Today we have the story of arguably the most famous Australian nurse of the Second World War, Lieutenant Colonel Vivian Bullwinkel.
She was born 18 December 1915 in Kapunda, South Australia, her parents having migrated from England three years earlier.
Vivian completed her general nursing training at Broken Hill and District Hospital in Far Western New South Wales in 1938 at the age of 23 and completed her midwifery certification the following year. From there she moved to Hamilton Victoria to commence nursing.
In 1940 as the threat of war in the Pacific loomed, Vivian relocated to Melbourne to assist in the war effort, working at the Jesse McPherson Hospital. She was initially ineligible for overseas service as there was a requirement that all Australian military nurses have a minimum of 12 months of hospital experience and had to have completed both ward and surgical training before they could be accepted for military service.
In 1941, Vivian applied to join the Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service but was rejected on medical grounds. She was then accepted into the Second Australian Imperial Force in May 1941 and commenced army training in Puckapunyal Victoria on the 9th of August 1941.
On 2 September, Vivian Bullwinkel was transferred to the Australian Army Nursing Service and assigned to the 2/13th Australian General Hospital as a Staff Nurse, bound for Malaya aboard the Australian Hospital Ship Wanganella.
At this time, as the war in Europe was looking bleak for the British, they had started to strip their overseas garrisons to reinforce the Home Islands, leaving the defence of these territories to Dominion Troops namely from Australia, India and Canada. The Dominions were autonomous communities within the British Empire who were essentially self-governing, and the British made extensive use of these forces in North Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific. In fact, Australia already had two Divisions, the 6th and 7th AIF in the desert, and a third, the 8th Division was raised at the same time of the raising of the 2/13th AGH, and would join them in Malaya, to serve alongside Indian and British forces.
There was already an Australian General Hospital in Malaya at the time, the 2/10th AGH and Staff Nurse Bullwinkel would regularly transfer between both hospitals between Singapore and Sumatra primarily treating the large number of tropical based afflictions.
In October 1941, Bullwinkel would be based at Johor Bahru in Malaya and would stay there until December 1941 when the Japanese would commence their land invasion of the Malayan Peninsula.
Just a point of historical context, the Japanese launched their invasion of Malaya ten hours before their attack on Pearl Harbour, and simultaneously with the attacks on Hong Kong, Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines.
While the defenders of Malaya would try and stall the Japanese advance until hope reinforcements from either Britain or America arrived (they were never arriving) the strategic downside of Britain’s reliance on Dominion troops and the Allies policy of prioritising winning the war in Europe first disadvantaged the Australian, British and Indian troops as they were largely inexperienced, overall poorly led and under-supplied and equipped. Now this isn’t to discount the brave actions of the individual soldiers in the defence, they were simply facing a much more experienced, motivated and eager Japanese Force. Even the arrival of the Royal Navy Battleships HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, while a massive boon to morale could not halt the rapid and devastating Japanese advance, as they would be sunk on the 10th December, two days later.
Despite these setbacks, the Allies would fight valiantly but in January, the 2/13 AGH along with British and Dominion troops would be pushed back to the tiny island fortress of Singapore.
On the 12th February and the fall of Singapore a reality, it was decided that more than 300 predominately European civilians and wounded soldiers along with 65 nurses would be evacuated aboard the Royal Yacht of Sarawak SS Vyner Brooke . It is at this time that Sister Bullwinkel’s service record goes silent, as she will be officially listed as missing on the 16th February 1942 as the Garrison would surrender to the Japanese.
This is, however, not where her story ends. On Valentines Day 1942, Japanese aircraft would locate the Vyner Brooke and attack it with machine guns and bombs, sinking it, and forcing the survivors overboard.
Twelve nurses would be killed in the sinking, most would make it to life rafts or clinging to debris. Of those that survived, twenty-two nurses, including Staff Nurse Bullwinkel would wash ashore on Radji Beach on Bangka Island, in the Dutch East Indies, in what is now modern-day Indonesia, the remainder were ether lost at sea or went down with the ship.
They would be joined by approximately 100 other survivors, mainly wounded soldiers and civilians. While on the beach, they were joined by approximately 20 British soldiers from another sunk ship and the group assessed their options. After they determined their location, and discovered that it had fallen to the Japanese, it was decided that the survivors of the Vyner Brooke would surrender, and an officer of the ship set out to do that.
Most of the civilians also fled the beach for the island’s capital of Muntok, leaving the nurses to care for the wounded men.
By mid-morning, the ships officer returned with a party of Japanese soldiers to officiate the surrender. They ordered all the walking wounded to head inland under guard, leaving the nurses and the more critically wounded on the beach. The walking wounded would be lined up and gunned down by machine gun fire, some would attempt to flee into the sea, only to be cut down as well.
As the Japanese soldiers returned, it became clear what had happened, as the Japanese soldiers sat down in front of the nurses and cleaned the blood of their weapons.
The women, 22 nurses and one civilian, were ordered into the sea as a machine gun was set up on the shore. Once they were waist deep the Japanese opened fire on them, killing them all save for Vivian Bullwinkel. The last words heard before the shooting was from Matron Irene Drummond saying, “Chin up Girls, I’m proud and love you all.”
Sister Bullwinkel was struck once, high on the right hip and floated motionless amongst the surf, playing dead until the Japanese departed. She would then return to the beach and crawl to nearby bushland, where she passed out for several days until she was discovered by Private Patrick Kingsley, a wounded survivor of the massacre. Tending to their wounds, the two would encounter another survivor, Stoker Lloyd, both he and Private Kingsley had been part of the group led around the headlands and had survived the same way Bullwinkel had.
After twelve days, relying on the help of locals, it was decided that it was in their best interest to surrender, the three deciding to omit the fact that they where survivors of what is now called the Bangka Island Massacre.
For the next three and a half years, Sister Bullwinkel would move around Indonesian Prisoner of War Camps, until she was liberated in September 1945, she would be one of just 24 of 65 nurses of the Vyner Brooke to survive the war.
After a brief stay in hospital to recover from the effects of her captivity, Sister Bullwinkel, now a Lieutenant, as she was in absentia promoted in 1943, would continue to serve, now as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan until her resignation at the rank of Captain in 1947 to assume the post as Director of Nursing at the Fairfield Infectious Disease Hospital, a position she would hold until 1977. In 1947, she would also testify before the War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo about what had happened.
She would also remain part of the Citizens Military Force, eventually retiring from the military at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1970.
After the war, Matron Bullwinkel continued to be active, and devoted her life to nursing, and honouring those who died in the Bangka Island Massacre, she also continued to raise funds for memorials dedicated to nurses, and served on several committees. Including being the first woman to be a member of the Council of the Australian War Memorial, as well as becoming the President of the Australian College of Nursing.
In 1975 during another major conflict, Matron Bullwinkel would once again work with the military as her hospital had been selected to receive orphans evacuated from the Vietnam War, and while she was 60, she organised and led a nursing team to Vietnam to oversee the Australian side of the operation.
Matron Bullwinkel, at 62, her nursing career over, married Colonel Francis West Statham in September 1977 and moved to Perth Western Australia. she would continue to remain active in her philanthropic roles, and in 1992, she would return to Bangka Island to unveil a monument to those who had been killed.
Throughout her life, Vivian Bullwinkel had well earned awards and commendations bestowed upon her, she was a recipient of the Florence Nightingale Medal, Associate Member of the Royal Red Cross, Member of the British Empire and an Officer of the Order of Australia. She would also have several portions of hospitals, care facilities, nursing residences, and sections of Military facilities named after her.
Vivian Bullwinkel died of a heart attack on the 3rd July 2000, aged 84. After her death, she would posthumously be inducted to the Victorian Honour Roll of Women, a Honour Roll recognising the achievements of women from Victoria. More recently with the 80th anniversary of the Bangka Island Massacre in 2022, the Australian College of Nursing, is currently raising funds for the construction of a bronze statue of Matron Bullwinkel to be placed on the grounds of the Australian War Memorial.
I can say with great certainty that as a people, we are truly proud of Matron Vivian Bullwinkel.
Sexual assault allegations
The official history of the Second World War, states that the survivors of the sinking of the Vyner Brooke were simply marched into the sea and were gunned down. this narrative has been accepted up until recently. Thanks in part to the investigations made by historian Lynette Silver, broadcaster Tess Lawrence and biographer Barbara Angell. Their investigation indicates that the nurses were raped before they were murdered by the Japanese.
Before I had even heard of this investigation, I already had my own questions about what had happened, after I first saw Vivian Bullwinkel’s uniform on display, which only grew after I saw was able to see the reverse side, following a recent 3d render of the uniform by the Australian War Memorial. By her own admission, she had been shot in the right upper hip, and her uniform bore the entry and exit wounds, but if you look at her uniform, you quickly notice that those bullet holes line up close to the middle of her abdomen, and if she had been struck clean through the stomach, she surely would have been incapacitated, or died of an infection, long before she made it back to shore. The only way that her wounds, and the bullet holes line up, is if her uniform was undone and open.
Sadly, it would seem that the reason why this part of the story isn’t public knowledge was because senior Australian military and political figures ordered Vivian to not talk about it, and expunged any reference to it, under the misguided pretence of protecting the image of these nurses from the stigma associated with being raped, something that was very much taboo back in the 40’s and 50’s, especially considering to be a nurse, you had to either be single or widowed.
There is also evidence of accounts of what had happened being tampered with, with accounts from nurses simply ending mid-sentence, and sections of the investigation from the Australian War Crimes Section simply missing suggest that they had been censored by military officials.
According to Vivian herself, she has gone on record to state that most of the nurses on Bangka Island were violated before they were murdered and wanted to say so at the war crimes tribunal in Tokyo but had been ordered not to by her superiors in the Australian Government.
Sadly, the perpetrators of this heinous act have now escaped any punishment for their crime.