On 12 FEB 1942 the Sarawak royal yacht Vyner Brooke left Singapore just before the city fell to the Imperial Japanese Army. The ship carried many injured service personnel and 65 nurses of the Australian Army Nursing Service from the 2/13th Australian General Hospital, as well as civilian men, women and children. The ship was bombed by Japanese aircraft and sank.
Two nurses were killed in the bombing; the rest were scattered among the rescue boats to wash up on different parts of Bangka Island. About 100 survivors reunited near Radjik Beach at Bangka Island, in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), including 22 of the original 65 nurses.
Once it was discovered that the island was held by the Japanese, an officer of the Vyner Brooke went to surrender the group to the authorities in Muntok. While he was away army matron Irene Melville Drummond, the most senior of the nurses, suggested that the civilian women and children should leave for Muntok, which they did.
The nurses stayed to care for the wounded. They set up a shelter with a large Red Cross sign on it.
At mid-morning on 16 FEB the ship’s officer returned with about 20 Japanese soldiers. They ordered all the wounded men capable of walking to travel around a headland. The nurses heard a quick succession of shots before the Japanese soldiers came back, sat down in front of the women and cleaned their bayonets and rifles.
A Japanese officer ordered the remaining 22 nurses and one civilian woman to walk into the surf. A machine gun was set up on the beach and when the women were waist deep, they were machine-gunned.
Matron Drummond, called out: “Chin up, girls. I’m proud of you and I love you all.” At that point the Japanese fired. Vivian Bullwinkel later described what happened next: “They started firing up and down the line with a machine gun. They just swept up and down the line and the girls fell one after the other. I was towards the end of the line and a bullet got me in the left loin and went straight through and came out towards the front. The force of it knocked me over into the water and there I lay. I did not lose consciousness. The waves brought me back on to the edge of the water. I lay there 10 minutes and everything seemed quiet. I sat up and looked around and there was no sign of anybody. Then I got up and went up in the jungle and lay down and either slept or was unconscious for a couple of days.”
All but Sister Lt Vivian Bullwinkel were killed. Wounded soldiers left on stretchers were then bayoneted and killed.
Shot in the diaphragm, Bullwinkel lay motionless in the water until the sound of troops had disappeared. She crawled into the bush and lay unconscious for several days. When she awoke, she encountered Private Patrick Kingsley, a British soldier who had been one of the wounded from the ship, and had been bayoneted by the Japanese soldiers but survived. She dressed his wounds and her own, and then 12 days later they surrendered to the Japanese.
Kingsley died before reaching a POW camp, but Bullwinkel spent 3 years in one. She survived the war and gave evidence of the massacre at a war crimes trial in Tokyo in 1947.
Photo: F31029/VFX61330 LTCOL Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, taken in 1941. More on Sister Bullwinkel; http://ow.ly/ccXM30nIKWK