'There was no mistaking their vicious intentions'
Vivian Bullwinkel thought she was going to die.
The 26-year-old Australian army nurse had escaped the fall of Singapore, and survived the sinking of the SS Vyner Brooke, clinging to a life raft before making it ashore at Radji Beach on Banka Island.
There, 22 Australian nurses and a British civilian woman were forced into the ocean and shot by Japanese soldiers.
Bullwinkel was the only survivor.
“The Japanese took out tommy-guns, set up a machine-gun, and ordered us into the sea,” Bullwinkel told reporters after the war.
“There was no mistaking their vicious intentions ... We all knew we were going to die.”
Matron Irene Drummond called out, “Chins up, girls. I’m proud of you and I love you all.”
And then the killing began.
“When we were thigh deep in the surf they opened up a murderous ﬁre, mowing us down like a scene I saw in a ﬁlm as a child,” Bullwinkel told reporters.
“The women around me shrieked, stiffened, and sank. I was hit here, in the left side, under the ribs, falling unconscious in the water.
“I can’t swim a stroke, I can’t even ﬂoat, but somehow I felt my body being washed about in the waves.
“I lost consciousness, recovered it, and lost it again. I was never clear what was happening, but a number of times I felt that I was being washed towards the beach, then snatched away again ...
“I lay still, partly because something told me I would be killed if I moved, and partly because I did not care anyway.”
Wearing the uniform in which she was shot, Bullwinkel told reporters, “I am sorry I am hazy in parts about all this. I have tried so hard all this time to drive these scenes from my mind.”
When one correspondent began to apologise for asking her to recall the horrors she had experienced during the Second World War, she replied, “No. This story is one that must be told everywhere.”
Bullwinkel went on to testify at the war crimes tribunal in Tokyo, and dedicated her life to ensuring the nurses killed at Banka Island were not forgotten.
More than 80 years later, Bullwinkel has been immortalised in a bronze sculpture by Brisbane artist Dr Charles Robb at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
Lieutenant Colonel Bullwinkel is shown standing in her uniform, hands gently clasped in a pose that reflects her dignified composure and unrelenting dedication to nursing principles of care.
Her nephew, John Bullwinkel, was one of three generations of the Bullwinkel family at the dedication ceremony.
“It's a great honour,” he said.
“She wasn't one to hog the limelight ... She was humble. She was compassionate. And she was very self-effacing.
“She had a great sense of humour, and she loved to party.
“But she was always trying to help people ... and she was very loyal, and very loyal to her colleagues, in particular ...
“I would have thought she'd be standing there with her hands on her hips ... wanting to get on with things.”
Vivian Bullwinkel born in December 1915 at Kapunda in 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 Melbourne in 1940.
Bullwinkel first tried to volunteer as a nurse with the Royal Australian Air Force in 1941, but was rejected for having flat feet.
“There was never any doubt in my mind once war was declared, I was going to enlist,” she told reporters after the war.
“I felt if my friends were willing to go and fight for their country, then they deserved the best care we could give them ...
“I got a whisper that the air force were commencing a nursing service, so I rushed and put my name down there thinking I’d get in earlier than in the army ... Then I failed in my medical. So I howled for a weekend.
“Fortunately I hadn’t taken my name off the army list ... and about a month later I was called up by the army, so I went along in fear and trepidation, as you can well imagine, and I passed.”
Bullwinkel joined the Australian Army Nursing Service and was assigned to the 2/13th Australian General Hospital, setting sail for Singapore and Malaya in September 1941.
After a few weeks with the 2/10th Australian General Hospital in Malacca, Bullwinkel rejoined her colleagues at the 13th Australian General Hospital in Johor Baharu.
When the Japanese invaded the Malaya Peninsula in December 1941, advancing in a series of swift victories, the 13th Australian General Hospital was forced to evacuate, withdrawing to Singapore in late January 1942.
But the reprieve was to be short-lived, and the defence of the island would end in defeat.
With the fall of Singapore imminent, the decision was made to evacuate the nurses. Desperate crowds scrambled to the docks to escape, and on 12 February 1942, 65 Australian nurses boarded the small steamer ship, Vyner Brooke, one of the last ships carrying evacuees from Singapore
Two days later, Vyner Brooke was spotted and sunk by Japanese aircraft.
Bullwinkel drifted at sea for hours clinging to a lifeboat before she struggled ashore on Banka Island with other survivors.
Survivors from the Vyner Brooke joined up with another party of civilians, and up to 60 Commonwealth servicemen and merchant sailors, who had made it ashore after their own vessels were sunk.
After an unsuccessful attempt to gain food and assistance from local villagers, the group decided to surrender to the Japanese, and the civilian women and children left in search of someone to whom they might surrender, as the nurses and soldiers waited with the wounded.
But the Japanese patrol that arrived at Radji Beach a few hours later did not take prisoners. They shot and bayoneted the men behind a rocky headland, then forced the 22 Australian nurses and a British civilian woman who had remained to wade into the ocean, where they were machine-gunned from behind.
“They came back wiping their bayonets, so ... we realised what was going to happen,” Bullwinkel said.
“I’m sure we were just in a state of shock ...
“When we got out to about waist high in the sea ... [they] started machine-gunning [us from] behind.
“I was hit, just at the side of the back, and the bullet came through, but I wasn’t aware of it at the time ...
“I always sort of felt that once you were shot, you’d sort of had it anyway, and what with the force of the bullet and the waves, I was knocked over into the water ...
“In doing so, I swallowed a lot of salt water. And then I became violently ill ... I realised I was still very much alive, and then ... the next thing I thought, ‘Oh, they’ll see me heaving ... as I’m vomiting.’ So I tried to stop that, and I just ... lay there. I wouldn’t know how long. And then when I did venture to sit up ... there was nothing.”
Bullwinkel dragged herself into the jungle, where she fainted through loss of blood.
“I don’t know whether I became unconscious or whether I slept,” she later said. “But ... I woke at one stage and it was pitch dark, and the next time I woke up ... it was daylight.
“I was hot and thirsty and uncomfortable, beginning to feel sorry for myself ...
“Why I didn’t get up and go down and get a drink as I had intended at the moment, I’ll never know ... I just happened to look towards the pathway going down to the beach and here was this line of helmets and bayonets ... my heart went back to the bottom of the feet again.
“I wouldn’t know how long I lay there. I didn’t dare make a noise ...
“And then it was ages again ... before I could pull myself together ... to get up and go down and have a drink.
“While I was drinking, a voice behind me said, ‘Where have you been, nurse?’ Well, that was almost as bad as the Japs.
“I swung around, and it was this Englishman [Private Cecil Kingsley], who had been bayonetted ...
“He had been bayonetted where he lay on the beach, and then when the Japanese had gone, he had crawled into one of those fishing huts that you see out over the water.”
For 12 days, they hid in the jungle, where Bullwinkel nursed Kingsley and kept him alive, before deciding to surrender.
“I was becoming stronger, and began to realise that ... we couldn’t stay as we were, that we’d have to do something soon,” she recalled.
“Finally I said to Kingsley ... we can’t go on like this ... I think the only thing we can do is to give ourselves up.”
The pair surrendered the day after Kingsley’s 39th birthday. He died soon after.
Bullwinkel was eventually reunited with other survivors of the Vyner Brooke in a makeshift camp.
She would be held prisoner in and around Sumatra for the next three and a half years.
Of the 65 Australian nurses who left Singapore aboard the Vyner Brooke, 12 drowned at sea, 21 were killed in the massacre at Radji Beach, and eight died in captivity. Only 24 survived the war.
“When we first got back, we missed each other, very, very much,” Bullwinkel said. “We felt that nobody talked the same language. We felt that nobody really had any idea. They were saying yes, how awful, how terrible, but they didn’t really know.”
Bullwinkel retired from the army in 1947. She was appointed assistant matron at Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital and then 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 as the first woman on 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 AO. She married in 1977 and returned to Banka Island in 1992 to unveil a shrine to the nurses who had not survived the war. She died on 3 July 2000.
Bullwinkel’s sculpture now stands in the grounds of the Memorial, opposite a sculpture of her friend, wartime surgeon and fellow prisoner of war, Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop. On the base are 22 stainless steel discs, representing the victims of the Banka Island massacre. They are arranged at the base of the sculpture as a reflection of the stars that would have been visible in the night sky on 16 February 1942.
For her nephew John, it’s particularly poignant.
“As a 26-year-old army nursing sister who was thrown into the horrors of the brutal and unjust human behaviour during wartime, Vivian grew up very quickly,” John said.
“She also experienced firsthand the greatest of human drives, that of survival, not only for herself, but also for her fellow army personnel and civilians.
“Going to war, and going through the privations that she experienced, and then coming out the other side, was nothing short of a miracle really ...
“I think all those women had to draw on reserves they probably didn’t know they had. And so you talk about resilience, resourcefulness, tenacity, all in the name of survival ...
“The resilience and the reserves ... they had to draw on were enormous and they became very close, in the name of survival. And that continued on ...
“We’re very proud that she’s being remembered, together with the other girls who died on the beach.
“From Vivian’s point of view, I think she would have appreciated that.
“For her, it was always to do with her comradeship, loyalty, and compassion, and not wanting them to be forgotten.”