Page last updated at 09:50 GMT, Monday, 21 April 2008 10:50 UK

Falklands veterans reunion at sea

By Alison Harper
BBC News

SS Uganda
The hospital ship SS Uganda was a converted cruise vessel

More than 150 former nurses and patients from the Falklands conflict have gathered for a reunion at sea.

Some of the men have waited more than 25 years for the chance to say thank you to the nursing staff, after being cared for on the SS Uganda.

Decades ago they met on the cruise liner-cum-hospital in the south Atlantic. This time they're meeting on a cruise ship in Southampton.

The reunion on the Aurora has been organised by Nicci Pugh, of Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service (QARNNS).

"The bond between us has diminished not one jot," she said. "In fact it's strengthened over 26 years."

Falklands veteran and nurse reunited after 26 years

Robert "Ossie" Osborn, of the Scots Guards was severely injured days before the end of the war, at the battle of Tumbledown Hill, and had his leg amputated as a result.

He has nothing but praise for the staff of the Uganda.

"We didn't even know there was a hospital ship down there until we ended up on it," he said.

"The job they did was absolutely amazing. They couldn't have done a better job, they deserve recognition."

Ossie's tales from his hospital bed reflect his humour. He remembers waking up one morning on Seaview ward, with snow on him.

"Don't tell anyone," he recalls a nurse telling him, "they'll all want some."

Almost 26 years later, and armed with a camera, he met up with Di, his nurse from decades ago.

Choked but laughing, they recounted tales of time onboard the hospital ship.

Floating hospital

Back in 1982, the SS Uganda was the first hospital ship to set sail for 29 years.

After the vessel was requisitioned by the British government while on a school excursion in Italy, experts were brought in to transform it from cruise ship to floating hospital.

A helicopter platform was constructed, hi-tech communications equipment installed along with all the necessary medical facilities - operating theatres, blood banks, X-rays.

It has been very emotional, especially meeting some of the nurses
Chief Petty Officer John Strange

Forty Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Services Nursing Officers, naval nurses and specialised Royal Navy Medical staff were flown out.

As they made their way south, the crew heard of the sinking of both the Belgrano and HMS Sheffield.

The survivors were soon to become their patients.

"We were just doing our jobs," say nurses Marian Houghton and Maggie Freer.

"It didn't matter if they were Argentine or one of our own, we tried to treat them the same and we hoped if any of our lads ended up on an Argentinean ship they would be treated with the same care and respect."

They were a small team, and Marian and Maggie admit nurses were in short supply, but they got the job done.

Emotional and moving

On board the Uganda, there was capacity for 100 patients.

When well enough they would be transferred onto other hospital ships and eventually flown back to England. Many had months of rehabilitation ahead of them.

Chief Petty Officer John Strange was one of them. He was on board HMS Sheffield when it was hit by a missile, and received 50% burns.

Bandaged and unable to move, he was cared for by Sally Simmons. Wiping away tears she greeted him for the first time in years. "You've done so well," she said.

"It was all the good nursing I had," replied John, who described the reunion as "moving".

He said: "It has been very emotional, especially meeting some of the nurses. It's quite moving but very nice too after 26 years. It's been a long time."

The hospital ship Uganda is long gone.

Just four years after the end of the Falklands War she was wrecked in a typhoon.

But with the archive pictures, the stories from wards and the thanks of survivors, the memory of her important role lives on.

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