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War years through eyes of a nurse

April 2021 |

Injured soldier Walter Pearce had many hours to observe the nurses at the Atherton Tablelands hospital where he was recuperating from a back injury during the Second World War.

Nurse Ruth Vale – in her light blue uniform, belt and starched hat – tended to soldiers on the other side of the ward.

Nurse Vale had recently left training at Epworth Hospital in Melbourne and placed in Queensland, where the hospital took returned prisoners of war and other wounded men.

It turns out Ruth was too busy to really notice Walter – but his two-year wait paid off.

Ruth tells the story of their unusual courtship with a smile. Walter wrote to her after discharge, but it was not until two years later she pulled his letter out of her case and decided to reply.

“It had been about two years and I thought ‘I’ll write to this fellow’,” she said between sips of tea at her Zion Aged Care home.

“(After some correspondence) he said he was going to go down to meet me in Melbourne – but I didn’t remember him!”

“I picked a certain spot at the train station where we could meet and he was there to meet me.

“(As nurses), we weren’t allowed to stray far from the hospital, so we walked up and down, up and down the street just talking. There were lots of courting couples doing the same thing.”

Once married, the couple moved to Ipswich, Queensland to take up work.

Loss as well as love were something of a theme during the war years.

Ruth’s brother Bill was in the air force and was shot down towards the end of the war. Bill Vale was buried in Belgium, and Ruth was not allowed to return home to Victoria to grieve with family.

“I couldn’t even get home to be with my family – they wouldn’t allow it,” she said.

Ruth’s time at the Atherton Tablelands hospital was memorable.

The hospital was sturdily built of timber, but the nurses lived in tents, no matter the weather.

“We lived in tents and one day there was a massive storm – the tents blew all over the place and ended up in a paddock,” she said.

“We slept on stretcher beds and when we washed our clothes, we hung them on the tent ropes to dry.”