Betty Jeffrey, Second World War nurse, Vyner Brooke survivor, prisoner of war and author of the best-selling book, White coolies, was born in Hobart on 14 May 1908. Her family moved regularly while she was growing up, eventually settling in East Malvern, Victoria.
At the age of 29 she began nursing training at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, graduating in 1939. Shortly afterwards she joined the Australian Army Nursing Service. In 1941 she was posted to the 2/10th Australian General Hospital, then in Malacca, Malaya. The hospital was evacuated to Singapore in January 1942 as the Japanese swept southwards, but less than a month later, on 12 February, she boarded the Vyner Brooke hoping to reach Java. The ship was sunk by Japanese aircraft two days later and, of the 65 nurses on board, five were killed. The survivors made for nearby Banka Island, already under Japanese occupation. Jeffrey's group were taken prisoner and began life as captives.
After a few weeks on Banka Island, Jeffrey and her fellow prisoners were moved to Palembang on Sumatra. Some of the experiences shared by Jeffrey and her fellows formed the basis of the film, Paradise Road. Most notable, was the formation of a choir that sustained the women in the early months of their captivity and of which Jeffrey was a member. Boredom was a serious problem and so the women played cards, produced magazines and performed plays to pass the time. As the months passed, their diet grew progressively worse, their condition not helped by the overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in which they lived.
Throughout her captivity, Jeffrey kept a diary hidden from the Japanese. The diary became White coolies, Jeffrey's record of a physical and mental battle for survival, an unrelenting obsession with food, the death of friends and the fading of hope. After three and a half years of this life, the 24 Australian nurses who had survived the ordeal were taken to Singapore to regain their health when the war ended. Jeffrey arrived home in Melbourne in October 1945, but was hospitalised with tuberculosis after her first night at home. She was in hospital for much of the next two years, after which she and Vivian Bullwinkel began raising funds to establish a nurses' memorial centre in Melbourne. Jeffrey became the centre's first administrator when it opened in 1949.
She retired from this position after an illness in the mid-1950s but continued to represent former prisoners of war and nurses. She received the Order of Australia for services to ex-servicemen and women in 1987. Regarded with great fondness by her friends, Jeffrey's dignified bearing and sense of humour has been recalled by many who knew her during the war. She died on 13 September 2000 at the age of 92.