The first bombs that rained down on Darwin in February 1942 also claimed the life of the first Australian Imperial Force nurse to be killed in action in World War II.
Sister Margaret Augusta De Mestre was on board the HMAHS Manunda on 19 February 1942 having arrived back in Darwin just a month earlier.
Sister De Mestre had wanted to be a nurse since her school days. Born in Kalang near Bellingen in NSW in 1915, she grew up on the family’s dairy farm as the eldest of two girls and four boys. She trained at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney from 1935, following in the footsteps of her aunt Sarah De Mestre, who served in World War I.
In 1940 she enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Corp and sailed twice to the Middle East on the 2/1 Hospital Ship, HMAHS Manunda. While the ship was being reconditioned in 1941, she served at the 113 Australian General Hospital at Concord. She rejoined HMAHS Manunda in January 1942 just a month before the first bombing of Darwin.
HMAHS Manunda was anchored in Darwin Harbour near the merchant ship Zealandia and the oil tanker British Motorist when it was first hit by shrapnel and then a bomb during the first Japanese air attack on Darwin, 19 February 1942. Twelve members of the crew and hospital staff were killed, including Sister De Mestre, and 47 others were wounded.
The medical and nursing staff quarters were destroyed, B and C decks were severely damaged and fires started on board. Despite the chaos, Manunda continued to treat incoming wounded and staff manned the life-boats rescuing injured men from the sea.
Sister De Mestre died of shrapnel wounds received to her back and abdomen. She was 26 and the first Australian Imperial Force nurse to be killed in action on Australian soil. Her significant involvement and sacrifice during WWII is acknowledged by a commemorative chair located at Christ Church Cathedral, Darwin.
Photos supplied by May Wiseman (niece)