A life well and truly lived

Joyce Celestine Coutts April 14, 1910 - September 25, 2009

UNTIL her recent passing Joyce Coutts was the sole remaining survivor of the Australian Government nurses of World War II who were captured by the Japanese at Rabaul, New Guinea, and were prisoners-of-war for three and a half years. Joyce died at the revered age of 99.

Christened Joyce Celestine McGahan and born in Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, on the April 14, 1910, Joyce grew up on her parents' Mt Sturt property on the outskirts of Warwick.

She attended Junabee district school and arrived, as many did, on horseback. Joyce was the second of three daughters born into the well-known Darling Downs family of Patrick and Elizabeth McGahan.

Her grandparents came to Australia from Ireland around the 1870s and her father was born in Warwick in 1875.

Her grandfather, Thomas McGahan, was the first Member of Parliament for the Darling Downs; he was an independent.

Joyce trained as a nurse at Brisbane's Mater Hospital and, on completion of her training, took up a position as junior sister at Maryborough Hospital.

It was a coincidence that Joyce arrived at Maryborough Hospital just as Alice Bowman left on completion of her training.

These two nurses became lifelong friends when both accepted positions on the staff of the Australian Government Hospital in Rabaul. They were not to know then they would be prisoners-of-war together. They are pictured on the cover of Alice M Bowman's book about their imprisonment years.

Apart from smouldering volcanic eruptions, life was happy and peaceful in idyllic Rabaul and compensated for some of the hard times faced at the hospital.

Then war came to the Pacific region. The nurses were offered evacuation, along with the women and children of New Guinea. They chose to remain; loyalty to their profession was paramount. Four Methodist Mission nurses on the outskirts of Rabaul also remained.

Rabaul fell to the Japanese on January 23, 1942. Joyce and her colleagues were held at the Sacred Heart Catholic Mission in Rabaul and then for three years in Japan. This small group comprised seven nurses from the government hospital, six from the Australian Army Nursing Service and four Methodist Mission nurses, plus a plantation owner who was a Red Cross worker. The stress and indignity suffered can only be imagined, yet they survived imprisonment and were repatriated to Australia on September 14, 1945.

Within a few weeks after her return, Joyce married William Phillip Coutts on his discharge from the Army. Bill was engaged to Joyce when he enlisted in the AIF in 1940.

He was working for the Bulolo Gold Mining Company in New Guinea. Joyce met Bill at the hospital where he was being treated after an accident.

Bill returned to his job in New Guinea where they lived for some time before returning to Australia and settling in Narangba, Brisbane, with their two children, Tony and Moya.

In Brisbane Joyce continued nursing until her 70th year. Her private, retiring nature and peaceful self-assurance endeared her to all.

Joyce and her family contributed much to this country's heritage. Her parents and grandparents were pioneering pastoralists; her grandfather a Member of Parliament. Joyce was an Australian Government, Department of Health nurse and as such became a prisoner-of-war.

Her husband, Bill, served in the Middle East and New Guinea in World War II. And her son Tony served in the Vietnam War.

The death of her husband Bill and, within a few weeks, her son Tony caused an enormous void in Joyce's life. Through these times her daughter, Moya, was constantly by her side.

To reach the age of 99, many more than the predictable three score years and 10, says a lot for strength of character.

That same stoical trait in Joyce was evident in her last nine months since she began her slow decline. She died of pneumonia in Greenslopes Hospital Brisbane on September 25.

Late next year there will be a telemovie, Sisters of War, about the Rabaul nurses and Australian nuns of the Sacred Heart Catholic Mission in Rabaul.

The Australian nuns were to be sent to Japan with the nurses but the persuasiveness of the Bishop of Rabaul saw them interned with the rest of the Mission for the duration of the war.

One of these Australian nuns was entrusted with the custody of Joyce's gold watch, which was carefully hidden in a match-box during the entire Japanese occupation and returned safely to Joyce after the war.

The production of this poignant piece of Australian history will honour the memory of these courageous women.

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