Service Number: WX11172, (W16367)
Enlisted: 4 August 1941, Perth, WA, Australia
Last Rank: Lieutenant Colonel
Last Unit: 2nd/13th Australian General Hospital
Born: East Guilford, Western Australia, 15 March 1911
Home Town: Guildford, Swan, Western Australia
Schooling: Perth College
Occupation: Nurse
Died: Natural causes, Guildford, Western Australia, 4 September 1998, aged 87 years
Cemetery: Karrakatta Cemetery & Crematorium
Anglican Section - EA, Grave 5A
Memorials: Ballarat Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial, Bicton Vyner Brooke Tragedy Memorial, W.A.
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World War 2 Service

4 Aug 1941: Enlisted Australian Army Nursing Service (WW1), Staff Nurse, SN WX11172, (W16367), Perth, WA, Australia
15 Aug 1941: Involvement Australian Military Forces (Army WW2), Lieutenant, SN WX11172, (W16367), General Hospitals, Malaya/Singapore
7 Dec 1941: Involvement Australian Army Nursing Service (WW1), Lieutenant, SN WX11172, (W16367), 2nd/13th Australian General Hospital, Malaya/Singapore
12 Feb 1942: Embarked Lieutenant, SN WX11172, (W16367), 2nd/13th Australian General Hospital, SS Vyner Brooke, 12/02/1942, Singapore, (with 65 other nurses, and civilians); to Japanese Aircraft Attack - sinking disaster on 14/02/1942, Bangka Strait
15 Feb 1942: Imprisoned Malaya/Singapore
12 May 1947: Discharged Australian Army Nursing Service (WW1), Lieutenant Colonel, SN WX11172, (W16367), 2nd/13th Australian General Hospital, Service (Specifically): Australian Army Nursing Service WW2.

WA Nurse's Ordeal - Struggle in the Water

Perth West Australian, Tuesday 25 September 1945, page 6

The story of Iole Harper, written by Athole Stewart, special staff correspondent of “The West Australian” in Singapore, was brought to Perth from Singapore yesterday by, Major A. E. SAGGERS, of the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion. He was also a passenger Duke of Gloucesters’ Plane, which arrived at Guildford last night.

SINGAPORE, Sept 23, seventy two hours in the water … two nights up a tree in a mangrove swamp … hopes that logs were not crocodiles …

These are the incidents in the struggle for two girls to reach land from the ship, Vyner Brook, sunk in Berhala Straits north of Banka Island by Japanese bombers on the 14th February 1942. It is part of the story of Sister – Iole Harper, the only Western Australian among the (65) nursing sisters of the 8th Division – AIF. Her home is in York Road, East Guildford, and she is the daughter of Mr & Mrs Harcourt Harper. SISTER Harper came to Malaya with the13th Australian General Hospital, which was established in St Patricks’ School – some miles east of Singapore, and on the waterfront. Today after (3 1/2 years) of hell in a prison compound, she is again at St Patricks’, this time as a patient. I saw her when she arrived from Sumatra; I saw her again today, a week of good feeding and loving care from her loving sisters and she is putting on weight at a speed which alarms her and pleases the hospital staff.

“Much more of this and I shall have to diet”, she said anxiously when she discovered she had put on 10 lbs. And each of the 23 others who came out of Sumatra are doing the same. I found Sister Harper this afternoon and found her bright and chatty, anxious to hear all the gossip. I could remember concerning Perth in the last – 3 ½ years. She told me bits of her terrible adventure which, at the first meeting on Kallang Aerodrome, had been missed out.

Bomb Down Funnel

The Vyner Brooke (1 670, tonnes) sailed from Singapore on 12th February 1942. Two days later it ran into the Japanese fleet going to the invasion of Palembang. Japanese bombers swept over the ship frequently during the day, said Sister Harper. But they dropped no bombs although dived towards the ship. Each time we said: “This is it”. But each time they swept away. Then another flight came in, and we saw the bombs fall away. This was it. They hailed all around us and one went straight down the funnel, blowing the bottom out of the ship. We stood up as soon as they had gone, and I said: “Well what do we do now?” And an officer said: “You had better get yourselves into the water because the ship is sinking”.
“We had life belts on and people were jumping into the water”. I didn’t like the idea of jumping, so I waited till the ship was slowly rolling over to its side. Then I walked down its’ steel plates and flopped into the water.
I had been in the water for a few minutes and remember thinking: “This is funny. This sort of thing happens in books”. I didn’t think it could happen to me. I didn’t think I would be going this way. “Then I got onto a raft”. That made for (16) of us, including (2) Malays. The raft was partially submerged. We realised we couldn’t go as we were. Land was a distant blur. Most of the girls couldn’t swim and as I was a strong swimmer – I got off the raft with another sister – the one in the next bed – and after a lot of persuading, the (2) Malay soldiers got off too. I felt a bit sorry about them, as we never saw them again.

Swim to Shore

My friend and I swam steadily towards the land and the current helped us. It was ages before we made it. I don’t remember how long. When we reached the shore we found ourselves among mangroves. They were too thick to struggle through and as the tide was going out and threatening to sweep us out to see again, we decided to climb into the tree tops for the night. “People asked us later if, we were not worried about crocodiles?” They told us the east coast was infested with them. Well we tried not to think about them. And when we did see ‘logs’ in the water below us, we told ourselves that they were logs. When daylight came, we took to the water again and moved along the coast looking for a place to go ashore. We spent another night in the mangrove tops we did find a place thin enough to break through into the jungle. Thankfully we struggled onto land and away from the sea. We found our way eventually to a native village where the Malays hid and fed us. The Japanese were not yet in possession of the whole of the island. Those Malays were very good to us and offered to keep us in hiding and supplied us with food and said that they would help us to escape. We thought that a pretty forlorn hope. We could not speak Malay and thought we could never get through Sumatra, or down to Java without being caught. So we decided to give ourselves up now instead of later.

Encounter with Japanese

On the road (3) Japanese came along on a sort of a trolley. As soon as they saw us, they jumped down, fixed their bayonets and came charging towards us. We just stood. When they saw there were no men with us, they relaxed and gave us food. Then they took us into Muntok – where a Japanese Naval Officer interviewed us, and said: “Why did you not go across Sumatra higher up?” “We were not touching ships which had women and children on them provided they kept north of this place. But you came sailing into our fleet”. That was that. The two girls were in the hands of the Japanese and were wondering what was to happen next. They were sent off, and soon found themselves in the coolie lines where the others who had reached shore safely were, and where they were joined eventually by Sister – Bullwinkle, sole survivor of the brutal massacre. There was little time for further talk on prison life. “It was a dull monotonous existence, after the first few weeks”. “We did our own housekeeping and we worked out how two people could live on (2/) a week”, said Sister Harper. “We thought we could do it comfortably, if we had only what the Japanese gave us”. “Then we found we were getting thin, so perhaps it isn’t possible for two people to live on (2 bob) a week”. “Anyhow, we don’t intend to try”. There was nothing much wrong with any of the nurses, so it seems. They were mainly suffering from malnutrition and attacks of malaria. The present indication was that they will not be allowed to leave Singapore for (2 or 3 weeks). But plans change so often that this time might be reduced substantially.

“A personal account of Sister – Iole Harper, given upon her return to Guildford, Western Australia; from her horrendous outcome of World War II, being held captive by the Japanese as, a prisoner of war”.


Showing 1 of 1 story

Biography contributed by Daniel Bishop

Daughter of Harcourt Robert HARPER & Daisy Florence (nee MILLER) HARPER

To all who have an affiliation with World War II History, in particular - "The Sinking of the Vyner Brooke", take a moment and reflect back to a time in our past, that was a lot different to the times we are experiencing today.  Included in this profile of Lieutenant/Sister - IOLE HARPER are research links of interest that will present to you the extreme efforts, and horrendous outcomes service men and women endured in the Second World War. 


Emotional Welcome As Gallant Women Return

Fremantle, Western Australia; The Australian Women's Weekly

Saturday; 3 November 1945, Page 19.



BY:  Josephine O'Neill


No legendary figures, but ordinary women, you, who died

Facing the water, last glance each to each

Along the beach, leaving your bodies to the accustomed surf

Your hearts to home

No legendary figures, but ordinary women, you, who lived

Holding the spirit, through the camps slow slime

Unsoiled by time ...

Bringing your laughter out of degraded toil

As a gift to home

As ordinary women, by your dying you fortify the mind

As ordinary women, by your living you honor all mankind.