Updated: Apr 19
15th February is the day on which, in 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese.
It was the beginning of years of unimaginable horror for the roughly 100 000 Allied forces taken prisoner that day.
Japanese troops invaded Malaya in December 1941 and began to advance southwards, winning a series of battles and, in late January 1942, forcing Allied troops and civilians to retreat into the fortress of Singapore Island.
But despite countless individual acts of heroism, Singapore would fall.
Chaos ruled. People were evacuating the Island on any craft that could float, very often clearing the bombed, beleaguered harbour only to be attacked and sunk by the waiting enemy Navy and Air Force.
On 12th February, a vessel named ‘Vyner Brooke’ left Singapore just before the city fell.
The ship carried many injured service personnel and 65 nurses of the Australian Army Nursing Service, as well as civilian men, women and children.
On 14th February, the ship was bombed by Japanese aircraft and swiftly sank.
A number of nurses were killed in the attack; the rest were scattered among the rescue boats to wash up on different parts of nearby Bangka Island in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia.)
About 100 survivors reunited near Radji Beach, They including 22 of the original 65 Aussie nurses.
Once it was discovered that the island was held by the Japanese, the survivors knew that they would have no alternative but to surrender.
An officer of the ‘Vyner Brooke’ went to Muntok, in order to inform the Japanese of their presence and their intention to turn themselves in.
The nurses stayed to care for the wounded, and set up a shelter with a large Red Cross sign on it.
At mid-morning the ship’s officer returned with about 20 Japanese soldiers.
They ordered all the wounded men capable of walking to get themselves out of sight, around the headland.
The nurses then heard a quick succession of shots before the Japanese soldiers returned, sat down in front of the women and proceeded very deliberately to clean their bayonets and rifles of the blood of the unarmed, wounded men they had just murdered.
A Japanese officer then ordered the remaining 22 nurses and one civilian woman who had stayed to help them to walk into the surf.
They were not allowed to turn around to face what they must have known was now coming.
A machine gun was set up on the beach and when the women were waist deep, they were machine-gunned in the back.
All but Australian nurse Vivian Bullwinkel were killed.
Having witnessed this and been powerless to stop it, the wounded British soldiers left on stretchers were then bayoneted to death.
Shot in the hip, half-drowned in the salt water, Vivian lay motionless in the water, knowing that she would be finished off if she so much as twitched, until the sound of troops had disappeared.
She managed somehow then to propel herself back to the beach through the blood of her friends, and to crawl into the island bush.
She lay unconscious for some time.
When she came to, Vivian encountered Pte Cecil Kinsley, a British soldier who’d been one of the wounded from the ship, and had been bayoneted by the Japanese soldiers but was somehow still alive.
She dressed his wounds and her own, and they tried to figure out what to do next.
But the reality was that no help was coming for them, and they did not have the resources or the medicine to attempt to evade capture.
And so, 12 days later they had to take the decision to again surrender to the Japanese. It’s hard to comprehend how Vivian and Private Kinsley must have felt at this point.
Kinsley would die shortly after reaching a POW camp, but Bullwinkel would spend more than three years as a Japanese Prisoner of War. Initially, she kept a water bottle slung across her body to hide the bullet wound healing there; if her captors had suspected her of surviving Bangka Island, she would have been summarily executed.
Vivian survived the War and gave evidence of the Bangka Island massacre at a war crimes trial in Tokyo in 1947, retiring from the army in that same year.
Very sadly, even then she could not tell the full story of that day; she was forbidden from speaking of the sexual assaults perpetrated by the enemy on the nurses before they were marched into the surf to be killed. It was felt the truth would be too controversial for the grieving families to hear. This would be one more hideous consequence of Bangka Island that Vivian would have to keep to herself.
For the rest of her long life, Vivian 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 the Council of the Australian War Memorial, and later as president of the Australian College of Nursing.
Her revenge was to survive, to thrive, to make a good and useful life for herself in spite of all she endured.
She died aged almost 85 in 2000, undaunted to the end.
Lest We Forget