Episodes & Studies Volume 1
Amongst the thousands of ships which entered New Zealand ports during the Second World War, there were a few that did not have the dull grey camouflage of war. Their bright white paintwork was relieved by a broad green band girdling the hull; on their sides were two or three large red crosses and the flag of the International Red Cross—a red cross on a white background— flew at the masthead. These were the hospital ships. They were completely fitted with all the equipment necessary today for the treatment of sick and wounded. Cabin walls and fittings were torn out to make large airy wards in which rows of neat white beds were screwed to the decks or suspended to counter the roll of the ship. Other sections of the ship, which might have been music rooms, smoke rooms, or lounges, were also converted to the needs of the sick and wounded.
A central feature was the operating theatre. On its walls were glass cupboards containing shelves of surgical instruments. In other cabins were an X-ray department, a laboratory, a dispensary, a dentist’s surgery, and a massage department. None of these lacked anything, either in supplies or fittings. A hospital ship must be self-sufficient.
The Maunganui, a troopship of the First World War and a passenger liner between the wars, was converted to a hospital ship at the beginning of 1941. She was a fully-equipped General Hospital afloat, with accommodation for 365 patients. The operating block was the object of special pride: it had been so well designed and equipped in Wellington that it was the envy of many British hospital ships.
There was no mistaking the pleasure of the patients returning to New Zealand when they first caught sight of the gleaming white side of the hospital ship at the port of embarkation. There were still pleasant surprises in store for them. In the wards the beds were as good as they looked and the walls were a restful green and cream.
The first meal on board was a revelation to the home-coming men. After an interval of one, two, three and even more years they tasted excellently cooked New Zealand food—the best the Dominion could produce. It had been kept in perfect condition in the ship’s freezing chambers and included plenty of green vegetables and fruit and many delicacies—lamb, chicken, even oysters and whitebait. No wonder that convalescence was rapid on the homeward voyage.
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‘There was great excitement when we sighted the New Zealand coast in the vicinity of Cape Farewell on the afternoon of 27 February 1945 and still greater excitement when we sailed up the Wellington harbour next morning and berthed at Aotea Quay. Patients lined the ship’s rails, and those whose homes were near Wellington picked out members of their families in the crowd pressing against the barriers on the wharf and waved and shouted. Soon we disembarked—many who had come on board as stretcher patients were able to walk down the gangway. What a thrill it was to set foot on New Zealand soil again (even if it was only one foot in my case) and know that we would all soon be checked through the Casualty Clearing Hospital on the wharf, and then be taken home by train in special hospital carriages. The chain of medical services had brought some of us right from the front line in Northern Italy to our own homes.’