Australian Vietnam War nurses tell compelling stories of compassion
Terrie Ross was working in the maternity ward of the Goulburn hospital when she met a woman who would change her life forever. A local girl, Mrs Ross did her general nurse training in her hometown, before heading to Sydney where she trained as a midwife. She had come back to Goulburn for a month “that had turned into a year”; at 23 she wasn’t sure if this was what she wanted to do.
PHOTO: Terrie Ross was one of the first four army nurses to be deployed to Vietnam. Photo: Rohan Thomson
“I worked with a darling old nurse called Nora Marmont,” she says. “I knew she’d worked on a hospital train in Japan during the Korean War, but I knew that when she came home she had to look after her brother’s children – he’d lost his leg – and then her parents as they aged, and she worked night shift, every shift.
PHOTO: Terrie Ross secures a sling on an Australian soldier at the 8th Field Ambulance, Vung Tau. Photo: Dennis Stanley Gibbons
“One day Marmie said to me, ‘Young Terrie, you have to leave, if you don’t you’ll end up here with five babies and you’ll have been nowhere and seen nothing.’ ” ‘Go join the army,’ she said. And so I did.” It was May 1965 and Lieutenant Terrie Ross headed off to join the staff of the No.2 Military Hospital at Ingleburn, just outside Sydney.
In Vietnam, things were just starting to get interesting. The US had committed 200,000 troops to the conflict, the Australian government was just about to deploy the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. The first National Service conscription ballot had just been drawn.
PHOTO: Our Vietnam Nurses: Compelling Australian Stories of heroism, friendship and lives changed forever, by Annabelle Brayley. Michael Joseph. $34.99. Photo: Supplied
By August 1966, after the Battle of Long Tan, one of Australia’s heaviest actions of the war, the need for expanded medical facilities became obvious.
With just a few weeks to prepare, and sworn to secrecy, Terrie Ross became one of the first four army nurses to be deployed to Vietnam, deployed to the 8th Field Ambulance unit in Vung Tau.
Now 74 and living in Jerrabomberra with Mick – her husband of 44 years, who she met when they were both serving in Vietnam – Mrs Ross has plenty of fond memories of her time in Vietnam.
“Don’t get me wrong, it was hard work, we’d work 10-hour shifts, six days a week, the conditions weren’t great and the boys were so young, and some of the things you’d see,” she says.
“But it was exciting, and we learnt so much. There wasn’t much chance to look after patients with malaria or bomb injuries or shrapnel wounds back in the wards at home.”
The nurses in Vietnam would wear perfume so that even if injured troops could not see because of their wounds they knew they would be looked after. Mrs Ross, partial to wearing a bit of lipstick herself, was once criticised by the soldiers when she put some on a Vietcong woman they were nursing at the hospital. “I knew she was the enemy but I thought, if I was in the same boat, I’d want someone to do the same for me,” Mrs Ross says. She remembers one patient, Platoon Sergeant Alexander “Jock” Sutherland who’d been hit by direct rocket fire during the Battle of Suoi Chau Pha. Six Australians had been killed and another 20 wounded. She was on duty in the intensive care unit when Jock was wheeled in after several hours of emergency surgery.
“He was so sick,” she says, “I was trying to keep him comfortable and get him off to sleep, but he was worried he would never wake up if he did. But he said he would go to sleep if I stayed with him. “I did have a date that night,” she laughs, remembering it now. “But I said, ‘You’re on’, and I sat with him for hours and when he woke up he knew he’d be OK.”
Years later Mrs Ross was working in the radiography department at the Woden Hospital and a woman, Mindy, came in. She was Jock’s wife. When Mrs Ross told her that Jock had written her a letter, telling her about his trip home, and thanking her for caring for him, Mindy was surprised, saying she had never seen him put pen to paper. Mrs Ross gave Mindy a copy of the letter and the two women have remained in touch.
Our Vietnam Nurses: Compelling Australian Stories of heroism, friendship and lives changed forever, by Annabelle Brayley. Michael Joseph. $34.99.