Sister Rosa O’Kane was from Charters Towers in Queensland. She was aboard the troopship Wyreema when the armistice was signed in November 1918, and the ship was recalled to Australia.

After the Wyreema reached Freemantle, Rosa was one of twenty army nurses who volunteered to care for soldiers suffering pneumonic influenza (the so called ‘Spanish ‘flu) at the Woodman Quarantine Station south of Freemantle. The sick men had been aboard another troopship, HMAT Boonah. Unfortunately the Boonah became infected with the virus at Durban, enroute to the front. 300 of the ship’s 1,000 soldiers were hospitalized, with more succumbing to the disease every day. Meanwhile the crowded Boonah remained anchored off-shore, banned from sailing east until it was declared ‘clean’.

HMAT Boonah. Sister Rosa O'Kane died nursing the ship's flu cases.

Conditions were truly dreadful at the quarantine station. Victorian staff nurse Suzie Cone kept a diary and on December 11 she wrote;

Got up and started to get ready for the boys off the Boonah. Wilkinson, Hamilton, Bradshaw and I were in Ward 3, a hut holding 8 beds and 10 tents. No conveniences of any kind. At 10am the boys began to come up from the jetty. Our tents and huts were soon full. Poor lads were in a terrible plight. Filth and dirt all over them, terribly sick, we had no drugs, no clean shirts or pyjamas to put on them. All we could do was wash them and make them as comfortable as possible….. This place is hell. Despite the best efforts of the nurses, 27 soldiers died.

Tragically, Rosa O’Kane contracted flu at Woodman herself, as did a number of her colleagues. She died on December 21. Three others also died; Dora Ridgway, Ada Thompson and civilian nurse Hilda Williams. One nurse who fell ill but recovered was Sister Stella Morris. She was mentioned in an article on Rosa published in the Melbourne Herald;

When the late Sister O’Kane volunteered for quarantine service she was on board the troopship Wyreema, which had been recalled through the signing of the armistice. In her last hours, Sister O’Kane had the companionship of Sister Stella Morris, one of her colleagues on the Wyreema, who had also been attacked with influenza.

Sister Morris wrote to her mother in Ballarat about the funeral of her friend;

Between 2 and 3 am on a beautiful moonlight night, four soldiers carried the body (wrapped in a winding-sheet of the Union Jack) to the mortuary out in the scrub. I followed and saw the necessary details executed. Later in the day the burial took place at the Quarantine Station. The nurses made little wreaths from West Australian wildflowers, which were placed on the coffin with the Union Jack. I did not leave the graveside till The Last Post was sounded. (The Herald, Melbourne, Jan. 14 1919).

Sister Rosa O'Kane

In February 1921 the grave was marked by a granite column, paid for in part by residents of Charters Towers. It had been suggested by the Defence Department that Rosa’s remains could be returned to her home town, but Mrs O’Kane did want not her daughter’s body to be disturbed. Instead, she made the trip to see the memorial on the ship Orsova.

Grave of Sister Rosa O'Kane
The epitaph on the grave of  Sister Rosa O'Kane.

Mrs Jeannie O’Kane grieved deeply for her only daughter. A delay in returning Rosa’s personal effects from Western Australia intensified the loss and she wrote to the military authorities pleading for action;

Letter from Jeannie O'Kane re her daughter's belongings.

It reads; I have the honour to request you to forward the late Sister Rosa O’Kane’s personal effects as soon as possible. After her death at Freemantle Quarantine Station, her effects were taken to Perth, I have written to the R.S,S League at Perth to enquire into the delay, The late Sister Rosa O’Kane is now six months dead and surely something should be done to send her belongings home. I know shipping is disorganized, but they could go overland to Brisbane. I have the honour to be your obedient servant, Jeannie O’Kane.

That wording, especially ‘your obedient servant‘ seems so strange today.

Mrs O’Kane also pressured the Repatriation Department to grant her a pension, This was not motivated by a personal desire for money, but by her conviction that widowed mothers of nurses on active service should be treated in the same way as mothers who had lost sons. After much letter writing her wish was granted;

In 1924 the O’Kane family remembered the anniversary of Rosa’s death with a touching tribute in The Northern Miner;

O’KANE – In honoured and revered memory of Sister Rosa O’Kane, Australian Army Nursing Service, only daughter of Mrs J.E. O’Kane, and sister of Mr Frank O’Kane and Mr Jack O’Kane, who died on service at the Quarantine Station, Freemantle, W.A., 21 December, 1918.

Look down ye moon and set not soon,

Look down ye golden stars,

And shed your light on souls tonight,

Who have shed their prison bars.

For her dear soul has reached the goal,

The heavenly haven nigh.

She will not weep – though o’er the deep,

Her flag rides half-mast high.

Mrs O’Kane died in 1936 aged 77. Her obituary paid tribute to her life as a schoolteacher and journalist in Charters Towers, but also to her dedication to the memory of Rosa,

The death of Rosa was perhaps the greatest sword-thrust of sorrow that the old lady ever bore. From that moment in 1918 until the day of her death, Mrs O’Kane idolised the memory of the fine daughter who gave her life for her country. Mrs O’Kane was in every respect a ‘war mother’ and no cause was ever so dear to her as that of the digger or the nursing sister. As each year passed she was an outstanding personality among those who organise the annual dinner in honour of the soldiers on Anzac Day, and the aim of unanimity in the public commemoration of Anzac Day was an objective for which she was an unceasing champion. (Northern Miner, December 24 1924)


And for more on the Woodman Quarantine Station, CLICK HERE.

  1. Thankyou for this poignant story Pauline. Yes, the Spanish flu was a sorry blow which killed so many even as the Great War’s killing concluded.

    • Pauline

      You are most welcome Megan. I’m glad you found it of interest.

  2. A sad tale indeed, although just one of many from that time

    • Pauline

      That flu epidemic following on from WWI seems just too much for that generation to have to bear.

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