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Meet Vivian Bullwinkel, SA World War II nurse and Banka Island massacre survivor - Nursing Heroes - Nurses Arena Forum

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Meet Vivian Bullwinkel, SA World War II nurse and Banka Island massacre survivor by katty : February 14, 2017, 10:39:44 AM
AT the age of 26, Vivian Bullwinkel, born in the South Australian town of Kapunda on the edge of the Barossa Valley, was keen to serve her country and enlist with the Royal Australian Air Force but she was rejected for having flat feet.

Less than a year later, the flatness of her feet proved no handicap fleeing for her life as a member of the Army Nursing Service on Radji Beach in Indonesia as she sprinted to escape the murderous machine guns of the Japanese Imperial Force.

While 21 of her nursing colleagues, and one female civilian, died in the bloodbath, Vivian miraculously survived the Bangka Island massacre to become the sole witness of the atrocity committed on February 16, 1942.

World War II nurse and prisoner of war Vivian Bullwinkel in 1941.

The impending tragedy had begun four days earlier during the fall of Singapore, when a short-lived defence of the Island ended in defeat to swarming Japanese troops.

Despite protesting having to leave their patients, 65 Australian Army Nurses were among 800 people, including wounded servicemen, that embarked on SS Vyner Brooke to escape the terror.

Two days later, the desperately overloaded hospital ship was attacked and bombed by Japanese planes, sinking within half an hour off the Indonesian Island of Sumatra.

It wasn’t the only hospital ship attacked and sunk during the Pacific War as The Centaur was sunk without warning by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine less than 80km east northeast of Brisbane on May 14, 1943. Of the 332 persons on board, only 64 survived, including Sister Ellen Savage, the only nurse of 12 on board who though badly injured herself, gave great help to the other survivors and was awarded the George Medal for her courage and humanity.

Sister Vivian Bullwinkel marching with Betty Jeffrey and Beryl Woodridge during the 1955 Anzac Day march in Melbourne.

Of the Vyner Brook nurses, 12 were killed or drowned in the water. Another 22 spent many hours in the water before finding a presumed safety washed up on the white sands of Radji beach. Many were badly injured but their nursing uniforms, with Red Cross insignia armbands, were still clearly recognisable.

It made no difference to the Japanese troops that discovered them.

Vivian vividly described what happened next. “… about 10 o’clock on the 16th of February the ship’s officer returned with a party of about 20 Japanese (soldiers),” she wrote.

“They lined us up — the men, of whom there were about 50, on one side and the 22 nurses and one civilian woman on the other. They then took the men away down the beach behind a bluff …. they came back and cleaned their rifles in front of us, and then signed us to march into the sea.

“They then started machine-gunning from behind.

The bullet that hit me struck at the waistline and just went straight through. The waves washed me back into the sand … all was quiet ... the Japanese had disappeared.”

As they died Bullwinkel had heard some of her friends and colleagues praying while others called out the names of loved ones.

In South Australia, the tragic event has been commemorated for the past 60 years with a memorial service held at the Women’s Memorial Playing Fields, St Mary’s on the closest Sunday to the date.

Federal Liberal MP, Nicolle Flint told parliament in Canberra last week she was “disappointed” that the trust that runs the event, held in her electorate of Boothby, had been refused tax deductible status.

“I intend to pursue this issue as a matter of policy reform, so that our local volunteers and community groups and projects can attract the funding they deserve,” the first women to hold the seat of Boothby said.

“I believe it is my very serious responsibility to fight for the upgrade of the Women’s Memorial Playing Fields and one of our few national war memorials dedicated to Australian servicewomen.”

Vivien Bullwinkel spent 12 days in hiding with British Army Private, Cecil Kingsley, tending his severe wounds, as well as her own, before, realising her patient needed more help, she surrendered.

Vivian Bullwinkel testifying before the War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo in 1946.

Private Kingsley died soon after but Vivian had another nightmare to survive having to spend three and a half years in captivity in conditions of severe deprivation, suffering brutality, starvation and malnutrition in a women’s prisoner camp.

In 1947, the same year she retired from the army Vivian gave evidence of the massacre at a war crimes trial in Tokyo.

She devoted herself to the nursing profession and to honouring those killed on Bangka Island, raising funds for a nurses’ memorial and serving on numerous committees, including as a member of the Council of the Australian War Memorial.

Australian War Memorial Director Brendan Nelson paid tribute to Vivian and those that died on Ranji Beach during his address on Sunday for the memorial speech at the Women’s Memorial Playing Fields at St Marys.

A poster released between 1943 and 1945, calling for Australians to avenge the deaths of those who perished aboard the Centaur.

“From this tragedy we are inspired to hope, love and friendship,” he said.

“We honour on these playing fields women whose lives were committed not to themselves but to us, and their last moments to one another.”

Vivian Bullwinkel, the recipient of the Florence Nightingale Medal, an MBE and the Australia Medal, returned to Bangka Island in 1992 to unveil a shrine to those who never returned.

She died in Perth of a heart attack on July 3, 2000, aged 84.

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