Nurse and Midwives Remembrance Ceremony Commemorative Address
Commemorative Address given by Adjunct Professor Kylie Ward FACN, Chief Executive Officer, Australian College of Nursing
Good afternoon and thank you for the kind invitation to be here amongst many of my esteemed colleagues and friends to give the Commemorative Address for this Remembrance & Thanksgiving Ceremony. I’d like to acknowledge our VIP guests for being here with us today.
This is Ngunnawal Country, and I pay my sincere respect to the Elders of this land, past, present and emerging. It is where I choose to live and work and I am honoured to do so. In February 1942, 65 Australian nurses and approximately 200 others were evacuated from Singapore before it fell to the Japanese.
On the 14th February their ship, the Vyner Brooke, was bombed and sank. I2 nurses drowned at sea, their bodies never to be recovered, others were washed ashore to beaches along the cost of Indonesia and with civilians who were also on board the ship. 22 nurses reached Radji Beach on Banka Island, Sumatra.
When the Japanese soldiers arrived at Radji Beach, the men were taken aside and murdered by bayonets and the 22 nurses, including Matron Drummond were marched into the water, prodded with bayonets. Matron Drummond spoke as they were marched in saying ‘Chin up girls, I am proud of you and I love you all”. She repeated these words of comfort, the nurses all young, in their prime did stay strong- they didn’t panic as they faced their death. They were all shot and presumed to be dead by the Japanese soldiers in a bloody massacre.
Vivian Bullwinkel was one of these nurses, she was shot in the hip, She was wounded and lay face down in the water until she could not hear any noise on the beach. She was the only survivor.
This is one of the many incredible stories I carry with me every day. Of the Australian Defence Force nurses and midwives who have served for us and continue to do so today in so many ways, we owe them a great debt.
I can’t help but be touched by their ordeals, their challenges and their victories.
To me they are warriors whose strength and conviction knows no bounds.
I often find myself reflecting on our great profession, and the many whom have gone before us cementing our place in history as a noble profession, the most trusted and respected. Ethical and full of integrity.
I cannot begin to understand what compels someone to dedicate their life to service and sacrifice in a way we do not have to imagine. Risking their lives for the greater good of their country and its people. I draw on my fair share of courage and conviction in the arenas I am in. Fighting for our rights, our respect, our voice and our leadership to prevail but nothing can compare to the nurses and midwives who join the military and put everything on the line for our safety and security.
Imagine being one of the nurses on the Radji beach on the 16th February 1942, surviving the bombing of the ship, making it to shore, witnessing soldiers and civilians being horrendously murdered, then looking into the faces of your colleagues- knowing you were steps away from your own death as you marched into the water. What could they have been thinking? How did they keep so calm? They were so young and so innocent. Did they know what they signed up for. They boarded the last ship to be evacuated from Singapore as they wouldn’t leave their patients behind. Did they know they would never see their loved ones again? No mobile technology to send messages, no time to write letters, no ability to communicate any last thoughts. Pure dedication, selfless sacrifice and devotion. What lessons did they learn that they could share with us?
And whilst I’m safe and living in peace – in part due to them - their essence, bravery and determination is a shining light for me – and no doubt for thousands of others who hold our profession dear in our heads, our hearts and our hands.
They were young, naïve to the way of the world and wars, setting out for adventure, patriotism and service, only to be confronted by the horrors of what humans can do to each other.
What must they have felt – abandoned, alone, despair? Only when we can spend the time to reflect on their experiences can we start to scratch the surface of their ordeals.
In my early years as CEO I found myself wondering, what could I do in my position to ensure that future generations will never forget what they gave up for us, and for our profession?
We have steered our way through the worst global pandemic in a generation, seen our profession thrusted frontstage without the planning we would have liked, or the resources we needed, when we heard the stories of heart-break at every turn - still we were better off than our fallen colleagues.
Lieutenant Colonel Vivian Bullwinkel was the sole survivor of the Bangka Island Massacre, and a Japanese prisoner of war where she was held captive for three years. She was a giant of change and transformation for our profession. She was also a formidable Australian hero whose name and face should be known by all.
And yet we don’t.
Australians don’t generally understand who this extraordinary woman was, and what she contributed to society, to healthcare and to our profession.
But we at the Australian College of Nursing Foundation are determined to change that. I feel a great sense of responsibility to keep her memory alive, and those of her colleagues.
Vivian Bullwinkel’s story is not only a nurse’s story, or a woman’s story or one about the military.
What makes her so extraordinary is that her story is a human tale. One of sacrifice for the greater good, of incredible strength. Her story is one of justice and of the power one person has, to make an extraordinary difference.
After her horrendous and long ordeal, no one would have blamed her if she wanted to live out her life quietly. But not Vivian.
She was the keeper of the knowledge of the Banka Island Massacre. She testified at both the Australian War Crimes Board of Inquiry in 1945 and bravely gave harrowing evidence at the Tokyo war crimes tribunal at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East in 1946.
She went on to become the Matron of (the then) Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital in Melbourne; established the Australian Nurses Memorial Centre (ANMC) with Betty Jeffrey and Beryl Woodbridge; and she advocated for better education and conditions for nurses everywhere.
She was President of the Royal College of Nursing, Australia; she was also the first female member of the Council of the Australian War Memorial.
An extraordinary life of service to others, one that we can all learn from.
In our own way, through the work we are doing to fundraise and commission the installation of a sculpture of Lieutenant Colonel Vivian Bullwinkel in the grounds of the Australian War Memorial, we are keeping her story alive.
This commemorative statue will be the first sculpture of an individual woman and the first of a nurse in the Memorial’s grounds.
Finally, an individual woman in bronze at our most revered Memorial.
I, like millions of Australians, remember coming to the War Memorial as a child. Seeing the old photos, been amazed by the exhibits and feeling that solemnity that hits you when you enter. And, now the little girls amongst our children will see an image of their own reflection taking pride of place. They will forever know that women’s sacrifice – regardless of profession, is valued and revered as well.
However, in the spirit of how Vivian lived her life, she wouldn’t want us to only remember her. And so we aren’t.
In addition to the statute of Vivian, we are also raising funds to establish nursing scholarships in the names of the 21 Australian nurses who were killed on Bangka Island. These warriors of war, whose lives and legacies were cut tragically short, will live on, and inspire a new generation of nurses to lead their own journeys in providing exceptional health care for Australians.
I know Vivian would have approved.
I was moved when I first heard the saying that we die two deaths. One when your physical body expires, and one when the last person forgets about you.
We can’t save Vivian and her 21 colleagues from their first death. But we can stop them from being forgotten.
It is up to all of us to keep their memories alive and let these stories resonate with a new generation of people who need these giants of history for direction, for grounding and for inspiration.
And I hope when people see our Vivian in bronze, or hear about the work of our scholarship recipients each year, they too, will take pause, to consider what they can do, to serve others with honour, love and dedication.