Lieutenant Colonel Vivian Bullwinkel commemorative sculpture
Lieutenant Colonel Vivian Bullwinkel AO MBE ARRC ED FNM FRCNA is the first sculpture to commemorate the service of an individual woman or nurse in the grounds of the Australian War Memorial.
“From a generation that produced so many remarkable Australians, Vivian Bullwinkel was a giant among them. She was a leader and an inspiration, a woman who embodied all that is good in us. She led from both position and principle.”
The Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson AO
Lieutenant Colonel Vivian Statham [nee Bullwinkel] AO MBE ARRC ED FNM FRCNA was born on 18 December 1915 in Kapunda, South Australia, and died of a heart attack in Perth, WA, on Monday 3rd July 2000. An Australian Army Nurse during the Second World War Bullwinkel’s courage while a prisoner of war exemplified the bravery of Australian women in war. Her distinguished post-war career was marked by many humanitarian achievements.
Vivian Bullwinkel VFX61330 trained as a nurse and midwife at Broken Hill, New South Wales and was working as a nurse in Victoria before enlisting in the Australian Army Nursing Service in May 1941.
In September 1941 Bullwinkel was sent to Singapore as a staff nurse with the newly raised 2/13th Australian general Hospital. 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 23 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 Private Cecil Kingsley, a wounded British soldier, Bullwinkel gave herself up and re-joined 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."
Post war career
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 decided to return to being 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. In the 1970s Bullwinkel became the President of the Royal College of Nursing, Australia. 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. 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.
Support for the Australian War Memorial and decorations
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 grey 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.
In the decades following the war, Bullwinkel received multiple honours and awards:
- Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) (1993)
- Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) (1973)
- Associate Member of the Royal Red Cross (ARRC) (1947)
- 1939-45 Star
- Pacific Star
- War Medal 1939-1945
- Australian Service Medal 1939-45
- Efficiency Decoration (ED)
- Florence Nightingale Medal (1947) the highest international distinction a nurse can be awarded for “exceptional courage and devotion to the wounded, sick or disabled or to civilian victims of a conflict or disaster”.
Informal portrait of Sister Vivian Bullwinkel on her repatriation to Australian in October 1945. (AWM2020.22.92)
Vivian Bullwinkel’s story is told in the permanent Second World War galleries of the Australian War Memorial. Click on the following to learn more about her story.
Learn about the sculpture
‘Erecting a sculpture of Lieutenant Colonel Bullwinkel at the Australian War Memorial will link the past, present and future for us to remember and be inspired by the sacrifice, service and leadership of Australian nurses.’
Associate Professor Kylie Ward, CEO Australian College of Nursing.
The sculpture was commissioned in 2019 in partnership with the Australian College of Nursing Foundation. It was created by Dr Charles Robb, cast in bronze at Billman’s Foundry, Castlemaine, Victoria and installed into Poppy’s Forecourt in the Eastern Grounds of the Memorial in July 2023.
Why Vivian Bullwinkel
Building the sculpture
The sculpture was created by Australian artist Charles Robb, using a combination of digital and traditional sculptural processes; it took 40 weeks to produce. Standing three metres tall, the sculptural portrait of Bullwinkel was hand-modelled, using approximately 200 kilograms of clay. The oval base was digitally modelled, then milled in polystyrene using a robotic arm. The final form was further refined using paint and filler. Both elements were cast using silicon bronze by craftsmen at Billman’s Foundry, Castlemaine, Victoria. Finally the bronze surface was polished, painted with a dark patina (colouring) and waxed for shine and protection from the weather.
Dr Charles Robb PhD SFHEA (b.1971) has been creating sculptures for more than two decades. His interest in portraiture and the history and conventions of figurative sculpture has led to him undertaking major public art commissions including Reverie I (2015) for the Brisbane City Council’s City Artworks Public Art Program, the General Sir John Monash Commemorative Sculpture (2018) for the Australian War Memorial (with Sarah Holland-Batt) and most recently the 10th Light Horse Regiment Memorial Sculpture (2018-2023) for The City of Swan Council, WA (with Sarah Holland-Batt).
Robb’s work has been seen in numerous group and solo exhibitions and can be found in various public collections including the National Gallery of Victoria, MONA, Art Bank and the Latrobe University Art Museum. Based in Brisbane, Queensland, Dr Robb is a Senior Lecturer, Visual Art, in the School of Creative Practice, Faculty of Creative Industries, Education and Social Justice at Queensland University of Technology.