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March 07, 2019

Una Keast’s Story

As a young nurse keen for adventure, Una Keast signed up to serve as soon as war was declared in 1939. She didn’t have to wait long, sailing with the 2/5th Australian General Hospital (AGH) to the Middle East in 1940. During the course of WWII Una nursed under canvas in the warzones of Greece (narrowly escaping German invasion), in the trenches in Crete, in the dust in the Middle East and in the jungles of New Guinea. Una lived at RSL LifeCare from 1997 to her passing in 2016. She was a tenacious, fiercely loyal woman with a direct approach to life and a smile that could light up a room.

I was born in 1915 in Tottenham in Central NSW. I was the middle child of eight and I always wanted to be a nurse. At 18 I studied at Orange Base Hospital and then worked at Griffith.  I was called up six months after war broke out and I was very glad to do my duty for King and Country.

On 19th October 1940 we sailed on the Queen Mary to the Middle East, where we learned to nurse in a canvas hospital in Palestine. We had to adapt to nursing under canvas: for example we didn’t have steam for sterilizing, there was an old fashioned primus which you pumped and the sterilizer was a petrol tin cut in half. You put the instruments in and boiled them for 20 minutes.

Photo: Una in Gaza Ridge 1940

We were the 2/5 AGH. We were sent to Greece but after 4 weeks had to get out because the Germans invaded. We could hear the gun fire at night and see the lights in the sky from the fighting. When we left, we were jammed into trucks and we took what we could carry. One morning we made a dawn toilet stop – all the nurses were in the field and suddenly a man’s voice spoke! The Yugoslavs were in there too! They were also escaping and, we found out later, they were smuggling the crown jewels to safety.

Photo: Prior to Departure for Greece 1941 25 nursing and physio staff

HMAS Voyager rescued us and took us to Crete. Things were burning everywhere. We got around on our knees, nursing in amongst the fighting, but the Germans were coming so we had to leave. We managed to get back to Egypt and then to Palestine. Then we were called home because of the advance of the Japanese forces. We were sent to Armidale where we lived on the racecourse during winter, waiting for equipment to be collected. And from winter in Armidale they sent us to New Guinea!

New Guinea was very hot, very humid and we were very busy. We had to climb up through the mud to our tent and it was very noisy, with aircraft zooming around all the time. I’d been given a bottle of whisky and I took it to the tent and I said “Girls this is purely medicinal!” So we’d have a little nip to help us sleep.

“New Guinea was very hot, very humid and very busy. We had to climb up through the mud to our tent and it was very noisy, with aircraft zooming around all the time.”

It was much heavier nursing than Greece or Palestine. We worked longer hours and the casualties were heavier. There was a lot of malaria and dysentery – but I loved my nursing, I really did.

After 18 months in New Guinea we were sent back to Australia, to Goulburn – in the middle of winter! Then we went to Morotai, where we established a hospital. I was there on VP (Victory in the Pacific) Day – what a celebration! I was also selected to be present at the formal surrender of the Japanese Army.

Photo: Una in the Pacific Campaign on Morotai Island, 1945

After the war ended I went to Melbourne to study midwifery because I wanted to get away from men for a while! It was marvellous, but it was hard to settle so then I nursed in Canada for 3 ½ years.

When King George VI died in 1952, I applied and was granted an outside seat at the Coronation. I had a wonderful view. It was one of the highlights of my life. I then spent 18 months nursing in England.

Once home I nursed at Royal North Shore, but the country beckoned and I moved to Taree where I met a childhood friend, Jack. We married and lived at Hallidays Point. It’s been 18 years since he died.

In 1997 I moved in to RSL LifeCare ANZAC Village Narrabeen – “the War Vets”. I love my house here and the sense of community is wonderful. I’m very fortunate, I’ve got some old mates here; they do my shopping for me. I’ve had a happy and healthy life – but I’d say to anyone, “If you have an opportunity to get into the Services, that’s the way to go”.

Photo: Una outside her villa at RSL ANZAC Village, Narrabeen, 2013

Words: Helen Johnston

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