Irish-Australian Eileen Mary Callaghan was a heroic and dedicated nurse who suffered terribly for over three years in a Japanese-run prisoner-of-war camp, writes Con McGrath in his Role of the Irish in WWII series


Anyone who has ever seen the movies “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957); “Empire of the Sun” (1987); “To End All Wars” (2001); or “Unbroken” (2014); need no explanations of the horrors endured by any inmate of a Japanese-run prisoner-of-war camp.

Likewise the television drama series “Tenko”, co-produced by the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and broadcast between 1981 and 1985; also delivered a memorable dramatisation of how the terms of “the Geneva Convention” were completely ignored by the Japanese guards – who simply made up rules and inflicted punishments at the whim of the Camp Commandant.

Historical data reveals that one in three inmates of such camps died from starvation, work, punishments, or from diseases for which there were no medicines to treat.

One such lady who suffered these full horrors first hand was Eileen Mary Callaghan
Having volunteered and enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service in 1940, she was serving with the 2/10th Field Ambulance in Rabaul, when she was taken prisoner of war by the Japanese in 1942.

“Sister Eileen M. Callaghan Missing” was the heading in ‘The Barrier Miner’ newspaper, dated 11th May 1942.
The article began: “Mr. J. A. Callaghan, of Woodville North, late of Glenelg, has been informed that his daughter, Sister Eileen Mary Callaghan is reported missing, and is believed to be a prisoner of war.”

In 1943, Eileen, as well as other Australian nurses, were sent to Yokohama in Japan, eventually ending up in the Yokohama Club in July, 1944. They were treated badly by their guards, and were utterly and totally degraded, all the while existing on meager rations.

The Allies finally liberated the prisoners in 1945, and it was then discovered that Eileen was in very bad shape, suffering advanced bilateral tuberculosis, and this condition was aggravated by a distinct lack of vital medical care.
In his book “We Who Proudly Served”, Peter Francis Kenny writes about Eileen: “After all the necessary hospital treatment had been received, she was promptly transported back to Australia, and she arrived in the city of Sydney on October 12, 1945. Unfortunately, her tuberculosis had not responded to the treatment provided, and Senior Nurse Eileen M. Callaghan sadly and quietly later passed away from illness in March, 1954.”

Eileen’s mother, and father, Mr. James Augustine Callaghan, formerly an engineman with South Australian Railways (SAR), who resided at Dunbar terrace, Helmsdale, (in Glenelg, a suburb of the South Australian capital of Adelaide) had already passed away.

Eileen was survived by her older sister Doreen May, (Mrs. John Alexander Colbey) of St. Leonards; her younger sister Mona Martin of Woodville; and her one brother, Mr. J. Callaghan, an ARA instructor in Melbourne.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own