Late last year serendipity arrived in my inbox.
Michael Pether, amateur WW11 historian, contacted me as a result of the blog I had written on resilience called “Lessons from my Grandma”, in which I had briefly mentioned my great aunt Dorothy Gwendolyn Howard Elmes. “Bud” was one of the 22 Australian army nurses lined up and shot by the Japanese in the infamous WW11 Radjhi Beach Massacre.
You may be interested to know that there is a 75th memorial service to be held at Radji Beach next February. See Facebook “Muntok nurses and Internees”. I am trying to write the memorial entry on “Buddy“ Elmes, who I find from your blog was your great aunt.”
Too much of a coincidence for me, so I got on a plane last month and headed to Bangka Island, Indonesia. As you can see in the above photo I participated in the service on Radji Beach, laying a wreath in my great aunt’s memory on behalf of my whole family. An experience that has profoundly moved me.
You can read about it here, as covered in the Australian media.
The nurses and men suffered terribly at the hands of the Japanese and I do not wish to overly sanitise or see the events through rose coloured glasses… a heroic walking into the water, arm in arm, happy to die for queen and country. We have seen that picture of war so often and sometimes it glorifies what must always be seen for what it is – brutal and the worst of humankind.
Dr Viktor Frankl, found that having something worth living for – a sense of meaning – was what differentiated those who lived from those who died in Auschwitz. Likewise, I think there are many things we can look to these Australian nurses as exemplars of. I also believe it is important to acknowledge the female contribution to war.
One of life’s great paradoxes is that tragic and horrific events are also a crucible for the best of humankind. As a positive psychology practitioner we say that character strengths often “show up” and are honed at times like these. Character strengths can be thought of as: positive traits that have enabled human beings across time and culture to both thrive and survive. Things like courage, perspective, hope, forgiveness, and leadership.
We have seen these in action close to home in Melbourne recently with the Bourke St rampage and the many examples of bravery, kindness and a general outpouring of care and concern for others.
In terms of the nurses and my great aunt, for me it is their teamwork that stands out. Specifically: having each other’s back, a sense of fairness and justice and a unifying purpose.
Having each other’s back; they stuck together and looked out for each other. They didn’t make individual decisions. Decisions were made for the overall good of the group. The nurses who weren’t on Radji Beach and made it to the camps always worked to their common goal which was to get as many of them out alive as possible. So they would give things up if one of them had a greater need, sacrificing food and supplies, as well as taking on a greater share of the work.
Sense of fairness; in a fabulous piece of Aussie spirit, when they were escaping on the Vyner Brooke in a life raft, one of the nurses tried to head-butt Dr Goldberg who wouldn’t take her turn swimming in the water because “she was more important” than the rest of them. They had made a previous decision that in order to save the sick and weak on the life raft, the stronger swimmers would take turns in the water. I guess what I’m describing is a female type of mateship (does anyone have a name for this?) and in strengths language; fairness, equity and justice.
A unifying purpose; they were highly attuned to care for their patients at all costs. This is what they signed up for when they joined the AANS. They had been devastated when they were ordered to evacuate Singapore for their own safety and leave their patients behind.
The nurses’ motto is “Pro Humanitate” – for humanity. You may not be living in a war zone (thankfully) but how can you bring the best of humanity to whatever context you are in?