Marjorie HILL

HILL, Marjorie

Service Numbers: SX14161, SFX14161
Enlisted: 21 January 1941
Last Rank: Lieutenant
Last Unit: 2/4th Australian General Hospital
Born: Fremantle, WA, 22 March 1916
Home Town: Adelaide, South Australia
Schooling: St Peter's Collegiate Girls School
Occupation: Masseuse (Physiotherapist)
Died: Stroke, Adelaide, SA, 17 November 1999, aged 83 years
Cemetery: Centennial Park Cemetery, South Australia
General AC, Path 15, Grave 117A
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World War 2 Service

21 Jan 1941: Enlisted Australian Military Forces (Army WW2), Lieutenant, SN SX14161
21 Jan 1941: Enlisted Adelaide, SA
15 Sep 1941: Involvement Australian Army (Post WW2), Lieutenant, SN SX14161, 2nd/13th Australian General Hospital
11 Feb 1942: Involvement Australian Army (Post WW2), Lieutenant, SN SFX14161, 2nd/13th Australian General Hospital
5 Jul 1945: Involvement Australian Army (Post WW2), Lieutenant, SN SFX14161, 2/4th Australian General Hospital
13 Feb 1946: Discharged Australian Military Forces (Army WW2), Lieutenant, SN SX14161
13 Feb 1946: Discharged Australian Army (Post WW2), Lieutenant, SN SFX14161, Discharged.
Date unknown: Involvement Australian Army (Post WW2), Lieutenant, SN SX14161, General Hospitals

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Biography contributed by Janet Scarfe

Marjorie Hill




Marjorie Hill was born in Fremantle, Western Australia, on 22 March, 1916. She was educated at St Peter’s Collegiate Girls’ School in Adelaide and then studied massage (physiotherapy). She finished her three year diploma in 1938, her final exams having been brought forward because of a polio epidemic in Adelaide. She worked at the Adelaide Hospital, the Children’s Hospital, Somerton Crippled Children’s Home, and as a locum for private practitioners.[1] 

She was accepted into the Australian Army Medical Corps as a masseuse (physiotherapist)  (SX14161) on 21 January 1941 with the rank of lieutenant. While awaiting their call up, she and friend Audrey Simpson attended physical training classes for army sisters and physiotherapists, additional physiotherapy lectures and instruction on military conduct.[2]

Malaya and Singapore (2/13 AGH)[3]

Allocated to 2/13 Australian General Hospital, Marjorie and Audrey embarked with the unit on the hospital ship Wanganella in Melbourne early in September 1941 after hasty preparations and with an incomplete set of uniforms. They had a rough Bight passage and brief leave in Perth before heading north for Singapore which was to be their destination, not as they had thought the Middle East. Wilma Oram AANS for one was disappointed not to be going to war: ‘the war was in the Middle East.’[4] The voyage was occupied at least in part with lectures, church parade, and instructing medical orderlies in the rudiments of care.

The unit disembarked in Singapore on 15 September. Half the unit, including Hill, was immediately bussed to St Patrick’s School at Katong on the sea front to await further orders. It was a surreal life. There were no patients, and with Chinese amahs to attend to domestic chores, the time was spent acclimatising to the sights, sounds, heat and smells of their new environment, attending lectures, going sightseeing, and enjoying dinners at Raffles. Hill and Simpson also had uniforms made and did some work at the Singapore General Hospital. There was little if any sense of the war.

In November, the 2/13AGH moved in its entirety from St Patrick’s to Tampoi Hill. Their new site was a former mental hospital just purchased by the Australian government, located in the jungle near Johore Bahru and not far from the causeway between the Malay Peninsula and Singapore. There were 22 incomplete wards, set in grounds so enormous that nurses and physios travelled from their quarters to the wards by ambulance. Equipment was limited but improved somewhat by the generosity of the friendly Sultan.

The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour on 6 December jolted the Australian forces in Malaya and Singapore into reality. The war came closer as bombs and shells fell on Singapore. At 2/13 AGH, the personnel were instructed to wear Red Cross armbands and to carry helmets, gas masks and emergency kits. Curfews were imposed. The hospital doubled the number of beds from 600 to 1200. There were some war casualties such as bomb splinters and vehicle injuries but most patients were suffering from medical conditions such as typhus, malaria and dermatitis.

Hill and the other physios worked in the wards and theatre, applying plasters to compound fractures. It was trying: wounds under plaster suppurated in the heat, plaster bandages had to be made from mosquito netting, and the hours were long.[5]

Suddenly the situation changed: the 2/10 AGH had to evacuate from Malacca as the Japanese army advanced down the peninsula; it arrived at Johore Bahru and linked up with 2/13 AGH. By mid January, the situation was so untenable 2/13 AGH was evacuated back to St Patrick’s School. Hill and the personnel moved the hospital – close on 1200 beds ­– in just two days. She later described the withdrawal ‘when the Japs were extremely hot on our heels’:

... people told us that no A.G.H could be removed under 6 weeks! You just should have seen us pelting up and down stairs with mattresses on our heads and iron bedsteads practically tucked under our arms. I have never seen people work so hard, or so cheerfully ... By the end of the second day nothing was left in Johore – not even the fixed wash hand basins, and all the patients were in bed in Singapore ...[6]

The hospital was inundated with wounded patients. Marjorie Hill recounted the scene:

Once the Japs got onto the island we turned into a casualty clearing station, and were admitting men straight from the front line. The 3 of us (masseuses) spent practically all our time in the theatre as we did all the plaster work, and the routine treatment of wounds after excision was to dust them with sulphanilamide powder, and pack them with vaseline gauze, and put them in a closed plaster. When we were not plastering, we were acting as theatre pros or as ‘secretaries’ to the surgeons, who couldn’t spare the time to write up prescriptions of the operation in case notes. If there was ever a lull in the theatre, we went into the resuscitation ward ... We took it in turns to work back at night, one of us working right through till morning, another staying until the rush was over, usually about 2 a.m., and the third SLEEPING.

In fact, Hill understated the physios’ work, particularly the inventiveness and effort required to ensure traction was maintained.[7]

Bombs and shells fell around the hospital daily but protected by its visible Red Cross, it was hit only once. The kitchen was all but destroyed but there were no injuries.

By 10 February, it was apparent that the situation was dire and the issue of evacuation of patients and nurses became critical. Critically ill patients with six AANS members were evacuated on the Wah Sui and left Singapore on 12 February. When the remaining nurses refused to volunteer to leave, Matron Olive Paschke selected thirty and directed them to leave at two hours notice for embarkation on the Empire Star. Marjorie Hill was among those chosen to leave: ‘that was the worst moment of the war,’ she wrote soon after.

Her account of what happened next was as follows:

We went down to the docks in ambulance convoys after having grabbed a few things together in small cases and rolled a few more/up in rugs or groundsheets, and there we saw our ship – a cargo ship which normally had accommodation for about 16 passengers and was carrying 2,500 troops, nurses and civilians.

We were stowed down in the hold and thrown tinned provisions ‘salvaged’ from the wharves – rusks, cheese, stew, biscuits, bottle of Guinness’s stout and skin food (‘revive those sagging facial muscles’)! It was dusk before we sailed and we watched Singapore, blazing from end to end, out of sight [sic]. There was just room for us to lie down in the hold and we lay flat on ground sheets and sweated as I have never sweated before.

The next day at 9 a.m. we heard planes again and the order went round to take cover as the Japs were after us. We lay flat in our hold for four hours while flights of planes numbering in all 60 dive [sic] and high-level bombed us consistently. How we survived it no one understood, least of all the Captain ... Fourteen people were killed and twenty wounded, so we organised ourselves into a hospital once more and took 4 hour shifts on duty. Two British (English) corporals were our ‘refuge and help’ in all this. They were priceless Yorkshiremen who were tireless in keeping everyone cheerful (rocking with laughter in fact) and organising community singing and general buffoonery. They were much funnier than they realised.

The ship's captain, Selwyn Capon, described the nurses as performin 'yeoman service in attending to the wounded.' (Selwyn Capon to Marjorie Hill, 18.3.1942 [family collection].)

The Empire Star made Batavia and was repaired sufficiently to reach Australia. It reached Perth safely after stopping in Colombo.

Writing to a friend just weeks after her safe return, Marjorie commented:

I wouldn’t have missed one day of our time in Malaya even with the Japs thrown in. It was a marvellous experience (especially now that I know I got through it alright) and all so worth while and full of interest and excitement. The one thing that saddens all our memory of it is that none of our men (M.O’s and orderlies) and only half our girls got out. We have heard nothing of them at all and can only hope that they are altogether and are being allowed to carry on as a hospital – it seems a lot to hope for.

One of those who was missing was Ellen (Nell) Keats AANS who like Hill had attended St Peter’s Girls School. It was later learned she had been killed on Bangka Island.

Marjorie Hill and Audrey Simpson went on leave before working briefly at 105 Australian General Hospital at Daw Park in Adelaide.

Alice Springs (109 AGH)

In August 1942, Hill and Simpson were sent to the new 109 Australian General Hospital in Alice Springs. They travelled the 1000 miles from Adelaide on ‘The Ghan’ train.[8]

109 AGH had just been established in anticipation of numerous casualties coming from the northern areas. Darwin had been bombed in February and there was a real fear throughout Australia that a Japanese invasion was imminent. The hospital comprised the existing Alice Springs hospital which had been requisitioned and supplemented with wards, accommodation and messing arrangements in tents and huts adjacent. It was not pleasant: the living quarters had dirt floors and were ‘very hot and messy’, and the Physiotherapy Department was located in a hut.[9] There were occasional dust storms, sometimes torrential rain, hot days in summer and freezing nights.

In actual fact, the predicted battle casualties among troops and civilians did not eventuate. The hospital did not close or move but rather treated all comers, mostly the local population: aboriginal people, women and children. There were a few Army personnel from nearby transport units suffering from ‘homesick backs’. The 500 beds were never fully utilised. Treatments were restricted by a lack of equipment, but the standard of care was regarded as high.

Grace Trott, a South Australian nurse posted to 109 AGH at the same time as Hill, wrote: ‘For two and a half years, the members of the Unit worked and played together, became rather like a large family and wistfully waited to be sent to Forward Areas.’[10] As Trott’s recollections and those of her colleagues showed, fun was found and created to relieve the monotony of the under-utilised hospital and its routine. There were chop picnics in the Todd River, trips to scenic sites like Simpsons Gap, dances and picture shows. Romance blossomed: there were four weddings and numerous engagements between the nursing sisters and army personnel, necessitating great ingenuity in wedding preparations.[11] There was also mild excitement on one occasion: after disgruntled troops threw rocks on the main building’s iron roof, the matron insisted on confining her nurses to quarters and armed escorts to accompany them to the wards.[12]

109 AGH was however undeniably monotonous and dull. Hill and Simpson sought an escape and applied for Officers Training School but their applications were rejected.

Relief did come however.

Queensland and Labuan (2/4 AGH)

After exactly two years at 109 AGH in Alice Springs, Hill and Simpson were both transferred to 2/4 AGH in Queensland. With a proud record during the siege of Tobruk in 1941, 2/4 AGH was currently located at Redbank as part of a large army camp just south of Brisbane.[13]

When Hill and Simpson arrived in August 1944, 2/4 AGH was on almost continuous alert to move overseas. In preparation, the number of patients was progressively reduced from over 700 in August to a fraction of that in October, and the facility was formally taken over by 128 AGH in November.

Hill and Simpson and the other 2/4 AGH personnel spent the next seven months in southeast Queensland preparing to work in tropical conditions. The two physios had acclimatised to heat and humidity in Malaya and Singapore in 1941-42 but other things had changed. There was a new tropical uniform of long sleeves and pants, puttees and boots for malaria protection and the new experimental drug penicillin.  The personnel spent months in training as the unit’s commanding officer used ingenious methods to prepare his medical team for the move and simultaneously keep them motivated and efficient during months of constant warnings to leave.

Hill would have participated in the exercises and drills. One, which involved the setting up and dismantling of a tented hospital in seven days, must have reminded her of moving 2/13 AGH in January 1942 ahead of the Japanese invasion. Another required the sisters (and presumably physios) to be ready to go over the side of a ship. She would also have been present for the inspection by Lt.General Sir Leslie Morshead in January 1945.

Finally in May 1945, the unit moved. Most embarked on USAT Sea Cat on 4 May but the AANS members travelled on the hospital ship Wanganella, the same ship that had transported Hill and 2/13 AGH to Singapore in 1941. The unit landed on Morotai, one of the islands in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) where it was staged with 2/9 AGH awaiting orders to move forward. Despite the waiting and no work to do, there were compensations. There was a large American air force base on Morotai, and the pilots and officers were delighted to have female company. Hilda Briggs, a South Australian like Hill, later recalled the film star attention the women of the unit received, ‘even clomping around in our heavy legginged boots, safari pants, and as yellow as oranges from our continued consumption of Atebrin.’ She and her colleagues enjoyed the lavish food served in the American officers’ messes (‘delights never heard of in our own’) and the royal treatment. The American were very different from the Aussie boys, from whom ‘we didn’t expect much attention until the keg was finished.’[14]

The unit’s destination was Labuan, an island off Borneo, a thousand miles away, still in Japanese hands but which Australian troops were to invade on 10 June. By mid June, only a few Japanese snipers remained in the jungle and the way was clear to set up a 600 bed hospital. The site was cleared, tents were erected, then equipment, stores and finally personnel were moved in amid torrential downpours and enervating heat. The hospital was fully operational on 16 July and by the end of the month had 418 patients.

There were five physios attached to 2/4 AGH.[15]  Most of the patients Hill treated were medical cases, with only a small proportion (15%) being battle casualties. Dermatitis was the most severe problem, followed by other conditions related to the climate, such as upper respiratory tract infections, dengue and undetermined fevers. Patients were evacuated either by DC3 aircraft or hospital ships.

With the jungle nearby, danger was ever present in the form of Japanese snipers, insect bites and disease. Mosquitoes were controlled by spraying several times a day by low flying aircraft. The native population were friendly but avoided as a source of dysentery, venereal disease and tuberculosis.

On the other hand, there were many pleasures to be enjoyed. The 2/4 AGH open air cinema drew huge crowds from the units nearby which watched films through tropical rain storms huddled under groundsheets and gas capes. Singer Gracie Fields attracted 20000 personnel to her concert, their enjoyment undiminished by a tropical downpour. There were the attentive American troops, not officers or pilots as at Morotai but fun nonetheless and always ready to escort off duty nurses on picnics and sailing excursions around the idyllic islands off Labuan. The nurses could return the hospitality: the officers mess was strictly for (male) officers but the nurses ‘were allowed a little “brother’s room” where we entertained brothers – not necessarily our own.’[16]

The war in the Pacific ended abruptly in August. The victory party at 2/4 AGH broke through the floorboards in the Sisters’ recreation hut. The respite however was brief. Sick and wounded troops were replaced by prisoners of war with the evidence of brutality in their terrible physical and mental states. British, Australians, Javanese, Chinese and Indian POWs poured into the hospital, many from the large camp at Kuching. Treating them and readying them for evacuation was a huge task.

In mid October, 2/4 AGH received orders to close down. The next fortnight was hectic as preparations were made to transfer all the patients to 2/6 AGH also on the island. On 10 November, Hill and the personnel of 2/4 AGH boarded the Wanganella (Hill for the third time) to return to Australia. Perhaps she would have echoed Hilda’s sentiments about leaving Labuan ‘with more than a little regret. We were leaving behind us months of excitement and adventure that we could never hope to relive.’

The Wanganella reached Sydney on 23 November 1945, and members of the unit dispersed to their home states for demobilisation.

Marjorie Hill was discharged in Adelaide on 13 January 1946.

In sum

Hill had seen service overseas and at home: in Malaya and Singapore, Alice Springs and Redbank, and Labuan Island Borneo. In an extraordinary variety of circumstances, she had enjoyed the delights of Malaya and Singapore, survived the evacuation from Singapore and the bombing of her ship, treated all manner of patients in Alice Springs, then returned overseas to treat troops and finally newly released prisoners of war. Unusually, she and her close friend Audrey Simpson managed to work together for the duration of the war.

She died on 17 November 1999 in Adelaide, aged 83.

Marjorie Hill is commemorated on the Honour Board at St Peter’s Girls’ School, Stonyfell, Adelaide.

(Acknowledgement: Thanks to Marjorie Hill's family connections for access to and permission to use Marjorie's  letter describing her evacuation from Singapore and voyage on the 'Empire Star'.)

[1] Honor C Wilson, Physiotherapists in War: the Story of South Australian Physiotherapists during Word Wars I and II, Japan-Korea and Vietnam, Adelaide, p71.
[2] Wilson, Physiotherapists in War, p71
[3] The story of the nurses and physiotherapists in Malaya and Singapore, has been recounted in Wilson, Physiotherapists in War, pp71-78; Ian Shaw, On Radji Beach: The story of the Australian nurses after the fall of Singapore, Sydney, 2010; Barbara Angell, The Exceptional Life of Wilma Oram Young, AM, Sydney, 2003.
[4] Angell, Exceptional Life, p37.
[5] Wilson, Physiotherapists in War, pp73-74.
[6] Marjorie Hill, Letter to ?, 27 April 1942 (private collection)
[7] Wilson, Physiotherapists in War, p74.
[8] Wilson, Physiotherapists in War, p93. The Ghan from Adelaide terminated at Alice Springs.
[9] Wilson, Physiotherapists in War, p93.
[10] Gracie Trott, ‘109 Australian General Hospital’, in Lighter Shades of Grey and Scarlet, compiled by Stella Guthrie and Jill Clark, April 1983, p33.
[11] M.G. Holland, ‘Weddings’, in Lighter Shades of Grey and Scarlet, p40
[12] M.G. Holland, ‘Alice Springs,’ in Lighter Shades of Grey and Scarlet, p49.
[13] Much of the information about 2/4AGH is from Rupert Goodman, A Hospital at War: The 2/4 Australian General Hospital 1940-45, Boolarong Publications, 1983. Goodman served with 2/4 AGH. 
[14] Hilda Irving, ‘On the Lighter Side’, in Lighter Shades of Grey and Scarlet, p74.
[15] Wilson, Physiotherapists in War, p119. 
[16] Irving, ‘On the Lighter Side’, pp74, 75.