75 years ago: Dimboola’s Matron Paschke’s final days
|The year was 1942, Singapore was being evacuated due to the imminent threat of being invaded by the approaching Japanese, and Dimboola's Matron Olive Dorothy Paschke found herself in the middle of it.
Paschke, born in Dimboola in 1905, trained as a nurse in Melbourne and gained her nursing certificate in 1934. She returned to Dimboola as matron of Airlie Private Hospital for four years before once again moving to Melbourne as an assistant matron at a Community Hospital.
After the outbreak of War, she joined the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) as a staff nurse. She enlisted on 23 July 1940.
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Above - Matron Olive Dorothy Paschke. Image from the collection of the Australian War Memorial.
The following year she was promoted to the role of matron and posted to the 2nd/10th Australian General Hospital, before being sent to Singapore and then on to Malaya in February 1941.
Advancing Japanese troops forced the Hospital to withdraw south. The 13th January saw Paschke and two other nurses work to convert an abandoned school into a "spotlessly clean 200-bed hospital."
More than six hundred patients were in the care of the Australian nurses of the 2nd/10th General Hospital by the end of January 1942.
Against the wishes of the nurses of the AANS, they were being sent back to Australia due to the threat of a Japanese invasion. This process began on 10th February 1942.
Paschke was on one of the final ships to evacuate Singapore, the SS Vyner Brooke, which set sail from Singapore on the evening of 12th February 1942 carrying 181 passengers, most of them being women and children.
The final 65 Australian nurses in Singapore were aboard this ship, including Paschke and well-known Sister Vivian Bullwinkel.
Crammed onto the small merchant ship which had been requisitioned by the British Navy at the outbreak of the War, they were aiming to make it to the island of Sumatra.
The daylight hours of 13th February were spent near a small jungle-covered island, but this did not provide enough cover. Late in the afternoon they were attacked by Japanese aircraft, however no serious casualties were suffered in this attack.
As the sun set over the islands of South-East Asia, the Vyner Brooke made a run for the Banka Strait. Their progress was again slowed by the Japanese, this time by the threat of attack from warships.
Two days after leaving Singapore, the Vyner Brooke and her passengers found themselves exposed on a flat sea just inside the Banka Strait.
Soon after 2pm on 14th February 1942, several Japanese aircraft attacked. The Vyner Brooke's evasive action was no match for the aircraft overhead, with several bombs crippling her. Within only half an hour the ship rolled over and sunk bow first.
Paschke is reported to have remained composed while ensuring that those on her ship evacuated before it sank. In what would be the last time the two would see each other, Sister Betty Jeffery (a fellow nurse of the 2nd/10th Australian General Hospital) heard Paschke call out "We'll all meet on the shore, girls."
After the evacuation, Paschke jumped overboard and managed to scramble aboard a life raft with seven other nurses and some civilians, before seeing their burning ship sink below the water's surface.
Unfortunately for the group on the raft, strong currents meant that their efforts to reach Banka Island were in vain.
After eighteen hours, with all on the life raft becoming weaker, two nurses and two Malay sailors slid into the water with the aim of lightening the raft and swam beside it.
Tragically the swimmers and the raft were separated, amid screams and cries of horror. Only one of this group survived, who described the boat with Paschke aboard being swept out to sea. Paschke was presumed drowned.
During her nineteen months in the Australian Army Nursing Service Paschke achieved the rank of Major and was awarded the Royal Red Cross. She was highly regarded by all who worked with her or spent time in her care.
Paschke was posthumously awarded the Florence Nightingale medal, which is for women who have distinguished themselves in the mission of caring for the sick and wounded. She is one of only two Australian military nurses to have been awarded this honour.
Matron Paschke is remembered at Dimboola Memorial Secondary College with a sundial in the school's grounds at the front of the Memorial Building (pictured at the top of this story).
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