It is difficult to imagine a more harrowing scenario. Seventy-five years ago, on 16 February 1942, Australian Army nursing sister Vivian Bullwinkel and 21 fellow nurses were forced to walk into the sea at gunpoint. Only one – Lt-Cl Bullwinkel – returned to shore.
Lt-Cl Bulwinkel was one of 65 army nurses who had boarded the SS Vyner Brooke, along with 265 men, women and children, to escape the Japanese advance on Singapore during the Second World War. Bombed by the Japanese, those who survived washed up on the shores of Bangka Island, east of Sumatra. They thought they would be taken prisoner.
Instead, the survivors were divided into three groups. Two groups of men were taken around the headland by their Japanese captors and massacred. The nurses’ group knew they were next when the Japanese soldiers ordered them to walk into the sea.
As they walked into the surf to a certain death, their Matron Irene Drummond called out: ‘Chin up, girls! I’m proud of you all and I love you all.’
Though shot in the hip, Lt-Cl Bullwinkel remained silently floating in the sea surrounded by the bodies of her fellow nurses, feigning dead until the Japanese soldiers left. She then survived 12 days in the jungle, nursing a British soldier who had also survived a massacre, before the pair gave themselves up and were interned in a prisoner of war camp.
Vivian Bullwinkel AO, MBE, ARRC, ED, FNM, was reunited in the camp with nurses Betty Jeffrey OAM and Wilma Oram AM, who were also working in Victorian hospitals before the war. They would remain in the camp for three and a half years. Of the 65 nurses from the Vyner Brooke, 12 drowned in the Bangka Straits, 21 were shot at Radji Beach and 32 were interned with civilian women at the prisoner of war camp in Buntok and Palembang and later at Loeboek Linggau in Sumatra. Eight of these nurses died from sickness and starvation in the camp.
Betty Jeffrey’s diary of their time in the camp was immortalised in the book White Coolies, which formed the basis of Bruce Beresford’s film Paradise Road.
The idea of a ‘living memorial’ to the heroism and sacrifice of the nurses who had died or spent years in brutal prisoner-of-war camps was conceived in the camp, explained Arlene Bennett, former Royal Melbourne Hospital nurse and chair of the Nurses Memorial Centre History & Heritage Committee.
After the war, Lt-Cl Bullwinkel and Betty Jeffrey, with the support of colleagues Wilma Oram-Young, Colonel Annie Sage, Edith Hughes-Jones and others, set to work raising money for the memorial. They toured hospitals and RSLs around Victoria in a little Austin car explaining their vision for a centre which would provide nurses with professional development and a gathering place.
‘They talked about the situation they’d faced and the community were outraged about what had happened to nurses,’ Ms Bennett said. ‘Nurses were non-combatants in those days. All they had to protect them was their red cross armbands. At the end of the day the Geneva Convention did very little for them.’
After the most successful fundraising drive in Victoria’s history to that point, in 1949 the nurses purchased the Victorian home ‘Madowla’ on St Kilda Road, Melbourne, the site of the Nurses Memorial Centre.
Ms Bennett was one of about 80 people who attended the 75th anniversary ceremony held at Radji Beach on 16 February, along with relatives of the nurses, the Australian Ambassador to Indonesia, a group of Indonesian nurses and 15 Australian Army nurses. Wreaths were laid in the ocean and the army nurses joined hands, walked into the ocean and saluted the memory of their fallen comrades.
Vivian Bullwinkel told her fellow nurses in the camp what had befallen their friends but for her own safety told no-one else of the massacre before returning to Melbourne. She testified before the Japanese War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo in 1946. She also sent Christmas cards every year to the families of the nurses who had died, Ms Bennett said.
Her nephew John Bullwinkel said his aunt’s achievements post-war, particularly her passion about nursing education, had understandably been overshadowed by her wartime experiences.
‘Nurse education, communication and comradeship were all very important to her,’ he said. ‘And that was part of the reason why the Nurses Memorial Centre was set up.’
Last year five nurses joined the ranks of the many nurses who have received scholarships from the Nurses Memorial Centre to assist them in completing postgraduate study.
In forging new pathways in nursing, they carry with them the indomitable spirits of Vivian Bullwinkel, Betty Jeffrey, Wilma Oram-Young, and other nurses who were determined that their colleagues’ suffering would not be forgotten.