Sole Survivor - Banka Island Massacre

Vivian Bullwinkel survived horrific experiences during World War II, including the Banka Island Massacre. Despite these traumatic events, she remained a generous, outgoing person who had an enormous influence within the Australian nursing profession.

Vivian BullwinkelCredit: Wikimedia

Vivian Bullwinkel was born on 18 December 1915 at Kapunda in South Australia. After training as a nurse and midwife at Broken Hill in New South Wales, she began her nursing career in Hamilton, Victoria. In 1940, she moved to the Jessie McPherson Hospital in the capital, Melbourne.

Her first attempt at enlisting in the RAAF was rejected because of flat feet. She then joined the Australian Army Nursing Service and was assigned to the 2/13th Australian General Hospital (2/13th AGH).

In September 1941, she sailed for Singapore and spent three happy months nursing and exploring the city. After a short period with the 2/10th AGH in Malacca learning all she could about treating tropical diseases, she rejoined the 2/13th in Singapore. In November 1941, the group moved to a new makeshift hospital at Johore Baru, across the causeway from Singapore. The wards had no electricity, no running water. The nurses lived in tents.

On 7 December 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. Malaya was attacked on 8 December and the nurses were then under constant bombardment for two months. They wore their steel helmets continually. On learning of an air raid, patients were to be moved to slit shelters outside or placed under their beds if too ill to move. Only then could the nurses seek shelter for themselves.

As the Japanese advanced, the 2/13th AGH was moved back to Singapore. The hospital was bursting with patients. Neighbouring buildings and a nearby chapel were commandeered for the wounded.

Singapore was bombarded by Japanese fighter planes and the nurses worked under difficult and dangerous conditions. Aware of the atrocities committed by the Japanese against the citizens of Hong Kong, the Australian authorities were concerned for the welfare of their troops in Singapore.

Raid on Northern SumatraCredit: Wikimedia

By early February, it was clear that Singapore was going to fall to the Japanese. With just days to spare, thousands of Europeans were evacuated from Singapore. On 10 February 1942, thirty nurses had been safely evacuated to Australia aboard the Empire Star. Two days later, Bullwinkel and 64 of her fellow nurses were taken on board the Vyner Brooke for evacuation.

While on board, Bullwinkel and her nurses organised an evacuation plan should the ship be attacked. They were to get the wounded to the lifeboats then help the rest of the passengers. There would not be enough lifeboats for the nurses so they would trust to their life belts to keep them afloat. (Bullwinkel and several other nurses could not swim.)

On entering the Banka Straits, Japanese fighter planes attacked the ship. With the ship on fire, the Captain gave the order to abandon ship. Within twenty minutes the ship had sunk. Japanese bombers strafed the water again and again. Twelve nurses were drowned when the ship went down.

The survivors spent the afternoon and night in the water. Coming ashore on Radji Beach on Banka (Bangka) Island, Indonesia near Muntok, they set up camp and began attending the wounded.

Their attempt to surrender to a Japanese patrol in the area was ignored. The men were shot and/or bayoneted. The women were then ordered to march into the sea. When the water was about waist-deep, the women were machine-gunned from behind with most dying as they fell. Bullwinkel was struck in the side and feigned death for what seemed to her hours. When she eventually looked towards the shore it was deserted. A British soldier, Private Kingsley, had also survived although part of his arm had been sliced off and he had multiple bayonet wounds.

They hid for 12 days before starvation forced them to surrender. Kingsley died soon after and Bullwinkel was reunited with other survivors of the Vyner Brooke. She was suffering terribly from exposure. Her mouth was completely closed from blisters and she had to be fed through the corner of her mouth with an eye-dropper.

Although her compatriots knew her story, the massacre was not spoken of until after the war. As far as the Japanese knew there were no survivors from the atrocity. After three and a half years in captivity under appalling conditions and at several different camps, only 23 of the original 65 nurses on the Vyner Brooke survived the war. While in the camps the nurses continued to do what they could for the sick.

Another eight of Bullwinkel's nursing companions had died of starvation and illness in the final months of the war. On 11 September 1945, the nurses are liberated from the POW camp and flown to Singapore.

After being freed, Bullwinkel's story was told on the front page of all the newspapers, evoking outrage and anger at the treatment meted out to defenceless women. She was later to testify at the war crimes tribunal in Tokyo.

Bullwinkel attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Army before retiring in 1947. She took up a position as Director of Nursing at Fairfield Hospital in Melbourne and held the post for 17 years. Knowing the importance of hope and motivation to people in captivity, she applied these lessons in Ward 12 where polio sufferers lay in respirators, encouraging them in all their endeavours and even allowing them to run businesses and fund-raising enterprises.

As well as being Director of Nursing at Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital, she raised funds for a nurses' memorial and served on numerous committees. She later became President of the Royal College of Nursing Australia from 1973-1974 and was a key player in the struggle to have the education of nurses moved to universities.

In 1975, Bullwinkel led a team to Saigon to evacuate 80 war orphans. The city was surrounded by North Vietnamese troops. They found the babies and toddlers packed in cardboard boxes. All were suffering from malnourishment and a multitude of intestinal parasitic infections and other diseases. The war orphans stayed at Fairfield Hospital under the care of Bullwinkel and she stayed in touch with many when they moved into their adopted families.

In 1977, Bullwinkel married Frank Statham, after announcing her retirement. Back in 1966, Bullwinkel had formed a friendship with Frank Statham. Statham was the former Rat of Tobruk. With Frank now widowed and Bullwinkel retired, Frank proposed and Vivian accepted.

In 1993, Vivian, together with six of her fellow nurse POWs, returned to Banga Island to attend the opening of a memorial on Radji Beach, dedicated to her fallen comrades.

If Bullwinkel's wartime experiences were to be put aside for a moment, her contribution to the nursing profession was still incalculable. She was a born leader and teacher.

Awards and Honours

  • Florence Nightingale Medal
  • MBE (Medal of the Order of the British Empire)
  • AM (Officer of the Order of Australia)
  • Efficiency Decoration
  • Associate of the Royal Red Cross.
  • The Vivian Bullwinkel School of Nursing was opened at Fairfield Hospital on 10 November 1978.
  • A wing at Hollywood Private Hospital, Perth was renamed the Vivian Bullwinkel Wing in her honour.

After her death, the Vivian Bullwinkel Chair of Palliative Care Nursing was established at Monash University. Its purpose is 'to conduct research into the provision of palliative care of people who are dying, and their families, and to enhance palliative care nursing both nationally and internationally.

Vivian Bullwinkel ended her days in Perth, Western Australia. She suffered a stroke late in 1994 but remained at home, being cared for by Frank. Frank died after a brief illness late in 1999. After having surgery on her leg, Vivian Bullwinkel had a heart attack and died on 3 July 2000. She was given a state funeral in both Perth and Melbourne.

So ended the life of a remarkable woman. May her story, and the stories of all such courageous people, live on as they deserve to do.