The Massacre on Radji Beach
Friday 9 February, 2018
Many wartime stories contain incredible tales of courage and survival. From Lieutenant Commander Henry Stoker who commanded the AE2 submarine during the Gallipoli landings, to Ensign Nancy Wake who assisted numerous Allied servicemen to escape France during World War II, to Corporal Mark Donaldson VC who risked his own life to rescue a wounded Afghan interpreter, Australia’s history abounds with stories of performance of duty well above and beyond reasonable expectations.
But few can surpass that of Australian Army Nursing Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, whose survival of what has become known as the massacre on Radji Beach, that claimed 21 of her fellow nurses on 16 February 1942, and her subsequent more than three years as a Japanese Prisoner of War, is nothing short of inspiring.
By December 1941, Japanese troops had invaded Malaya and were beginning a rapid advance south to Singapore with a series of key victories. The advance forced many, including the 13th Australian General Hospital (AGH), to evacuate quickly to Singapore. The safety of Singapore was short lived and on February 12, Vivian and 65 other nurses boarded the SS Vyner Brooke to escape the island. Originally built to carry 12 passengers, the Vyner Brooke was severely overloaded, carrying 265 men, women and children, as well as the medical staff from the AGH.
As the Vyner Brooke headed for Palembang in Sumatra, sailing in darkness along the Bangka Strait, Japanese warships were patrolling the area. By daylight the following day, the Vyner Brooke was dangerously exposed and just after 2pm, Japanese aircraft commenced an attack. Despite consistent diversionary manoeuvres by her Captain, the Vyner Brooke was crippled by several bombs and sunk.
Vivian, along with 21 other nurses and a large group of men, women, and children made it to shore at Radji Beach, Bangka Island. The following day they were joined by 100 British soldiers who had also swum to shore after their ship had been sunk in similar circumstances. Stranded on what they knew was now Japanese occupied land, a breakaway group of civilian men, women and children, made the difficult decision to set off into the jungle to surrender to Japanese troops. The nurses, soldiers and wounded waited on the beach with an expectation that the Japanese would also take them as prisoners of war.
Japanese soldiers arrived at the beach within hours and divided the survivors into three groups with the nurses in the third group. After killing members of the first two groups the Japanese ordered the nurses to turn and march into the sea. As they did so they were cut down by machine gun fire from the beach. Struck by a bullet, Vivian pretended to be dead until the Japanese soldiers had gone. Along with a wounded British private, Vivian hid for the next 12 days before deciding that surrender to the Japanese was their only option.
Three and half years followed in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, until Vivian was finally released at war’s end in 1945.
Vivian Bullwinkel was born in Kapunda, South Australia on 18 December 1915. Vivian completed her training as a nurse and midwife in Broken Hill, NSW before beginning her first nursing post in Hamilton, Victoria.
When World War II was declared, Vivian applied to be a volunteer nurse. Her first approach was made to the RAAF where she was rejected because of flat feet. Not to be dissuaded, Vivian approached the Australian Army Nursing Service and was accepted and assigned to the 2nd/13th Australian General Hospital (AGH). In September 1941 she sailed for Singapore.
In February 1946, Vivien testified in front of the Australian War Crimes Board of Enquiry at the Japanese War Tribunal in Tokyo. Vivian’s testimony relives the horror of that day on the beach and the inconceivable hardships of being a prisoner of war for three years. It shows resilience, clarity of mind, memory, strength and the sheer survival instinct of the woman who lived through an atrocity too horrific to imagine. Read more.
Following the events during her World War Two service, Vivien retired from the Army in 1947. She was appointed Director of Nursing at the Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital. Devoting her life to the nursing profession she honoured those killed on Bangka Island by raising funds for an Australian Nurses’ Memorial. She also served as a member of the Council of the Australian War Memorial.
Vivian died in July 2000, aged 84, but not before returning to Bangka Island in 1992, where she unveiled a shrine to those Australian nurses with whom she had served and who had not survived the war.
The bravery of Vivian Bullwinkel and those who died in the Bangka Island Massacre remains a vivid reminder of the sacrifices of war. A truly inspiring story of courage and resilience against all odds captured in the poem “Bangka Strait” written by Keith Shegog.
Learn more about the nurses killed in the Radji Beach Massacre here.