YEHIURA HRIEHWAZI in Brisbane pays tribute to Joyce Celestine Coutts, an Australian nurse who worked in the Rabaul government hospital before World War II
A SPECIAL group of Australians are passing on and sadly not many Papua New Guineans know them or will ever hear of them and their time and efforts in our country.
These are people who came to work in various capacities before and just after World War II.
There are not many left in Australia, as they are quietly moving into the next phase in life to rest in peace – they are people who arrived in New Guinea (now PNG) to work in various capacities as government health workers, builders, missionaries, plantation managers, explorers, miners and crocodile hunters.
One such person was a registered nurse, Joyce Celestine Coutts (nee McGahan) who was born on April 14th, 1910, in Brisbane, and passed away on Sept 25, 2009, at the age of 99.
As a young girl, she used to live a carefree lifestyle in the Darling Downs area of Queensland near Brisbane and rode to school on horseback. She was the daughter of the well-known McGahan family. Her grandfather was the first MP of Queensland Parliament.
The Courier Mail of Brisbane and a community newspaper, Warwick Times, both carried obituaries of this great person who trained as a nurse in Brisbane and then went to work in the Rabaul government hospital before the World War II. She was captured by the Japanese soldiers and taken to Yokohama where she and her colleagues were starved of food and adequate clothing and at times covered herself with old newspapers to keep herself warm during the cold winter nights.
She had a workmate, Alice Bowman, whom she met at Brisbane’s Mater, when she went in to train as a nurse. She met nurse Alice again in Rabaul and the two became great friends and went through the ordeal as Prisoners of War (POW) together.
The following is how that Courier Mail and the Warwick Times have taken up story of the courageous POW.
When Joyce McGahan first met Alice Bowman at Maryborough Hospital (Queensland) when both were young nurses, neither could have imagined they would endure the horror of being prisoners of war.
Joyce, the sole remaining survivor of the Australian Government nurses captured by the Japanese at Rabaul in New Guinea during World War II, was born in Brisbane but had a carefree upbringing on a property at Mt Sturt, on the outskirts of Warwick.
It was a very laidback lifestyle – she even rode to the local Junabee district school on horseback, like many of her classmates. She was the second of three daughters born into the well known Darling Downs family of Patrick and Elizabeth McGahan. Her grandfather, Thomas McGahan, was the first Member of Parliament for the Darling Downs.
Joyce was not destined for a life on the land, though. She trained as a nurse at Brisbane’s Mater Hospital and then took up a position as junior sister at Maryborough, where Bowman was leaving after finishing her training. They were to meet again at the Australian Government Hospital in Rabaul. After the war, Alice wrote a book on their 31/2 years – Not Now, Tomorrow – which carried a picture of the two young nurses on the cover.
When the war came to the Pacific, everything changed overnight. The government nurses were offered evacuation but chose to remain out of loyalty to their profession. Four Methodist Mission nurses who also lived in Rabaul also stayed behind. When Rabaul fell to the Japanese on Jan 23, 1942, Joyce and her colleagues were held at the Sacred Heart Catholic Mission before being sent to Yokohama in Japan. In Japan, they were starved, beaten and had so few clothes against the icy winters in their three years there that Joyce had to wrap herself in newspapers for warmth. Somehow they survived and were repatriated to Australia in September 1945.
When the prisoner-of-war nurses returned to Queensland the State Government, aided by a fundraising drive organised through The Courier-Mail, did what it could to rehabilitate them.
Life quickly started to look up. Within a few weeks of her return, she married William’’Bill’’ Phillip Coutts. They had been engaged since 1940. Bill was working for the Bulolo Gold Mining Company in New Guinea and Joyce met him at the Rabaul hospital after he had an accident and needed medical treatment. He returned to his job in New Guinea and the couple lived there for several years, adding a son, Tony, and daughter, Moya, to their little family before returning to Australia. They settled in Narangba, north of Brisbane, and Joyce continued nursing until she turned 70. She led a happy life, although the death of Bill and Tony within weeks of each other in 1998 was a devastating double blow. Her war service was remembered and honoured with three medals and official acknowledgement of her courage in serving her country.
“(Mum) rarely talks about Japan because of the trauma she experienced there,’’ her daughter Moya Falconer said at the time.
“It was a fearful, terrifying experience because they never knew when they might be beaten or killed.’’
Joyce Coutts is survived by her daughter Moya and four grandchildren.