Vivian Bullwinkel - survivor of the Banka Island Massacre
The Fall of Singapore
On their arrival in Singapore, Vivian was sent to Malacca, for some weeks, to work with the 2/10th AGH, and Wilma went to Johore Bahru to join the 2/4th Casualty Clearing Station (2/4th CCS). After a few weeks, the 13th AGH took over in Johore Bahru and Vivian and the other nurses returned from Malacca - members of the 13th AGH now reunited.
The nurses worked under the most primitive conditions, as the hospital was ill equipped, and although there was no enemy action at this time, they had many medical and some elective surgical cases to attend to.
In December 1941, on the same December morning that the Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbour (7th December), General Yamashita's 25th Army invaded Malaya, Singapore was bombed and the Japanese began fighting their way down the Malaysian Peninsula towards the island of Singapore. The fighting was fierce and the casualties heavy and by the end of January 1942, the 13th AGH was forced to evacuate to Singapore Island, where at great speed the nurses had to transform St. Patrick's School into a hospital. Here the nurses had to work under constant bombardment and it became obvious that matters were working up to a climax. On the 8th of February, with either surrender or annihilation facing them, Colonel A P Derham, Assistant Director for Medical Services for the Australian 8th Division, and another officer, Lt. Colonel Gly White, decided to try and remove the nurses, and as many casualties as was possible, from Singapore. This would be aboard whatever seaworthy vessels they could find. By the 10th of February, the ships had been found. Six nurses were ordered (with only one hour's notice) to evacuate, along with a number of patients, aboard a Chinese vessel the Wah Sui.
A further sixty nurses sailed the next morning, together with some patients, aboard the Empire Star.
The remaining 65 nurses in Singapore were finally ordered to be evacuated on the SS Vyner Brooke. And just after 5.00 pm, on 12th February, these nurses boarded the small dark grey vessel, which was once owned by Sir Charles Vyner Brooke, the Rajah of Sarawak.
The Sinking of the Vyner Brooke
Originally built to carry 12 passengers, the Vyner Brooke soon became terribly overcrowded with over 265 frightened men, women and children, plus the 65 AANS nurses. Short of food and water, the ship finally set sail just as darkness set in. It was to be a never-to-be-forgotten scene: huge fires were burning along the whole front of Singapore and a heavy pall of black smoke hung over the island. In the gathering darkness, the captain unwittingly steered the vessel into a minefield and was forced to stop for the night. The next day (Friday the13th February) was spent hiding behind islands and avoiding detection. The day was hazy and hot, the sea was calm and the captain knew that he would be foolish to attempt to breakout in these conditions. That night, the Vyner Brooke attempted to slip out to freedom, and eventually it reached the Bangka Strait. After dodging bombs from Japanese planes and machine gun fire which had left the starboard lifeboats holed, the ship eventually received three direct hits (it was 2pm on the 14th of February). One bomb went down the funnel, while another exploded on the bridge, the third hit the aft section injuring scores of civilians. The vessel began to pitch and soon the frightened passengers heard the sound of pouring water. The Vyner Brooke was sinking and the captain gave the order to abandon ship. The ship was to sink in approximately 15 minutes.
Some of the nurses helped to move the wounded topside, while others lent a hand getting everyone up on deck. The civilians were ordered to go over the side first, and Vivian Bullwinkel was later to recall that "…those that weren't too keen to leave, we gave a helping hand to!" They were no sooner in the water, than enemy pilots returned and began strafing the human flotsam. There was utter pandemonium, one lifeboat holding the elderly and children turned over and two empty lifeboats, with bullet holes in them , dropped into the sea. Bullwinkel helped to see to the casualties and eventually evacuated the ship by climbing down a rope ladder. She was able to get ashore by hanging onto the side of one of the life boats. Though the lifeboat was overcrowded, they were able to reach Bangka Island by late afternoon. Earlier survivors, including Matron Drummond (one of the senior nurses), had lit a fire on the beach and it was this fire that acted as a beacon for the others still in the water.
The Bangka Island Massacre
All night long, exhausted survivors from the Vyner Brooke and other shipwrecks, kept coming ashore and by morning almost sixty men, women and children and 22 members of the AANS were gathered on Radji beach. They needed food and they needed water. The next day, a search party, which included Vivian and five other nurses, was dispatched to a nearby village, but the men there, fearing Japanese reprisal, turned them away. They urged the survivors to surrender themselves to the Japanese. Finally the search party found some fresh water springs at the end of the beach.
That night, huddled together on the sand, the group watched a fierce gun battle out to sea and later a large lifeboat carrying British servicemen came ashore. Their numbers were now swelled to almost 100 people gathered on the beach. Now large in number, the group decided to surrender themselves to the Japanese and a small group left in search of the Japanese. In the meantime, the children, hungry and cranky after forty eight hours without food, were beginning to annoy people. Matron Drummond, in a move that would soon turn out to be a fated one, suggested that the mothers, children, and other civilian women start making their way toward the village. All agreed, except one elderly woman who wished to remain at her husband's side. Whilst the nurses remained with the injured, the women and children organized themselves and left. Vivian Bullwinkel was sitting quietly on the sand when the Japanese troops arrived. They ordered half of the men to stand and a detachment marched them at bayonet point down the beach and out of sight behind a headland. A few minutes later the Japanese returned and gathered up the remaining men, heading them off in the same direction. Left on the beach were Matron Drummond, her twenty one AANS nurses and the one remaining civilian woman. Vivian heard one of the nurses utter in disgust " There are two things I hate the most, the sea and the Japs, now I've got them both. "As the women laughed at this remark, there suddenly came the report of rifle fire from beyond the headland. Minutes later the Japanese detachment reappeared, they sat down in front of the women and began to clean their rifles and bloodied bayonets. When done, they ominously motioned for the women to stand up. Not one woman cried, not one woman whimpered and not one of them tried to run away. They had no weapons and they knew that the men from the beach were dead. They also knew that they would not be rescued. It was pointless to run and, besides, where could they go? Soon, the soldiers began pushing them towards the knee-high surf. They stood in a straight line - twenty-two nurses and one elderly civilian woman - facing the horizon. The nurses still wearing their Red Cross emblems on their sleeves, the symbol which, supposedly, should have protected them. Again, no one spoke, no one wept, and when they reach waist deep water, the Japanese opened fire with a machine gun. They were machine gunned from behind. " They just swept up and down the line and the girls fell one after the other," Bullwinkel was to recall. She watched Matron Drummond disappear beneath the waves, and then, one by one, her friends. The bullet that was meant for her, struck her in the flesh above her left hip. The force of the round threw her into the waves, where she floated. She began to swallow salt water, then became nauseous, but she was not dead.
Though wounded, Vivian Bullwinkel was the sole survivor of the massacre of the women. She knew that if she vomited, or showed any movement whatsoever, that the Japanese would finish her off. She held her breath, stealing a little air here and there and, although she couldn't swim, she floated and slowly the current brought her closer to the shore. "Finally," she was to say later, "…I plucked up enough courage to sit up…I looked around and there was no sign of anybody…there was nothing. Just me".
Vivian came ashore and walked up a narrow path, away from the beach and into the jungle. Some twenty yards in, she lay down. "I don't know whether I became unconscious or whether I slept," she was to muse later. At daylight she awoke, she was hot and thirsty. She thought of the springs, but fortuitously stopped herself from moving, for just at that moment she spotted a line of Japanese back on the beach. "My heart went to the bottom of the feet again" she said. Another escape. Later when the Japanese were gone, she abandoned her hideout and made for the springs. The water was cool and she gulped it greedily. Suddenly she heard an English male voice say "Where have you been nurse?" It was Private Pat Kingsley, a British soldier who, although badly wounded, had survived when the men had been shot and bayoneted Vivian and Kingsley remained hidden in the jungle for 12 days, during which time Vivian, while injured herself, attended to Kingsley's wounds and procured whatever food she could from the local inhabitants.
Vivian realized that they could not go on like this, which led her to the inescapable conclusion that they would have to give themselves up again. Kingsley agreed, but asked her to wait twenty - four hours. "I'll be thirty nine tomorrow and I'd like to think I had my thirty- ninth birthday free", she remembered him saying. "Time is no object" she said, and the next day they celebrated his birthday in the jungle.
The Prisoner-of-War Years
On February 28, Vivian Bullwinkel and Private Pat Kingsley once again gave themselves up to the Japanese and were brought into the camp where Vivian was reunited with the thirty-one nurses who had survived the sinking of the Vyner Brooke. Shortly after their arrival, Vivian was to hear that Kingsley had died of his wounds.
Wilma Oram was later to describe Vivian's arrival in the camp:
"When we first saw Vivian we were overjoyed and hoped that there were more of our colleagues to come. Vivian was sun burnt, tired and hungry. Her bloodstained uniform was taken from her and some of the blood washed out and, although clothes were not plentiful, Vivian was given something to wear to cover her wound. A little cooked rice was found and a small amount of water. A sleeping space was made for her on the sloping concrete slab, but we had no bedding. It was then that we heard what had happened to her, it was accepted quietly and was never to be spoken of again whilst we were prisoners."
Vivian just merged in as one of our group of 32 Australian nurses who now faced the prospect of being prisoners of the Japanese for many months or even years. During the 3½ years of the nurses' captivity, Vivian Bullwinkel endured the hardships and the brutality of the camp life and was determined to survive to bear witness to the massacre of her twenty-one nursing colleagues. She took her turn in performing all of the camp duties such as cooking, nursing, and working on the hygiene and burial parties.
And she and two other nurses were to earn 80 cents a day, from the other internees, baling out the clogged toilet drains with half a coconut shell and carrying the human excreta a half mile into the jungle.
She lived, she told herself, To return home and tell her story, for without her, her friends would be forgotten, just another wartime statistic.Of the original sixty-five nurses who boarded the Vyner Brooke in 1942, only twenty four reached Australian shores following the declaration of peace in the Pacific. Twelve were (believed) drowned at the time of the shipwreck, twenty-one were massacred on Radji beach and eight died as POWs in the camps.
The Post-War Years
On their return to Australia, Vivian Bullwinkel and Wilma Oram worked together at the Heidelberg Military Hospital until June 1946. However during this time, restlessness and a need to be with their POW colleagues sent them touring to all parts of Australia. After Wilma's marriage in December 1947 (at which she was bridesmaid), Vivian retired from the AANS and returned to civilian nursing. Subsequently she was to become a much loved Director of Nursing at the Fairfield Hospital in Melbourne. Vivian honoured the memory of her fallen colleagues by remaining active on veteran, nursing and philanthropic committees. She joined her POW colleague, Betty Jeffrey, in a fundraising tour of the whole of Victoria in order to raise monies for a Nurses' Memorial Centre to be built in Melbourne. The Centre was not only to honour the memory of the nurses from the Vyner Brooke, but all other nurses, in WW2, who had lost their lives. In all, Vivian and Betty raised over £240,000. However, the Nurses' Memorial Centre was also established for the welfare and advancement of the nursing profession and it is in this arena that Vivian Bullwinkel has, perhaps, left her greatest legacy. In the 1970s, as a Council Member and later the President of the College of Nursing, Australia (later the Royal College of Nursing, Australia), Vivian became heavily involved in the establishment of the 'Goals in Nursing Education,' a task which heralded in the move of Australian nurse education from the hospital to the University sector. It was at this time, that her position on the Nurses Wages Board was also to help improve the salaries and working conditions for all Victorian nurses. In honour of the people who had helped the nurses during their captivity, Vivian supported a scholarship fund for Malaysian nurses to pursue post-graduate studies in Australia. She became a regular figure at memorial services, and after marrying Colonel Frank Statham in 1977, she continued to give interviews and attend memorial events. Each time she accepted an honour - the Florence Nightingale Medal, MBE, AM etc. - she did it to keep alive the memory of those cut down in the surf and those who died in the POW camps. "I would like …[people]…to appreciate that the lives, opportunities, sports and freedom for our young were bought at a price," she said recently. Fifty years after she came ashore on Bangka Island, Vivian Bullwinkel was to return, with some of the other nurses, to pay one last tribute to their colleagues. The island seemed unreal to her, not part of her history.
She found the fresh water springs again, visited grave sites, and one of the POW camps, but she could not locate the actual spot where the massacre had taken place. What was once so unforgettable had, with time, faded in memory and Bangka Island now looked like any other island. In the end she, and her fellow POWs, stood on a beach which they felt to be near the site of the murders, and here they unveiled a shrine to the forty-one nurses from the Vyner Brooke who did not return.
In her later years, Vivian Bullwinkel suffered a series of strokes but, with her incredible strength of willpower, she learned to overcome many of her disabilities. She became the patron of the National Service Nurses' Memorial and, in October 1999 (commemorating 100 years of military nursing), she attended the dedication of this Memorial in Canberra. The memorial is located alongside other military memorials in Anzac Parade.
Vivian Bullwinkel died on July 3, 2000 and the whole of the Australian nation went into mourning. In the end, this naturally reserved woman, with the gentle smile, had helped her friends achieve a measure of immortality