In the early afternoon of Saturday 14 February, 1942, the British ship SS Vyner Brooke, carrying some of the last civilians to escape before the capitulation of Singapore, was steaming just off south-east Sumatra. Among the passengers were 65 nursing sisters under the charge of Matron Irene Drummond from the 2/13 Australian General Hospital of the Australian Army Nursing Service, distinct in their uniforms of grey dresses, white cuffs and Red Cross armbands. Having come straight from duty in crowded temporary hospitals in Singapore the nurses wore a variety of headgear - white caps and red capes, tin hats, and felt hats with scarlet, brown and grey bands (brims, as matrons instructed, neither curled nor set at a provocative angle). Although the Vyner Brooke carried only about 300 passengers, there were no bunks and no meals for most, and the nurses had slept on the deck. As the ship sailed through the treacherous strait between Sumatra and Bangka, she was attacked by Japanese bombers. At around 2 pm the ship's siren sounded a warning, passengers crowded below deck, and six Japanese medium bombers attacked with 29 bombs and machine gun fire. On the first pass the bombs missed, the Vyner Brooke changed course sharply, and its one gun fired token resistance. The Japanese planes returned, the Vyner Brooke convulsed under the tearing crash of bombs, and its engines stopped. There were three direct hits and the vessel sunk in about fifteen minutes.
Following a planned reaction to just such a disaster, the nurses, carrying emergency dressings and morphine, went to different points on the shattered and rapidly-sinking ship to give what help they could to the wounded. As the nurses had been told, they were not to abandon ship until all the civilians were off. They were keen to help the wounded and hesitant scramble into damaged life boats, slide down ropes, or simply jump. One of the nurses, Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, jumped over the side with a group of other nurses and swam to a partly submerged lifeboat. Twelve nurses (three of them wounded), two civilian women, a civilian man and a ship’s officer climbed into or clung to the side of the lifeboat. Although they were in sight of land it took them eight hours, and night had fallen before they reached the mangrove lined shore of Bangka Island. Attracted by a fire about two miles away they walked along the coast and found survivors who had landed earlier. Others joined them during the night. Sister Betty Jeffery and her group paddled desperately to reach the fire on the beach, but twice the currents swept them away, and they landed hours later further down the coast. The next morning three groups went in different directions to find food, clothing, news, a way of escape, even rescue. Vivian Bullwinkel was with a party of women and a ship’s officer who went inland. After walking about four miles they came to a village where the women offered them a drink, but the men would not let the women give them any food or clothing to take back to the beach. The village men said that the Japanese troops already controlled the island: the villagers were now free of any obligation to the whites and they feared retribution if they gave them any help. The other groups came back and reported an equal lack of success.
In the night the survivors on the beach heard and saw the shelling of a ship at sea, and two hours later a lifeboat holding about twenty English soldiers from another ship sunk earlier joined them around the fire. By morning on Monday 16 February there were nearly 100 people, including children and wounded, on the beach. An officer from the Vyner Brooke explained that as they had no food, no help for the injured and no chance of escape, they should give themselves up to the Japanese. He agreed to walk to Muntok, a town on the north-west of the island, and contact the Japanese. While he was away Matron Irene Drummond, the most senior of the Australian nurses, suggested that the civilian women and children should start off walking towards Muntok. At mid-morning the ship’s officer returned with about twenty Japanese soldiers. Having separated the men from the women prisoners, the Japanese divided the men into two groups, and marched them along the beach and behind 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, smaller and more "nattily" dressed than his men, instructed the nurses to walk from the palm-fringed Radjik Beach into the sea until they were waist deep in the waves. A couple of soldiers shoved those who were slow to respond. Twenty-two nurses and one civilian woman walked into the waves, leaving ten or twelve stretcher cases on the beach. Fully aware of their fate, the nurses put on a brave face. Their matron, Irene 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: » 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.«
By Wednesday Bullwinkel had recovered enough to walk to a fresh water spring close to the beach. She found fresh water and bathed her wounds, which had been sterilised by the salt of the sea. Suddenly a voice came from the trees: "Where have you been, nurse?" Startled and mystified, she turned to find another survivor. Private Kingsley, an English soldier, had been one of the stretcher patients left on the beach. The Japanese had bayoneted the wounded after they had shot the nurses, and Kingsley who was already suffering from shrapnel wounds had been struck in the middle of the chest, but luckily the blade had missed vital organs. He too had crawled into the jungle. The rest of the wounded still lay on the stretchers where they had been killed.
Bullwinkel dressed Kingsley’s wounds as well as she could and helped him into the edge of the jungle. Over the next days she made several trips to the nearby Indonesian village where the fearful women gave her food, and she and Kingsley gradually recovered from their wounds. After about twelve days, after having carefully rehearsed a script suggesting that they had landed on the island after a different incident and knew nothing of the massacre, she and Kingsley, who was two weeks short of his 30th birthday, were strong enough to attempt the trip and they decided to try to walk to Muntok. On the way they were picked up by a Japanese officer in a naval truck and driven to naval headquarters, where they were questioned and then sent to the coolie-lines already crowded with prisoners and refugees. Private Kingsley died a few days later. The civilian women, whom Matron Drummond had told to start walking north, had arrived safely in Muntok. And in the coolie lines at Muntok on 28 February Bullwinkel met 31 other nurses who had landed at different points on Bangka Island. From the 65 nurses on the Vyner Brooke twelve were presumed drowned, 21 had been shot, and 32 had been taken into prison in Muntok before being shipped to Palembang in southern Sumatra. Over 80 people had been killed on the beach; a quarter of them women.
Sister Vivian Bullwinkel was aware that, if the Japanese found out that she was a witness to and survivor of the massacre on the beach, they would kill her. She decided not to tell anyone of her escape or massacre, not even to her fellow nurses. But under the persistent questioning by other nurses about what had happened to the other nurses last seen clinging to the lifeboat, Bullwinkel finally told her horrible story. They all agreed that Bullwinkel’s escape would have to be secret among the nurses and it was not to be talked about, even when they thought they were alone. However, they could not prevent news of it spreading widely. Kingsley knew what had happened, and two other men had survived the massacre. They were in the second group marched around the headland, had made a dash for the sea, evaded bullets and swam out to sea. They too turned up in the coolie-lines at Muntok. Also the villagers knew about the killings, and so of course did the Japanese.
Vivian Bullwinkel kept her secret and her wounds to herself during more than three years spent in a prisoner-of-war camp. She returned to the beach on Bangka Island in 1993 to attend the unveiling of a memorial to the nurses who died and donated her diaries to the Australian War Memorial; the uniform she wore when she was shot, complete with bullet holes, is also part of the Australian War Memorial's permanent collection. She died on 3 July 2000, age 84.
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Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942