In the early afternoon of Saturday 14 February, 1942, the British ship SS Vyner Brooke, carrying some of the last civilians to escape before the capitulation of Singapore, was steaming just off south-east Sumatra. Among the passengers were 65 nursing sisters under the charge of Matron Irene Drummond from the 2/13 Australian General Hospital of the Australian Army Nursing Service, distinct in their uniforms of grey dresses, white cuffs and Red Cross armbands. Having come straight from duty in crowded temporary hospitals in Singapore the nurses wore a variety of headgear-white caps and red capes, tin hats, and felt hats with scarlet, brown and grey bands (brims, as matrons instructed, neither curled nor set at a provocative angle). Although the Vyner Brooke carried only about 300 passengers, there were no bunks and no meals for most, and the nurses had slept on the deck. As the ship sailed through the treacherous strait between Sumatra and
Bangka, she was attacked by Japanese bombers. At around 2 pm the ship’s siren sounded a warning, passengers crowded below deck, and six Japanese medium bombers attacked with 29 bombs and machine gun fire. On the first pass the bombs missed, the Vyner Brooke changed course sharply, and its one gun fired token resistance. The Japanese planes returned, the Vyner Brooke convulsed under the tearing crash of bombs, and its engines stopped. There were three direct hits and the vessel sunk in about fifteen minutes.
Following a planned reaction to just such a disaster, the nurses, carrying emergency dressings and morphine, went to different points on the shattered and rapidly-sinking ship to give what help they could to the wounded. As the nurses had been told, they were not to abandon ship until all the civilians were off.
They were keen to help the wounded and hesitant scramble into damaged life boats, slide down ropes, or simply jump. One of the nurses, Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, jumped over the side with a group of other nurses and swam to a partly submerged lifeboat. Twelve nurses (three of them wounded), two civilian women, a civilian man and a ship’s officer climbed into or clung to the side of the lifeboat. Although they were in sight of land it took them eight hours, and night had fallen before they reached the mangrove lined shore of Bangka Island. Attracted by a fire about two miles away they walked along the coast and found survivors who had landed earlier. Others joined them during the night.
Sister Betty Jeffery and her group paddled desperately to reach the fire on the beach, but twice the currents swept them away, and they landed hours later further down the coast. The next morning three groups went in different directions to find food, clothing, news, a way of escape, even rescue. Vivian Bullwinkel was with a party of women and a ship’s officer who went inland. After walking about four miles they came to a village where the women offered them a drink, but the men would not let the women give them any food or clothing to take back to the beach. The village men said that the Japanese troops already controlled the island: the villagers were now free of any obligation to the whites and they feared retribution if they gave them any help. The other groups came back and reported an equal lack of success.
In the night the survivors on the beach heard and saw the shelling of a ship at sea, and two hours later a lifeboat holding about twenty English soldiers from another ship sunk earlier joined them around the fire. By morning on Monday 16 February there were nearly 100 people, including children and wounded, on the beach. An officer from the Vyner Brooke explained that as they had no food, no help for the injured and no chance of escape, they should give themselves up to the Japanese. He agreed to walk to Muntok, a town on the north-west of the island, and contact the Japanese. While he was away Matron Irene Drummond, the most senior of the Australian nurses, suggested that the civilian women and children should start off walking towards Muntok.
At mid-morning the ship’s officer returned with about twenty Japanese soldiers. Having separated the men from the women prisoners, the Japanese divided the men into two groups, and marched them along the beach and behind a headland. The nurses heard a quick succession of shots before the Japanese soldiers came back, sat down in front of the women and cleaned their bayonets and rifles.
A Japanese officer, smaller and more "nattily" dressed than his men, instructed the nurses to walk from the palm-fringed Radjik Beach into the sea until they were waist deep in the waves.
A couple of soldiers shoved those who were slow to respond. Twenty-two nurses and one civilian woman walked into the waves, leaving ten or twelve stretcher cases on the beach. Fully aware of their fate, the nurses put on a brave face. Their matron, Irene Drummond, called out: "Chin up, girls. I'm proud of you and I love you all." At that point the Japanese fired.
Vivian Bullwinkel later described what happened next: » started firing up and down the line with a machine gun. ... They just swept up and down the line and the girls fell one after the other. I was towards the end of the line and a bullet got me in the left loin and went straight through and came out towards the front.
The force of it knocked me over into the water and there I lay. I did not lose consciousness. ... The waves brought me back on to the edge of the water. I lay there 10 minutes and everything seemed quiet. I sat up and looked around and there was no sign of anybody. Then I got up and went up in the jungle and lay down and either slept or was unconscious for a couple of days.
The Banka Island Nurses 16th February, 1942
Elaine Lenore Balfour-Ogilvy, Sister
Alma May Beard, Sister
Alda Joyce Bridge, Sister
Florence Rebecca Casson, Sister
Mary Elizabeth Cuthbertson, Sister
Irene Melville Drummond, Matron
Dorothy Gwendoline Howard Elmes, Sister
Lorna Florence Fairweather, Sister
Peggy Everet Farmaner, Sister
Clarice Isobel Halligan, Sister
Nancy Harris, Sister
Minnie Ivy Hodgson, Sister
Ellen Louisa Keats, Sister
Mary Eleanor McGlade, Sister
Kathleen Margaret Neuss, Sister
Florence Annin Salmon, Sister
Esther Sarah Joan Stewart, Sister
Mona Margaret Anderson Tait, Sister
Rosetta Jean Wight, Sister