Sister Mary Elizabeth Cuthbertson, 10th Australian General Hospital, RAANS

Posted on 25 May 2021
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Popularly known as “Beth”, Mary Cuthbertson was born on 5 March 1910 in Stirling, South Australia, to William and Lillian Cuthbertson. She had two younger brothers, James and Gordon, and a younger sister, Joan.

Cuthbertson later lived in Ballarat, where her father was sub-manager of the Myer Woollen Mills. She attended Ballarat High School and trained as a nurse at Ballarat Base Hospital, and went on to study at the Queen Victoria Hospital in Melbourne.

In August 1937, her engagement to Dr John Scholes was announced but he died suddenly the following March. A memorial notice Cuthbertson placed in the Adelaide and Victorian newspapers ended with the words, “Some day we’ll understand.”

Cuthbertson was living in Ballarat when she enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 20 August 1940. Taken on strength with the 7th Australian General Hospital under the Australian Army Nursing Service, she served in various camps before embarking for Singapore in July 1941.

Cuthbertson was attached to the 10th Australian General Hospital, and was in Malaya when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Once the fall of Singapore became inevitable most Australian personnel were evacuated from the island.

Cuthbertson was one of 65 Australian nurses who left Singapore aboard the Vyner Brooke on 14 February. Two days later the ship was bombed by the Japanese and many lives were lost.

Cuthbertson helped to ensure the passengers were evacuated. Some were put into lifeboats, and those who could swim made for the nearby Banka Island.

Some of the survivors travelled to the nearest port to formally surrender to the Japanese but Cuthbertson was among the 22 Australian nurses who remained on the beach to tend the wounded.

On the morning of 16 February, a group of Japanese soldiers arrived on the beach. The wounded Australian men, those who could walk, were ordered around a headland, where they were killed. The others were shot where they lay.

The nurses were ordered to walk into the sea. When the water reached their waists, the Japanese opened fire with machine-guns and all but one were killed. The sole survivor was Lieutenant Colonel Vivian Bullwinkel.

In 2004, Ballarat opened its Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial, where Cuthbertson’s name is listed among more than 36,000 former prisoners of war. Her sister, Joan, was at the opening, and recalled the pain of that time:

“It was a terrible thing for my parents to wait for the news. We only knew that Beth was missing. It really was a terrible time for our family.”

In the early 1990s, Joan returned to the beach where her sister was killed, taking her daughter, Beth, who she named in her sister’s honour.

Sister Mary Elizabeth Cuthbertson is commemorated on the Singapore Memorial. She was 31 years old.

Christina Zissis, Editor, Military History Section