Captain Vivian Bullwinkel, AO, MBE, ARRC
Date of birth: 18 December 1915
Place of birth: Kapunda, SA
Date of death: 03 July 2000
Place of death: Perth, WA
Vivian Bullwinkel, sole survivor of the 1942 Banka Island massacre, was born on 18 December 1915 at Kapunda, South Australia. She trained as a nurse and midwife at Broken Hill, New South Wales, and began her nursing career in Hamilton, Victoria, before moving to the Jessie McPherson Hospital in Melbourne in 1940.
In 1941, wanting to enlist, Bullwinkel volunteered as a nurse with the RAAF but was rejected for having flat feet. She was, however, able to join the Australian Army Nursing Service; assigned to the 2/13th Australian General Hospital (2/13th AGH), in September 1941 she sailed for Singapore. After a few weeks with the 2/10th AGH, Bullwinkel rejoined the 13th AGH in Johor Baharu.
Japanese troops invaded Malaya in December 1941 and began to advance southwards, winning a series of victories and, in late January 1942, forcing the 13th AGH to evacuate to Singapore. But the short-lived defence of the island ended in defeat, and, on 12 February, Bullwinkel and 65 other nurses boarded the SS Vyner Brooke to escape the island.
Two days later, the ship was sunk by Japanese aircraft. Bullwinkel, 21 other nurses and a large group of men, women, and children made it ashore at Radji Beach on Banka Island; they were joined the next day by about 100 British soldiers. The group elected to surrender to the Japanese, and while the civilian women and children left in search of someone to whom they might surrender, the nurses, soldiers, and wounded waited.
Some Japanese soldiers came and killed the men, then motioned the nurses to wade into the sea. They then machine-gunned the nurses from behind. Bullwinkel was struck by a bullet and pretended to be dead until the Japanese left. She hid with a wounded British private for 12 days before deciding once again to surrender. They were taken into captivity, but the private died soon after. Bullwinkel was reunited with survivors of the Vyner Brooke. She told them of the massacre, but none spoke of it again until after the war lest it put Bullwinkel, as witness to the massacre, in danger. Bullwinkel spent three and half years in captivity; she was one of just 24 of the 65 nurses who had been on the Vyner Brooke to survive the war.
Bullwinkel retired from the army in 1947 and became Director of Nursing at Melbourne's Fairfield Hospital. She devoted herself to the nursing profession and to honouring those killed on Banka Island, raising funds for a nurses' memorial and serving on numerous committees, including a period as a member of the Council of the Australian War Memorial, and later president of the Australian College of Nursing.
In the decades following the war, Bullwinkel received many honours and awards, including the Florence Nightingale Medal, an MBE and the AM. She married in 1977 and returned to Banka Island in 1992 to unveil a shrine to the nurses who had not survived the war. Vivian Bullwinkel died on 3 July 2000.