The flying angel by Vicki Bennett and Tull Suwannakit

cover image

An unknown piece of our history of involvement in World War Two is revealed in the story of Sister Marie Eileen Craig, one of a group of nurses flown to Papua New Guinea to bring back wounded Australian soldiers. The tales of women's participation in war has long been overlooked and books such as these refresh people's ideas about the number of women who put their lives on the line during times of conflict.

Marie had always even interested in nursing, caring for her toys in the backyard, under the photo of her father, a survivor of World War One. When she was able she volunteered for the Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service, one of a group of women who took to the skies to tend the wounded.

One particular incident is recounted in this book, handsomely illustrated in watercolour and gouache by Sawannakit. In this flight, headed for New Britain, the air surrounding the plane exploded with munitions, and on landing, soldiers rushed from the jungle with their camouflage canvas to cover the plane. When that was in place the food and parcels for the soldiers were unloaded and wounded soldiers put in their place. Marie held the hand of one blinded soldier, and when the plane struggled to get off the ground, reassured them all. Gaining altitude, Marie gave Alfred her own oxygen mask as they were one short. With the room on the plane taken up by the wounded, Marie had to stand all the way home, and saw one of the engines catch fire, but landing with fire engines covering the tarmac with foam saw them all arrive safely back in Australia.

This is a small incident amongst many but reveals the place of women in the war as well as the significant displays of courage under fire. For younger children it tells of times past, an introduction into the march of World War Two which came so close to our door. They will have a map of our northern neighbours and be able to trace the route the plane took; and talk about the role of nursing and nurses during conflict.

Suwannakit's sepia illustrations reveal a host of detail to be pored over and discussed, kids will love looking at images of the plane, her uniform and the details of the soldiers' injuries. I love the endpapers with their reproductions of war posters revealing the roles women had in that conflict. 

Themes: World War Two, Nursing, Rescue, Papua New Guinea.

Fran Knight