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Cleary, Helen Agnes (1914–1987)

by Linda Bowman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Helen Agnes Cleary (1914-1987), air force matron-in-chief, was born Helena Agnes Cleary on 28 March 1914 at Petersburg (Peterborough), South Australia, fifth child of Michael Augustine Cleary, labourer, and his wife Mary, née Fitzgerald, both born in South Australia. Educated at St Joseph’s convent school, Peterborough, she trained at the Broken Hill and District Hospital, New South Wales, qualifying as a general nurse in 1941 and as an obstetric nurse in 1942.

After working for a year at Calvary Hospital, North Adelaide, Cleary joined the Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service as a sister on 15 November 1943. She served at No.2 RAAF Hospital, Ascot Vale, Melbourne, and at No.7 School of Technical Training, Geelong, before being posted in April 1945 to No.2 Medical Air Evacuation Transport Unit, Morotai Island, Netherlands East Indies. Along with other RAAF nurses, she took part in evacuations throughout New Guinea and Borneo. These `flying angels’ were known as the `glamour girls’ of the air force, but they slept in nurses’ quarters with corrugated iron roofs and hessian doors and sometimes rose at 2 a.m. for their long flights. Cleary survived an aeroplane crash with only a broken arm. Following the surrender of Japan in August, No.2 MAETU began bringing thousands of Australian and British servicemen, as well as Dutch civilians, from prisoner-of-war camps in Java, Sumatra and Thailand to the evacuation base in Singapore. Cleary was one of the first RAAF nursing sisters to arrive there. On board overloaded Dakota aircraft, she and other nurses cared for patients suffering from malnutrition and dysentery.

In 1946-49 Cleary nursed at air force hospitals and stations in Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales. Posted to No.6 RAAF Hospital, Laverton, Victoria, in April 1950, she tutored on medical air evacuation courses. She served at RAAF Station, Pearce, Western Australia, from April 1951, and was promoted to senior sister in September. In January 1952 she took part in a risky flight across the Indian Ocean to Cocos Island to retrieve a seriously injured airman. On the return flight to Perth, one engine of the Lincoln bomber failed and another was faltering but Flight Lieutenant Alfred Boyle successfully landed the aircraft in a crosswind of 20 knots (37.04 kph).

During the Korean War, Cleary was charge sister (1952-53) of the RAAF hospital at Iwakuni, Japan. She organised medical evacuations of Australians from Korea, fought for better conditions for the critically wounded, and nursed recently exchanged prisoners of war. After the war she served at various bases in Victoria and South Australia. She was matron (1957-63, 1964-66) of No.3 RAAF Hospital, Richmond, New South Wales, and in 1962 completed a diploma in nursing administration at the New South Wales College of Nursing. Sent to Malaysia, she was senior sister (1963-64) and then matron (1966-67) at No.4 RAAF Hospital, Butterworth.

On 18 August 1967 Cleary was promoted to acting group officer (substantive 1 January 1968) and appointed matron-in-chief, RAAFNS, in Canberra. She was also made honorary nursing sister to Queen Elizabeth II. Having been appointed an associate of the Royal Red Cross in 1960, she was elevated to member in 1968 for her contribution to the training of medical staff and for maintaining `the high ideals of the nursing profession’. She retired on 28 March 1969. Five ft 5 ins (165 cm) tall, with short brown hair and blue eyes, she was handsome and energetic. Within the service she was known for her sense of humour and camaraderie. Unmarried, she died on 26 August 1987 at Toorak Gardens, Adelaide, and was buried with Catholic rites in Centennial Park cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • A. S. Walker, Medical Services of the R.A.N. and R.A.A.F. (1961)
  • G. Halstead, Story of the RAAF Nursing Service (1994)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 22 Nov 1961, p 27
  • Herald (Melbourne), 16 Aug 1967, p 23
  • Canberra Times, 19 Aug 1967, p 8
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 Mar 1969, p 18
  • series A12372, item N4452 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Linda Bowman, 'Cleary, Helen Agnes (1914–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 25 May 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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