Phyllis Thom: Nurse imprisoned by the Japanese during the Second World War

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:57

As a nurse taken prisoner by the Japanese in the Second World War, Phyllis Thom witnessed a Japanese soldier grind his foot on her patient's wound. She herself, when seriously ill, had to line up twice a day out of doors for the "tenko", or roll call. She noted: "Every hour a Japanese guard tramped through our block and seemed to take delight in hitting our shins with the butt of his rifle."

She recorded the systematic ill-treatment of their prisoners by the Japanese in an account which she deposited in the Imperial War Museum, a version of which is on the BBC's "WW2 People's War" website. But all the Japanese cruelty never made her bitter. She died in Bournemouth three months after her 100th birthday.

She was born Phyllis Briggs in Bexhill, East Sussex. Wanting to start nursing at the earliest opportunity, she went at 16 to train as a children's nurse at Manchester Children's Hospital. Then when she was old enough she began her general nurse training at King's College Hospital in London.

She obtained her State Registration in 1932 and then qualified as a midwife. King's wanted her to stay on the staff but she had inherited wanderlust from her parents, who had met in the Caucasus. Her childhood had been spent in Paris, where her father was chaplain of the British Hospital and vicar of Neiully-sur-Seine church.

Joining the Colonial Nursing Service, she was posted to Penang Hospital and later sent up country to Alor Star, capital of the state of Kedah, to be one of four British sisters there. The "gay life" times – parties, dances, golf and badminton – came to an abrupt end when the Japanese invaded Malaya in December 1941.

There followed a chaotic nightmare: first, securing a proper burial for a young RAF officer, Pongo Scarf, who was later awarded a posthumous VC; then a dangerous drive to Singapore in her Austin 8 and a farewell, with a promise of marriage, to her naval fiancé (they never met again: he was killed on active service); then escape on the Mata Hari cargo ship, only to be captured by the Japanese. "We were taken by launch to a narrow wooden jetty, where we were kept through long hot hours without food or water," she said.

Nursing in prison camps called for improvisation: "I used my pot of face cream for burns on a man's buttocks." When the Japanese refused to let a patient go to hospital or to send for the right instruments, a knife had to be made into a saw to amputate his leg. Another patient was bayoneted for trying to get a drink of water.

After three and a half years' imprisonment, Phyllis was flown to New Zealand, to her brother and his family, weighing only six stone. When she had recovered she took a slow boat home round the Horn and reached London after a seven-week voyage. There, she rejoined the Colonial Nursing Service and returned to Malaya as matron of the hospital at Kota Bharu, on the east coast.

She had only been in her post four days when "a good-looking young man" visited the hospital. He was Robert Thom, a senior policeman. A year later they were married. He had been a prisoner of war in Germany but they never talked to each other about their experiences.

Phyllis Thom gave up hospital nursing after she married and had two daughters, but later, back in England, she inspected nursing homes for a period. Her husband died when only in his sixties. Living in Bournemouth she took an active part in the church and did voluntary work for Barnardos.

Laurence Dopson

Phyllis Mary Erskine Briggs, nurse: born Bexhill, East Sussex 14 June 1908; married 1947 Robert Thom (died 1967; two daughters); died 16 September 2008.

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