in the navy hospitals serving in all sorts of hot spots involving hostilities and natural disasters. Some made the supreme sacrifice. This memorial honours all those who made the supreme sacrifice before, during and since the 1960s. It is also a memorial to the navy hospitals and acknowledges the service of all health professionals who have served in the Royal Australian Navy.
The Naval Hospitals – as we knew them – no longer exist. But they live on in the memories of those of us who lived and worked there; those who simply worked there; and those who were treated there. And they played a major role in the formative years of many impressionable young men and women.
It is not my place to comment on today’s Navy Health Services – I know little of them and there is nothing to be gained in comparisons of the ways of the past with the ways of today. And fifty years hence the navy will not be comparable with today’s navy. Change is inevitable and continuous.
To close, it is my hope and wish that this memorial will become a perpetual reminder that an old fashioned navy hospital once existed near this place. Perhaps, from time to time, an occasional school teacher will bring students here, show them this shrine, and the others, and ask them to research their history.