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Vivian Bullwinkel and the Radji Beach Massacre

Monday 15 February, 2016


mage: Studio portrait of Staff Nurse Vivian Bullwinkel, Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS), in service dress uniform. P03960.001

Bravery and courage are evident in all Anzac stories. The story of Australian Army Nursing Sister, Vivian Bullwinkel, and her survival of a massacre that claimed 21 of her fellow nurses and her subsequent 3 ½ years as a Japanese Prisoner of War, ranks among the most courageous.

Sunday 14 February saw the annual Bangka Day Memorial Service conducted at the Women’s Memorial Playing Fields in St Marys. The Playing Fields were dedicated as a War Memorial to Servicewomen in 1956.  Vivian was born in Kapunda, South Australia on 18 December 1915, and completed training as a nurse and midwife in Broken Hill, before beginning her first nursing post in Hamilton, Victoria.

When World War 2 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.

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 the 13th AGH to evacuate quickly to Singapore.  The safety of Singapore was short lived and on 12 February, 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 65 nurses 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 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:

February Fourteen, Bangka Strait, nineteen forty two
This day we remember the chosen few
A sinking ship, a prayer to Him
Survivors face a ten mile swim.
Australian Nurses, serving with A.G.H

Rally together, through bodies do ache
Helping the others, they make for shore
For those that strayed, they could do no more
Through the night, no reason to rejoice
On reaching shore there is little choice
Surrender, what else can be done
None could imagine the massacre to come.

Twenty two nurses marched into the sea
Sounds of gun fire, a prayer to Thee
One survived the final test
Twenty one more find eternal rest.
 So remember, those the Good Lord took
 Their journey began with the sinking of

  “The Vyner Brooke”

 Keith Shegog


For more information about the South Australian Women’s Memorial Playing Field Trust Inc visit

To read the Bangka Day Memorial Service speech delivered by Colonel (Retd) Susan Neuhaus CSC MBBS PhD FRACS click here

2015 Bangka Day Memorial Service Program: South Australian Women’s Memorial Playing Fields Trust Inc.


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