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Ruth Devine

Ruth Devine

Major, Australian Army


Lieutenant Mary Ruth Devine (née Page)

1st Australian Field Hospital, Australian Army
Service number: F25228
Rank on discharge: major

"I’d finished my nurse training, and all my pals were heading overseas. Off to England to work and travel to Europe, and that sort of stuff, which really didn’t appeal to me. And I had spent all my money on a car anyway.

So, I thought, so what am I gonna do? I happened to see this article in the Women’s Weekly, about the first four army nurses who had gone to Vietnam before even the proper hospital had been completed. I thought, “I could maybe do that.”

I remember the buzz of the hospital activity. Our mess looked out over the unit, and there were choppers and aircraft regularly flying around the base.

Work was tough at times, but you know, nurses, they cope."

Ruth Devine (nee Page) went to Vietnam with the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps in May 1969. She said, “I'd done my nurse training and I was in Brisbane doing my midwifery year. All my pals were heading off to England and to travel Europe, which didn't appeal to me, and I happened to see this article in the Women's Weekly, on the first four Army nurses that had gone to Vietnam. I thought, this looks like something I could do.”

“I had a fairly strong history of military service in my family. Both my parents served in the war. My grandfather served in the war. My father's sisters were all in the Second World War. So, I thought my folks would probably approve. I organised an interview with the matron at the barracks up there, and hey presto, I was in.”

“I finished my midwifery, went back to Sydney, and I started working at the 2nd Military Hospital at Ingleburn, in the hope that I would get to go to Vietnam. It wasn't a certainty; there were more of us in the Nursing Corps than were able to go. I was just lucky to be picked.”

“The hospital was down on the coast at Vung Tau; it was a logistics space as opposed to the pointy end. When I arrived, it was a 110-bed hospital, and it was probably the smartest hospital we had. It was even better than anything back on the mainland, and it seemed to function very well.”

“Female-wise, there were probably only eight or nine nurses there: usually a couple of Kiwi nurses and a handful of us. There were also the Red Cross Girls. Plus, we had the odd physiotherapist that belonged to the Medical Corps and some lady doctors too who came up.”

“The essential staffing of the wards was by medics. There were medics that were assigned to the hospital and medics who did all sorts of things out in the field. The medics were trained in Nursing Aid, Nursing Assistant, and Theatre, and they were great. Everyone says we were slaving away nursing all these boys, and we did do hands on stuff, but essentially, we were overseeing these other great kids who were working very hard. A lot of them were National Servicemen, so they were only in for a short time.”

“We had some medical staff, doctor types, who were there for a 12-month period, but a lot of our specialty surgeons, physicians, pathologists, whatever, were rotating on a three-month basis. A lot were Citizen Military Forces (CMF). We met lots of interesting people and had lots of interesting interactions. Of course, the unit included all types of staff you find in a hospital, such as cooks, drivers, supply, and pharmacy. We all still get together every couple of years and it's very nice.”

“We treated a lot of the regular stuff, the normal sorts or aches and pains, and there were some tropical diseases. We had a largish medical ward, largish surgical ward, 10-bed intensive care, and then an operating theatre. I was never really involved in triage, but triage was a busy place to be with Dustoffs. They were coming right from the battle scene via helicopter. The wounded would be picked out, and if they were lucky, they had a medic with them. Then they were dropped at our helipad, and our boys would go down and haul them off on their stretcher, and chuck an empty stretcher back in.”

“There might be a few or a whole bunch. They would arrive and their weapons would get taken away and sorted, and they would come in and get assessed. We were seeing wounds and types of casualties that in previous wars people would probably not have survived. There were some really quite ill people needing a lot of clever work. And there were some really brave patients.”

“Most of us weren’t impacted by mass casualties, there was a dedicated bunch that would converge on triage when that was happening. The rest of us just kept on nursing and looking after the patients. We pretty much worked six days a week, and often in 12-hour shifts. So, we just worked and relaxed and went to work again.”

“Our mess looked over the hospital. We sisters had our own quarters behind a big fence, somebody said it was called Fort Petticoat. It was fairly basic accommodation, more cubicles than rooms, but we had hot water and a bathroom, which was all very comfortable, comparatively. We also had a little ironing room because we Australian nurses wore starched uniforms and veils. At night-time we could wear greens.”

“We had our own sitting room, so we could retreat there if we wanted to, and the Officers’ Mess was a nice place to relax, socialize and have a drink and a cigarette. Booze and cigarettes were so cheap, there was no reason not to.”

“I remember being on duty in ICU on the day that they walked on the moon. We had some lovely blokes working with us there and we were all listening to it on Armed Forces Radio. That was pretty special. Another thing that we enjoyed on Armed Forces Radio was Chickenman; There’d be lots of fooling round and banter around the ward, ‘Chickenman, Here’s Everywhere, Here’s Everywhere!!!’”

“Nurses went up to Vietnam one by one pretty much. I went up with a planeload of blokes, I was the only woman on the plane. We had to get out of our uniform when we put down in Singapore. When we came back to Australia we came back in the middle of the night. They were interesting times.”

“We went home to our welcoming and proud family and friends and neighbours, then I had a lovely three-week holiday and then I was posted to Victoria. I just got on with my career. I stayed in the Army for a total of 10 years, so really the Vietnam thing was just one year out of 10. You got a bit of kudos for having been to Vietnam and continuing to work in the health system.”

“It was certainly an extraordinary opportunity and workwise like nothing I’d ever seen at that very young point in my life or since, that sort of level of injury and trauma: blasts and burns, and multiple amputations.”

“At the time I thought it was the right thing to do. The country said we needed to be there. I joined the Army, I expected to go if I was lucky enough. But you know with hindsight and 20-20 vision, we probably shouldn't have been there, but we were, we did it. I never had any time for the protestors and all that stuff that was going on back home. But they probably felt they had good cause to protest. Anyway, that's life.”