Anzac nursing tragedy remembered

7 March 2017

Anzac nurses across the Tasman recently commemorated the Banka Island massacre -  the tragic story of nursing bravery that is to Australia military nursing what the Marquette tragedy is to New Zealand military nursing. BOB COTTON retells the story of the 21 Australian nurses who lost their lives 75 years ago in the massacre as well as the only nurse who survived to tell the tale.

The compassion and self-sacrifice of Anzac military nurses is reflected in two tragic episodes in the wartime history of Australia and Zealand thrust back into the limelight recently.

The massacre of 21 Australian army nurses on Radji Beach, Banka Island, near Sumatra, in 1942 was recently recalled in the daily ceremonial Last Post programme at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, honouring those who gave their lives 75 years ago during World War Two.

The nurses survived the bombing and sinking on February 16 1942, of the steamer Vyner Brooke (which had fled Singapore heavily laden with civilians and military personnel after the island state fell to Japan) but were later killed by Japanese troops while tending to other injured survivors.

The Banka Island commemoration came as Christchurch plans for the repair and strengthening of the historic, earthquake damaged Nurses Memorial Chapel at Christchurch Hospital, which got the green light late last year with a $1.8m grant from the City Council.

The impetus for the building the chapel, opened in 1927, was the deaths in 1915 of three New Zealand Army Nursing Service nurses who had worked at the hospital, and other nurses who died in the war and the great influenza epidemic.

The three Christchurch army nurses were among 10 from the NZANS killed when the troopship Marquette was torpedoed by a German submarine in the Aegean Sea on October 23, 1915.

Evacuating ship sunk

Many New Zealanders are familiar with the story of the Marquette tragedy, but that of the Banka Island atrocity, as outlined by AWM Director Brendan Nelson at the Canberra ceremony, is less well known on this side of the Tasman. 

As Singapore was falling in 1942, 65 Australian army nurses who, in spite of their protests at having to leave their patients, were ordered to leave the island on the Vyner Brooke on February 12.

Two days later the desperately overloaded ship was attacked and bombed by Japanese planes, sinking within a half hour of Sumatra.  Twelve army nurses on board were killed or drowned in the water.

“Desperately clinging to bits of debris and determined to support one another, and especially the injured, 22 of the nurses spent from 8 to 65 hours in the water before stepping onto the sand of Radji beach. Some were badly injured,” explained Dr Nelson.

All wore their uniforms and Red Cross arm bands.

The Japanese found them on February 16 and what happened next was described after the war  by Sister Vivian Bullwinkel – known affectionately by her colleagues as “Bully” -  the only nurse to survive the massacre.

Survivor recalls massacre

About 10am a ship’s officer, who had attempted to arrange a surrender, returned with a party of about 20 Japanese soldiers.

 “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,” said Sister Bullwinkel.

 “They then took the men away down the beach behind a bluff. They then came back and cleaned their rifles in front of us. The Japanese then signed the women to march into the sea and began machine gunning them from behind.”

Before their execution and while tending the wounded on the beach the nurses considered escape. But Matron Irene Drummond, speaking softly, reminded everyone that they could not abandon their remaining patients, adding: “Where there is life there is hope.”    

As it became clear what the Japanese were intending, there was no shouting, no hysteria, no panic. Sister Florence Kassin, severely wounded in the bombing and unable to walk, was helped in to the sea by her friends. As they walked to the water’s edge she said “Chins up girls. I am proud of you, I love you all.”

Sister Bullwinkel heard some nurses pray; others up to their knees in the blood-stained water called the names of those they loved. But most fell silently she noted until she was hit by the bullet that brought darkness but not death.

She was hit at the waistline but the bullets went straight through. Eventually the waves washed her back into the shore by which time all was quiet and the Japanese had disappeared.

The Japanese soldiers had bayonetted all the wounded civilians on the beach as well as the most severely injured who were being sheltered in a fisherman’s hut on the beach.

Prisoners of war

Sister Bullwinkel and a badly wounded British soldier, who also survived the killings, surrendered to Japanese forces but the soldier died shortly afterwards.

"Bully" and the other surviving nurses from the Vyner Brooke, who had landed at a different beach, were taken as prisoners of war, and Dr Nelson said these women suffered brutality, starvation and malnutrition in the women’s camp.

Sister Bullwinkel and her closest friends in the women’s prison camp kept the story secret until after the war out of fear for her safety.

Eight of the 32 nurses taken prisoner of war died in captivity, according to the Australian War Memorial website, as a result only 24 of the 65 Vyner Brooke nurses returned to Australia at the end of the war – including Sister Bullwinkel.

Post-war Sister Bullwinkel became a giant of the Australian nursing profession. Completing her military service in 1947 as a Lieutenant Colonel, she devoted herself to the profession, honouring the Banka Island victims, and raising funds for a memorial.  Among honours bestowed on her were the Florence Nightingale Medal, an MBE and the Australia Medal.

She returned to Banka Island in 1992 to unveil a shrine to the nurses who died in the war. She died in 2002 aged 84.

In a tribute to military nurses at the commemoration Dr Nelson noted the inscription on the Service Nurses memorial on Canberra’s Anzac Parade which describes them as: “Beyond all praise.”

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