After a bullet from a Japanese machine gun tore through her body, Australian nurse Vivian Bullwinkel floated face down in the sea and feigned death. She was the sole survivor of the 1942 Bangka Island Massacre, in which 22 nurses were forced to wade into the ocean at gunpoint and then shot in the back.
It’s very discouraging that Australian heroine Vivian Bullwinkel is not famous outside her home country, since hers should be a household name everywhere!
With my special interest in women’s contribution to the war effort, and my deep admiration for nurses, I want to shout her incredible story from the rooftops. I urge you to share her story far and wide.
The Early Years
Vivian Bullwinkel was born on December 18, 1915 in the small town of Kapunda in South Australia, to George and Eva Bullwinkel. She had one brother, John. Vivian excelled at sports and acquired the nickname “Bully,” which stuck throughout her life.
Vivian trained as a nurse and midwife in New South Wales and worked in several locations before volunteering with the Australian Army Nursing Service.
“I felt if my friends were willing to go and fight for their country, then they deserved the best care we could give them,” she said in a later interview.
Vivian Arrives in Malaysia
In September 1941, Vivian sailed for Singapore, and after a few weeks she was assigned to the 13th Australian General Hospital in Johor Bahru, a large city at the southern tip of the Malaysian Peninsula. Here she nursed Australian servicemen who contracted tropical diseases, or were injured in accidents.
(Doesn’t she look like the jolly sort of nurse you would want by your bedside if you were sick or hurt, far from home?)
In December 1941, just days before Vivian’s twenty-sixth birthday, the unthinkable happened. Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and declared war on the Allies. Immediately, Japanese troops invaded Malaysia and began their advance southward.
Soon afterward, the staff and patients of the 13th Australian General Hospital were ordered to leave Johor Bahru and seek sanctuary on the nearby island of Singapore, in the mistaken belief that Singapore could never be conquered.
After arriving in Singapore, the Australian nurses transformed a school into a makeshift hospital. Here they were engaged in trauma nursing, caring for soldiers who suffered the most terrible wounds while the enemy continued its inexorable advance.
Soon Singapore was under attack. The girls (most of them still in their twenties) were under continual bombing from Japanese aircraft, knowing that a direct hit to the hospital was imminent.
Fleeing the Enemy
As Singapore faced certain defeat, and with most ships commandeered for the war effort, a search began for seaworthy vessels to evacuate civilians, nurses, and wounded men.
Vivian was amongst the last 65 nurses and 265 terrified men, women and children to board the final boat to depart from Singapore, a small steamship called the SS Vyner Brooke.
Night had fallen on February 12 by the time the ship had finished boarding its passengers, and as they left shore Vivian could see huge fires burning along the Singapore coastline.
The following day, the captain valiantly tried to conceal his ship behind various islands. Of the 47 ships that fled during those last chaotic days before the fall of Singapore, only five made it to safety.
During the night, the captain made a dash for freedom and sailed into the Bangka Strait. However, it was impossible to hide in broad daylight. At 2 p.m. on February 14, the ship was attacked by enemy aircraft and received three direct bomb hits.
The captain gave the order to abandon ship, with civilians going over the side first. Then the Japanese aircraft returned, firing at the lifeboats and people swimming in the water.
Vivian made it to the beach on nearby Bangka Island by holding onto the side of a lifeboat. The exhausted survivors continued to drift ashore throughout the night and the next day.
By the morning of February 16, around 80 survivors were gathered on Radji Beach, including wounded men, civilians, and just 22 of the 65 Australian nurses who left Singapore on the SS Vyner Brooke.
Below is a photograph of Bangka Island today.
No Choice but Surrender
The survivors sent out a small search party and located a local village, but the villagers were terrified of Japanese reprisal, and urged them to surrender. However, the survivors decided to wait on the beach and hope for rescue.
That night the survivors watched a fierce gun battle at sea, and soon another lifeboat arrived, carrying about 20 British soldiers. Although they found a fresh water spring at the end of the beach, there was no food and the children were crying with hunger.
A group of civilians made the difficult decision to set off to the nearby town of Muntok and surrender to Japanese troops. The nurses, British soldiers, and wounded men waited on the beach with the expectation that the Japanese would take them prisoner.
Nurses Massacred in Cold Blood
Vivian recalled sitting quietly on the beach when a party of Japanese troops arrived and ordered the soldiers to march at gunpoint out of sight behind a headland. A few minutes later the Japanese returned, cleaning their bloodied bayonets.
She now realized that all hope was lost.
The young nurses were motioned to walk out into the sea, still wearing their khaki uniforms and the Red Cross armbands that should have protected them. With them was an elderly British woman who had refused to leave with the other civilians.
Bravely and calmly, the women did as instructed. None of them cried out or attempted to run away.
As the women were waist deep in water, facing the horizon, the Japanese opened fire.
According to Vivian: “They just swept up and down the line, and the girls fell…”
Vivian was at the end of the line. A bullet struck her above her left hip, knocking her into the sea. She held her breath and remained motionless as the current carried her back to shore, surrounded by the floating bodies of her friends.
After the Japanese left the beach, Vivian dragged herself out of the water and staggered into the jungle where she lay down and lost consciousness. The bullet had passed through her body, narrowly missing her vital organs.
When she woke at dawn, hot and thirsty, she spotted Japanese soldiers on the beach and remained in hiding until they had gone.
As she cautiously made her way to the fresh water spring on the beach, Vivian heard an English voice call out! It was a British soldier, Private Patrick Kingsley, who was badly wounded but had also survived the attack.
Twelve Days in the Jungle
Vivian and Kingsley then shared a terrifying 12 days and nights in the jungle while she tended to his severe wounds, making bandages out of whatever she could find.
Neither would have survived without help from some local women. When Vivian went to the nearest village to beg for food, the village headman sent her away. As she walked along the path, a local woman beckoned to her and quietly handed over rice, fish and vegetables. Each time she returned to the village, the women secretly gave Vivian food.
Finally, Vivian broke the news to her companion that their only chance of survival lay in surrender. He asked her to wait just one more day, as he wanted to spend his 39th birthday as a free man.
By then Kingsley could barely walk, but he was determined to accompany Vivian to their fate. Leaning on each other for support, the two of them hobbled out of the jungle. Vivian carried her water bottle over her hip to disguise her wound and the telltale bullet hole in her uniform.
After they surrendered, Kingsley was put into the men’s camp at Muntok. Too badly injured to survive, he died a few days later.
Vivian Survives Years in Prison
At the women’s prison camp, Vivian was overjoyed to find another group of 24 Australian nurses from the SS Vyner Brooke. They had failed to make it to Radji Beach (luckily, as it turned out), and had landed on another part of the island, where they were captured.
For the next 3.5 years in the Palembang prison camp, Vivian kept her story a dark secret, knowing that she would be killed if her Japanese captors were aware that she had observed the war crime. She was determined to bear witness to the massacre so that her fellow nurses would never be forgotten.
Of the original group of 65 nurses on board the ship, only 24 returned home to Australia. Twenty-one were massacred, and 36 drowned after the ship sank. Conditions in the camp were so appalling that another eight of Vivian’s fellow nurses died of malnutrition and disease before the war ended.
This photo shows two emaciated women at Palembang.
Although history has largely forgotten the women and children who were interned in Japanese prison camps, the Palembang camp occupied by Vivian inspired an excellent 1980s TV miniseries called Tenko; and also a 1997 film called Paradise Road, starring Glenn Close. The below photograph is a scene from Tenko.
The Australian poster below shows an entirely different tragedy, in which the hospital ship HS Centaur was torpedoed and sunk by the Japanese off the Australian coast on May 14, 1943. The ship sank in three minutes and 268 lives were lost, including 11 out of 12 nurses.
At the time, Australians were naturally outraged that the Japanese had sunk a ship filled with wounded soldiers and nurses. Imagine how they would have reacted had they known about the atrocity at Bangka Island. It wasn’t until after the war ended that Vivian revealed the story of the Bangka Island Massacre to the world.
After the War
Vivian retired from the Australian Army in 1947 with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. That same year, she gave evidence of her horrific experiences at the Tokyo War Crimes Commission trials. Here she is testifying, finally able to tell the world what really happened to the men and women on Bangka Island.
Vivian went on to a distinguished career. She became a pioneer in the nursing profession, devoted to improving the welfare of nurses.
Vivian served on the council of the Australian War Memorial, and later as president of the Australian College of Nursing.
She never forgot those local Malaysian women who had fed her and Kingsley. In their honour, she set up a program for women from that region to train as nurses in Australia.
She also became Director of Nursing at the prestigious Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital in Melbourne. Here she is, smiling as usual, surrounded by her fellow nurses at Fairfield.
She continued to be an active voice for veterans throughout her life. Here she is on the left, marching with other military nurses in the 1955 Anzac Day parade in Melbourne.
Vivian was awarded both the Order of Australia and the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for her bravery.
This portrait in the Australian War Memorial depicts her wearing her grey nurse’s uniform, red cape and sister’s veil. Among her medals, she is wearing the Florence Nightingale Medal, the world’s highest honour available to nurses.
Rather late in life, Vivian Bullwinkel married Colonel Francis West Statham in 1977, and changed her name to Vivian Statham. This is yet another photograph of her huge, heart-warming grin.
In 1992 Vivian returned to the scene of the terrible crime, to unveil a memorial to her fellow nurses who had not survived. Standing in front of the Muntok Lighthouse, the memorial incorporates stone from the women’s prison camp and bears a bronze plaque with the names of all 65 nurses who were aboard the ship.
Incredibly, the wreck of the SS Vyner Brooke, shown here in this photograph, is still lying not far from the beach.
Vivian died of a heart attack on July 3, 2000, aged 84, in Perth, Australia. Four of the surviving nurses who were fellow prisoners at the Palembang camp attended her state funeral.
On the 75th anniversary of the tragedy in February 2017, a commemorative coin bearing an image of the SS Vyner Brooke was struck by the Royal Australian Mint.
At that time, the director of the Australian War Memorial, Brendan Nelson, paid tribute to this outstanding heroine by saying this: “From a generation that produced so many remarkable Australians, Vivian Bullwinkel was a giant among them.”
Rest in peace, Vivian Bullwinkel Statham.
(This story was compiled from various online accounts, including the Australian War Memorial and interviews quoting Vivian Bullwinkel).
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STAR WEEKLY AT WAR
The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a colour illustration with a wartime theme appeared on the cover each week. This is an appropriate winter image, dated January 28, 1942. To see my entire collection of Star Weekly covers, click: Star Weekly At War.