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Kathleen Isabel (Kay) Parker (1906–1979)

by Jan Bassett

This article was published:

POW army nurses welcomed home from Japan, Kay Parker is first from left, 1945

POW army nurses welcomed home from Japan, Kay Parker is first from left, 1945

Australian War Memorial

Kathleen Isabel Alice (Kay) Parker (1906-1979), army nurse, was born on 23 November 1906 at Bathurst, New South Wales, fourth of eight children of Australian-born parents Osborne Holmes Parker, police constable, and his wife Evelyn Athalia, née Booth. Educated at various public schools, Kay (as she was known) gained her general nursing certificate at the War Memorial Hospital, Waverley, Sydney, and her midwifery certificate at the Royal Hospital for Women, Paddington. She worked as a sister at Burnley Private Hospital, and as a senior sister (later matron) at Yass District Hospital. Liberal in outlook, with an 'enormous capacity for fun', she enjoyed company and social occasions.

On 7 January 1941 Parker was appointed to the Australian Army Nursing Service, Australian Imperial Force. Promoted temporary sister, she sailed to Rabaul in April in charge of five staff nurses: Marjory Jean ('Andy') Anderson, Eileen Callaghan, Mavis Cullen, Daisy ('Tootie') Keast and Lorna Whyte. Although the male staff did not welcome them at first, they joined the military hospital which had been established by a detachment of medical officers and orderlies from the 2nd/10th Field Ambulance. Following Japanese air-raids, the hospital was evacuated to nearby Kokopo on 22 January 1942. Next morning a powerful enemy force overwhelmed the small Australian garrison. The hospital's two medical officers reputedly said, 'Every man for himself. You can look after the patients. We're not staying'.

Parker, her nurses, and a number of other women were captured and interned for the remainder of the war. In July 1942 they were transferred to Japan where they were held at Yokohama until 1944 and then at Totsuka. Conditions for the nineteen members of the group deteriorated markedly. Garments and bedding were so inadequate that the army nurses slept in pairs for warmth. The women's tasks included shovelling snow, barefoot, from paths on which Japanese walked 'in their fur-lined boots'. Hunger forced them to cook and eat glue provided for making envelopes. Their medical treatment was negligible.

The nurses suffered from a range of illnesses, including malaria. While at Yokohama, Parker was taken to hospital with severe abdominal pains. On seeing the unhygienic conditions, she refused an operation, preferring the possibility of dying in her own quarters. Gradually, she recovered. When Eileen Callaghan contracted tuberculosis,'Kay took complete responsibility of caring for her, and as much as possible kept her isolated and did everything for her'. Parker's behaviour in this case typified her conduct throughout the war. Her stature and her composure commanded respect, both from captors and colleagues. She was 5 ft 10 ins (178 cm) tall, with blue eyes, dark hair, and a handsome face that reflected her strong character. The women's survival owed much to her leadership.

With her fellow internees, Parker was recovered from the Japanese on 31 August 1945. She had been given the rank of lieutenant and temporary captain, A.A.N.S., on 23 March 1943. Her A.I.F. appointment terminated in Sydney on 1 April 1946; on the following day she was placed on the Reserve of Officers as an honorary captain. For their service at Rabaul and as prisoners of war in Japan, Parker and Anderson were appointed associates of the Royal Red Cross (1948). Parker succeeded (1947) Hilda Mary Hanton as matron of the Memorial Hospital, North Adelaide. The 'staff respected both Hilda Mary & Kay as matrons. Hilda Mary they revered from a distance. Kay, they loved'.

In 1949 Parker resigned from the hospital. On 5 March that year at the chapel of the War Memorial Hospital, Waverley, she married with Methodist forms Charles Stanley Sly, a 50-year-old widower and a newsagent. In the early 1950s they moved to Sydney where Stan worked as a driving instructor. As Mrs Sly, Kay lived a quiet life. She did some voluntary hospital work and cared for her sister Ella who suffered from arthritis. Kay and Stan retired to the Gosford area in the 1970s. Survived by her husband, she died on 16 June 1979 at Wyoming Hospital and was cremated. She had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • A. S. Walker, Medical Services of the R.A.N. and R.A.A.F. (Canb, 1961)
  • C. Kenny, Captives (Brisb, 1986)
  • J. Bassett, Guns and Brooches (Melb, 1992)
  • M. J. Yates, 'Our Story' (typescript, privately held)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Jan Bassett, 'Parker, Kathleen Isabel (Kay) (1906–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

POW army nurses welcomed home from Japan, Kay Parker is first from left, 1945

POW army nurses welcomed home from Japan, Kay Parker is first from left, 1945

Australian War Memorial

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Sly, Kathleen Isabel

23 November, 1906
Bathurst, New South Wales, Australia


16 June, 1979 (aged 72)
Wyoming, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Military Service