Nurse survivors of the Vyner Brooke

Obituary

(Matron) Vivian Statham (née Bullwinkel) AO (1993) MBE (1973) AARC (1945) ED FRCNA (The Florence Nightingale Medal 1947)
b. 18 December 1915, Kapunda, SA
d. 3 July 2000, Perth, WA

Vivian Statham died of a heart attack in Perth on Monday 3 July 2000 at the age of 84. Her courage while a prisoner of war of the Japanese exemplified the bravery of Australian women in war, and her distinguished post-war career was marked by many humanitarian achievements.

In 1941, at the age of 26, Bullwinkel enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS), Australian Imperial Force (AIF). She reported for duty in May and in September embarked for Singapore as a staff nurse with the newly-raised 2/13th Australian General Hospital (AGH). She served in Singapore from September 1941 until she was evacuated with 64 other Australian Army nursing sisters aboard a small coastal steamer, the Vyner Brooke. It was 12 February 1942, only three days before Singapore fell to the Japanese. On 14 February, heading for Sumatra via Banka Strait, the ship was sunk by Japanese bombers. She was with a group of survivors on Banka Island when a Japanese patrol arrived and ordered the 22 women in the group to walk into the sea. They were machine-gunned from behind. All except Bullwinkel were killed.

After two weeks in the jungle caring for a wounded British soldier, Bullwinkel gave herself up and rejoined 31 other nurses who had made it to shore. The surviving 32 nurses spent the next three and a half years as prisoners of war on Banka Island and Sumatra. Of the original 65 nurses evacuated from Singapore on the Vyner Brooke only 24, including Sr Bullwinkel, returned to Australia. During their internment eight nurses died as a result of malnutrition and other easily treated diseases; tragically this occurred in the last seven months of their captivity. Among Bullwinkel's papers (recently donated to the Australian War Memorial) is the only postcard she was allowed to send home, in March 1943. Exemplifying the courage of the nurses, she made light of her situation. Bullwinkel wrote to her mother, "My roving spirit has been somewhat checked."

Bullwinkel gave evidence before the Tokyo war trials in December 1946 and was described a model witness. After the war, she could not face working in Japan with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF), and so she decided to become a civilian nurse. She retained her position at Heidelberg Military Hospital when it was taken over by Repatriation, and as assistant matron continued to care for Australian servicemen. From 1955 to 1970, Bullwinkel served as a lieutenant colonel in 3 Royal Australian Nursing Corps Training Unit (CMF). On retirement in 1977, she was Director of Nursing, Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital, Victoria. While at Fairfield, she organised a rescue mission to evacuate Vietnamese war orphans from Saigon and supervised their convalescence before adoption to Australian families. She worked tirelessly for the Red Cross, ex-service, nursing and other voluntary organizations. An achievement close to her heart was the instigation of nursing scholarships so that Malaysian nurses could finish training in Australia. Bullwinkel received many honours and awards and was selected by the National Heritage 200 Committee for inclusion in the bicentennial publication The people who made Australia.

Bullwinkel married Colonel Francis West Statham OBE, ED in September 1977. She returned to Banka Island with Frank in 1992 to select a site for a memorial, and found herself once more standing on Radji beach, struggling to understand why such dedicated young women had so ruthlessly lost their lives. In 1993, with the dedication of the memorial on Banka, she fulfilled a long-held ambition to make a fitting tribute to her colleagues. Vivian and Frank came to Canberra in October 1999 for the dedication of the Australian Service Nurses Memorial. Sadly, Frank died on 3 December 1999.

Bullwinkel was a great supporter of the work of the Australian War Memorial. From 1964 to 1969 she was the first woman trustee. On display in the Second World War gallery, her white nurse's uniform with the trace of a bullet hole above the hip gives testimony to the loss of life on Banka Island. To coincide with the dedication of the Australian Service Nurses National memorial, she donated diaries with entries dated from August 1941 to February 1942 to the Memorial. These describe her life in Singapore before it fell and the desperate evacuation aboard the Vyner Brooke. Then in April 2000, she donated her collection of personal papers, a rich source of material for historians and a significant heritage acquisition for the Memorial.