From the Plain of the Murray Mallee to the Sands of Radji Beach
Although her family lived in Willaston, South Australia (SA), Births Deaths and Marriages Victoria records show that Florence Rebecca Casson was born on 6th March 1903 at Warracknabeal, in Victoria. It was natural that she was simply called ‘Flo’.
Flo decided on a career in nursing and trained at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. On completion of her nursing training in 1934, she worked as a registered nurse in a series of small country hospitals before being appointed as Matron at the Pinnaroo Soldiers Memorial Hospital in the small SA country town near the Victorian border.
With tensions rising in the Far East, Florence enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service at Wayville, SA in February 1941. At 38 years-old she was almost at the upper age limit for enlistment, so she lowered her age by five years. After her initial training, Flo Casson was allocated to the 2/13th Australian General Hospital and later that year travelled with them to Singapore, then later to the Malayan Peninsula. After the Imperial Japanese landed on the north coast of Malaya in early December 1941 medical units were progressively withdrawn until the 2/13th was the only Australian hospital in Malaya. The hospital staff treated the casualties from the AIF's battles against the rapidly-advancing Japanese forces. Finally, the 2/13th was also withdrawn to Singapore, and Flo and her peers settled in again at St. Patrick's Boys’ School on Singapore Island.
With the fall of Singapore imminent, the remaining sixty-five Australian nurses were evacuated on the SS Vyner Brooke. Two days out from Singapore the ship came under Japanese aerial attack. One bomb exploded in the ship’s saloon, where Sister Casson was. She was badly wounded and as the ship began to sink, she had to be helped onto the upper deck. Her friends got her into a lifeboat that was launched with other severely wounded nurses on board.
Later that night the lifeboat drifted ashore at Radji Beach, and the survivors were able to meet up with the others on that ill-fated beach. Flo Casson and Rosetta Wright were among the most seriously wounded and Matron Drummond and the other nurses did all they could to help them.
When Japanese troops arrived on the morning of 16 February, they separated the men and women on the beach. The men were taken out of sight around a headland and massacred. The Japanese then returned to where the women were and ordered those who could walk to line up and wade into the sea. There they were machine-gunned. Florence Casson and her wounded friends were supported at one end of the line by other sisters and died with them as the machine gunner opened fire.
Sister Florence Casson is commemorated at the country hospital where she was Matron. The Health Promotion Room at the Pinnaroo Soldiers Memorial Hospital is named after her. A plaque at the Royal Adelaide Hospital also commemorates her sacrifice and her name is on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial.
- Australian War Memorial https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C2278604