Born in Kapunda, South Australia, Vivian Bullwinkel completed her General Nursing at Broken Hill and District Hospital in 1938 at the age of 23, followed by Midwifery in 1939. As WW2 developed, Vivian joined the Australian Army Nursing Service.
World War Two
Arriving in Malaysia in September 1941, Vivian Bullwinkel joined her unit in Johore Bahu after a few weeks in Malacca. The poorly equipped hospital struggled to keep pace with the many medical and surgical cases – resulting in primitive conditions for staff and patients.
7th December 1941 and General Yamashita’s 25th Army invaded Malaya, advancing down the Malaysian Peninsula aided by intense bombing attacks. Vivian’s unit were forced to evacuate to Singapore Island in January 1941, faced with the task of transforming St Patrick’s school into a fully equipped hospital.
The SS Vyner Brooke
Working under continual bombardment and knowing a direct hit to the hospital was imminent, evacuation became essential. With most ships already commandeered for the war, the search began for seaworthy vessels. Vivian was amongst the last 65 nurses and 265 frightened men, women and children to board the final ship to depart, the SS Vyner Brooke. Originally designed and built to carry just 12 passengers.
It was night by the time the ship had finished boarding – Vivian recalled seeing huge fires burning along the Singapore coastline. Being too dark to see, the ship sailed into a minefield and was forced to stop until light. The following day was spent hiding the ship behind islands to avoid detection.
As night fell, a dash for freedom was made and the Captain managed to sail the ship onto the Banka Strait. However, bombs and aircraft fire struck rendering the starboard lifeboats useless.
At 2pm on the 14th February, the ship received three direct bomb hits and began taking on water.
The order to abandon ship was given with civilians to go over the side first. “Those that weren’t too keen to leave, we gave a helping hand to!” Vivian recalled.
No sooner had the passengers hit the water than the enemy aircraft returned, firing into the water and causing utter chaos.
Vivian made it to the shore of Banka Island by holding on to the side of a lifeboat. Exhausted survivors arrived throughout the night until 60 men, women and children had assembled, along with 22 of the 65 AANS nurses.
The following day, a small search party was formed and found a local village. They were turned away by the locals terrified of Japanese reprisal, and were urged to surrender immediately. After finding fresh water springs but without food, the survivors decided to wait and hoped for rescue.
That night the survivors watched a fierce gun battle at sea with a lifeboat arriving shortly after carrying British soldiers. The numbers now swelled to 100 survivors. Despite finding fresh water springs at the end of the beach, there was no food, and the decision was made to surrender to the Japanese. A small group left to find them.
After 48 hours without food the children became disruptive, causing increased tensions within the group. It was suggested that the women and children go to the local village to await the Japanese. The nurses stayed behind with the injured men.
The Banka Island Massacre
Vivian Bullwinkel recalled sitting quietly on the beach when the Japanese troops arrived. They ordered the men to stand, and marched them at bayonet point out of sight behind a headland. A few minutes later they returned, sitting in front of the nurses to clean their rifles and bloodied bayonets.
The nurses were motioned to stand and walk out into the sea – still wearing their Red Cross armbands that should have protected them.
Bravely, the women did as instructed, knowing that there would be no rescue.
None of the nurses cried, made a sound, or attempted to run away.
As the women were waist deep in water, facing the horizon, the Japanese opened fire.
According to Vivian Bullwinkel, “They just swept up and down the line, and the girls fell…”
The bullet meant for Vivian Bullwinkel struck above her left hip, knocking her into the sea. Feeling nauseous from swallowing sea water, Vivian knew she couldn’t make a move. So she held her breath and allowed the current to bring her back to shore.
With no signs of anybody on the beach, Vivian made her way into the jungle – lying down just 20 metres into the trees. “I don’t know whether I became unconscious or slept”. Waking at dawn, hot and thirsty, she spotted Japanese soldiers on the beach and remained in hiding until they had gone.
Making her way to the fresh water springs, Vivian heard an English voice call out. It was Private Pat Kingsley, who’d somehow survived the attack.
They remained hidden together for 12 days, with Vivian tending their wounds and finding food from the locals. Eventually, they knew they had to surrender.
Taken to a POW camp, Vivian was reunited with 31 nurses from the SS Vyner Brooke who’d been rescued from the water. Private Kingsley succumbed to his injuries shortly after – leaving Vivian the sole survivor of the Banka Island massacre.
Vivian survived the 3 ½ years of brutality at the camp so she could bear witness to the massacre – determined that her friends and colleagues wouldn’t be forgotten as another wartime statistic.
Of the 65 nurses onboard the SS Vyner Brooke, only 24 returned home.
21 died on Banka Island, 8 died in POW camps, and the rest had drowned. Vivian gave her evidence at a war crimes trial in Tokyo in 1947.
The Lagacy of Vivian Bullwinkel
Vivian returned to civilian nursing that year, honouring her fallen colleagues by serving on veteran, nursing and philanthropic committees.
Vivian was to become a pioneer in advancing the nursing profession and improving welfare and conditions. She started by fundraising for a Nurses’ Memorial Centre in Melbourne, both honouring the fallen and providing nurse training and scholarships for Malaysian nurses.
In the 1970s, Vivian helped drive forward the ‘Goals in Nursing Education’ as a Council member of the College of Nursing, Australia – which heralded the change from hospital-based nurse training to the University sector. Vivian also used her position on the Nurses Wages Board to improve pay and working conditions for all nurses in Victoria.
Receiving numerous awards for her contributions to nursing, Vivian only accepted them to keep the memory alive of those who had fallen.
50 years after the massacre, Vivian returned to Banka Island with fellow nurses from the SS Vyner Brooke and unveiled a memorial on the beach.
Sadly, Vivian passed away in 2000, but her legacy will surely live on with each generation of nurses who share her passion and drive for helping others.
The events of Banka Island will never be forgotten thanks to her determined effort to keep the memory alive.