Nurses War Stories
Stories of heroism, suffering, loss and sacrifice.
The ANMC was founded by Australian War Nurses who survived unimaginable adversity during the WWII – here are some of their stories.
The Bangka Island Massacre
65 nurses and 256 men, women and children evacuated Singapore aboard a small steamship, the SS Vyner Brooke. The ship was attacked in the Bangka Strait and only 80 survivors made it to shore, including 21 of the Australian nurses. Having no food, the group surrendered to the Japanese, but after bayoneting the men hehind a headland, the young nurses were motioned to walk into the sea, still wearing their Red Cross armbands. The Japanese opened fire and the girls fell…
Sole Survivor of a Massacre
After a bullet from a Japanese machine gun tore through her body, Australian nurse Vivian Bullwinkel floated face down in the sea and feigned death. She was the sole survivor of the 1942 Bangka Island Massacre, in which 21 nurses were forced to wade into the ocean at gunpoint and then shot in the back.
Born on December 18, 1915 in the small town of Kapunda in South Australia, to George and Eva Bullwinkel. She had one brother, John. Vivian excelled at sports and acquired the nickname “Bully,” which stuck throughout her life.
Vivian trained as a nurse and midwife in New South Wales and worked in several locations before volunteering with the Australian Army Nursing Service.
“I felt if my friends were willing to go and fight for their country, then they deserved the best care we could give them,” she said in a later interview.
In September 1941, Vivian sailed for Singapore, and after a few weeks she was assigned to the 13th Australian General Hospital in Johor Bahru, a large city at the southern tip of the Malaysian Peninsula. Here she nursed Australian servicemen who contracted tropical diseases, or were injured in accidents.
In December 1941, just days before Vivian’s twenty-sixth birthday, the unthinkable happened. Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and declared war on the Allies. Immediately, Japanese troops invaded Malaysia and began their advance southward.
Soon afterward, the staff and patients of the 13th Australian General Hospital were ordered to leave Johor Bahru and seek sanctuary on the nearby island of Singapore, in the mistaken belief that Singapore could never be conquered.
After arriving in Singapore, the Australian nurses transformed a school into a makeshift hospital. Here they were engaged in trauma nursing, caring for soldiers who suffered the most terrible wounds while the enemy continued its inexorable advance.
Soon Singapore was under attack. The girls (most of them still in their twenties) were under continual bombing from Japanese aircraft, knowing that a direct hit to the hospital was imminent.
Evacuation of Singapore
As Singapore faced certain defeat, and with most ships commandeered for the war effort, a search began for seaworthy vessels to evacuate civilians, nurses, and wounded men.
Vivian was amongst the last 65 nurses and 265 terrified men, women and children to board the final boat to depart from Singapore, a small steamship called the SS Vyner Brooke.
Night had fallen on February 12 by the time the ship had finished boarding its passengers, and as they left shore Vivian could see huge fires burning along the Singapore coastline.
The following day, the captain valiantly tried to conceal his ship behind various islands. Of the 47 ships that fled during those last chaotic days before the fall of Singapore, only five made it to safety.
During the night, the captain made a dash for freedom and sailed into the Bangka Strait. However, it was impossible to hide in broad daylight. At 2 p.m. on February 14, the ship was attacked by enemy aircraft and received three direct bomb hits.
The captain gave the order to abandon ship, with civilians going over the side first. Then the Japanese aircraft returned, firing at the lifeboats and people swimming in the water.
Vivian made it to the beach on nearby Bangka Island by holding onto the side of a lifeboat. The exhausted survivors continued to drift ashore throughout the night and the next day.
By the morning of February 16, around 80 survivors were gathered on Radji Beach, including wounded men, civilians, and just 22 of the 65 Australian nurses who left Singapore on the SS Vyner Brooke.
The Decision to Surrender
The survivors sent out a small search party and located a local village, but the villagers were terrified of Japanese reprisal, and urged them to surrender. However, the survivors decided to wait on the beach and hope for rescue.
That night the survivors watched a fierce gun battle at sea, and soon another lifeboat arrived, carrying about 20 British soldiers. Although they found a fresh water spring at the end of the beach, there was no food and the children were crying with hunger.
A group of civilians made the difficult decision to set off to the nearby town of Muntok and surrender to Japanese troops. The nurses, British soldiers, and wounded men waited on the beach with the expectation that the Japanese would take them prisoner.
Massacred in Cold Blood
Vivian recalled sitting quietly on the beach when a party of Japanese troops arrived and ordered the soldiers to march at gunpoint out of sight behind a headland. A few minutes later the Japanese returned, cleaning their bloodied bayonets.
She now realized that all hope was lost.
The young nurses were motioned to walk out into the sea, still wearing their khaki uniforms and the Red Cross armbands that should have protected them. With them was an elderly British woman who had refused to leave with the other civilians.
Bravely and calmly, the women did as instructed. None of them cried out or attempted to run away.
As the women were waist deep in water, facing the horizon, the Japanese opened fire.
According to Vivian: “They just swept up and down the line, and the girls fell…”
Vivian was at the end of the line. A bullet struck her above her left hip, knocking her into the sea. She held her breath and remained motionless as the current carried her back to shore, surrounded by the floating bodies of her friends.
After the Japanese left the beach, Vivian dragged herself out of the water and staggered into the jungle where she lay down and lost consciousness. The bullet had passed through her body, narrowly missing her vital organs.
When she woke at dawn, hot and thirsty, she spotted Japanese soldiers on the beach and remained in hiding until they had gone.
As she cautiously made her way to the fresh water spring on the beach, Vivian heard an English voice call out! It was a British soldier, Private Patrick Kingsley, who was badly wounded but had also survived the attack.
Twelve Days in the Jungle
Vivian and Kingsley then shared a terrifying 12 days and nights in the jungle while she tended to his severe wounds, making bandages out of whatever she could find.
Neither would have survived without help from some local women. When Vivian went to the nearest village to beg for food, the village headman sent her away. As she walked along the path, a local woman beckoned to her and quietly handed over rice, fish and vegetables. Each time she returned to the village, the women secretly gave Vivian food.
Finally, Vivian broke the news to her companion that their only chance of survival lay in surrender. He asked her to wait just one more day, as he wanted to spend his 39th birthday as a free man.
By then Kingsley could barely walk, but he was determined to accompany Vivian to their fate. Leaning on each other for support, the two of them hobbled out of the jungle. Vivian carried her water bottle over her hip to disguise her wound and the telltale bullet hole in her uniform.
After they surrendered, Kingsley was put into the men’s camp at Muntok. Too badly injured to survive, he died a few days later.
Years in Prison
At the women’s prison camp, Vivian was overjoyed to find another group of 24 Australian nurses from the SS Vyner Brooke. They had failed to make it to Radji Beach (luckily, as it turned out), and had landed on another part of the island, where they were captured.
For the next 3.5 years in the Palembang prison camp, Vivian kept her story a dark secret, knowing that she would be killed if her Japanese captors were aware that she had observed the war crime. She was determined to bear witness to the massacre so that her fellow nurses would never be forgotten.
Of the original group of 65 nurses on board the ship, only 24 returned home to Australia. Twenty-one were massacred, and 36 drowned after the ship sank. Conditions in the camp were so appalling that another eight of Vivian’s fellow nurses died of malnutrition and disease before the war ended.
The Australian poster below shows an entirely different tragedy, in which the hospital ship HS Centaur was torpedoed and sunk by the Japanese off the Australian coast on May 14, 1943. The ship sank in three minutes and 268 lives were lost, including 11 out of 12 nurses.
At the time, Australians were naturally outraged that the Japanese had sunk a ship filled with wounded soldiers and nurses. Imagine how they would have reacted had they known about the atrocity at Bangka Island. It wasn’t until after the war ended that Vivian revealed the story of the Bangka Island Massacre to the world.
After the War
Vivian retired from the Australian Army in 1947 with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. That same year, she gave evidence of her horrific experiences at the Tokyo War Crimes Commission trials. Here she is testifying, finally able to tell the world what really happened to the men and women on Bangka Island.
Vivian went on to a distinguished career. She became a pioneer in the nursing profession, devoted to improving the welfare of nurses.
Vivian served on the council of the Australian War Memorial, and later as president of the Australian College of Nursing.
She never forgot those local Malaysian women who had fed her and Kingsley. In their honour, she set up a program for women from that region to train as nurses in Australia.
She also became Director of Nursing at the prestigious Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital in Melbourne.
She continued to be an active voice for veterans throughout her life. Here she is on the left, marching with other military nurses in the 1955 Anzac Day parade in Melbourne.
Vivian was awarded both the Order of Australia and the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for her bravery.
This portrait in the Australian War Memorial depicts her wearing her grey nurse’s uniform, red cape and sister’s veil. Among her medals, she is wearing the Florence Nightingale Medal, the world’s highest honour available to nurses.
Rather late in life, Vivian Bullwinkel married Colonel Francis West Statham in 1977, and changed her name to Vivian Statham.
In 1992 Vivian returned to the scene of the terrible crime, to unveil a memorial to her fellow nurses who had not survived. Standing in front of the Muntok Lighthouse, the memorial incorporates stone from the women’s prison camp and bears a bronze plaque with the names of all 65 nurses who were aboard the ship.
Incredibly, the wreck of the SS Vyner Brooke is still lying not far from the beach.
Vivian died of a heart attack on July 3, 2000, aged 84, in Perth, Australia. Four of the surviving nurses who were fellow prisoners at the Palembang camp attended her state funeral.
On the 75th anniversary of the tragedy in February 2017, a commemorative coin bearing an image of the SS Vyner Brooke was struck by the Royal Australian Mint.
At that time, the director of the Australian War Memorial, Brendan Nelson, paid tribute to this outstanding heroine by saying this: “From a generation that produced so many remarkable Australians, Vivian Bullwinkel was a giant among them.”
Rest in peace, Vivian Bullwinkel Statham.
Sourced from https://www.elinorflorence.com/blog/vivian-bullwinkel/
Sisters Jenny Greer (left) and Betty Jeffrey recovering in a Dutch hospital in 1945 from the malnutrition they suffered while prisoners of war in Sumatra.
Throughout this ordeal, Sister Betty Jeffrey kept a secret diary, later published as White coolies (1954). In her diary Jeffrey recorded the physical and mental battle for survival, the unrelenting obsession with food, the death of friends, and the fading of hope.
Elaine Balfour-Ogilvy, or Laine as she was known to her friends, was the daughter of the well known Renmark pioneering family. Trained as a nurse at the Adelaide Children’s Hospital, she enlisted in 1940 in the AANS 2/4th Casualty Clearing Station.
In 1942, as the Japanese advanced down the Malay Peninsula, Lanie spent long hard hours tending to badly wounded soldiers amid bombings and danger. In these extreme conditions, her joy and strong character won the admiration of her colleagues. Lanie cheered many a heart with the delightful sweetness of her singing.
When the fall of Singapore was imminent, most nurses were evacuated, but a few, including Lanie assisted to the last before loading children and injured men onto a small coastal steamer, the SS Vyner Brooke. On the 14th February, Japanese planes bombed and sank the steamer. Lanie who learned to swim in the Murray, swam to a rope trailing from a lifeboat and assisted and encouraged others.
Several hours later, around eighty survivors including Lanie, had reached shore. She and twenty one other nurses tended to the needy. Two days later, the group had split and those that remained decided to surrender. They were met by Japanese soldiers who took the men behind a bluff. The soldiers returned wiping their bayonets ... the nurses were then made to walk into the sea and as they did, were shot from behind.
The longest north-south road in the Loxton Settlement and a wing in the Renmark Municipal Library recognise this young, beautiful, laughing Riverlander who died so tragically aged just thirty.
Florence Casson and Florence Nightingale had much in common. Their names, their Christian virtues, a love for people, and a deep desire to serve others. Each received two marriage proposals but both chose nursing careers instead.
Born in Warracknabeal, Victoria, five years before Florence Nightingale died, young Flo moved with her family to Panitya. Later they moved across the border to Pinnaroo, SA, where Flo, now an adult, became the hospital matron. She had trained at Mannum and the Royal Adelaide Hospital and nursed at Mannum, Rose Park, Jamestown and Port Pirie where she ‘…was greatly appreciated’. In 1940, she joined the AANS and in September 1941, was dispatched to Singapore.
In February 1942, Sister Casson was one of sixty five nurses reluctantly evacuated from Singapore before the Japanese invasion and crammed among 200 others aboard the SS Vyner Brooke, a yacht designed for twelve. The next day in the Bangka Straits off Sumatra, the yacht was bombed and sunk by the Japanese. Fifty three nurses survived; twenty two made it to Radji Beach while the rest reached another beach near by.
Two days later, having no food, the survivors on Radji Beach decided to surrender, not suspecting the tragedy to follow. The Japanese soldiers took the men and killed them, then returned for the women ordering them to march toward the sea. This they did, ‘…with their chins held high.’ They were shot from behind. Florence was killed before she reached the water.
Casson Avenue which connects Bookpurnong and Briers roads, bears her name as a memorial to this tragic event.
Bespectacled Irene Drummond was popular and cheerful, a nurse with a happy smile. Her parents lived in Millswood, SA. She trained at Wakefield Street Private Hospital and at the Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital where she subsequently joined the staff. After a stint in private hospitals, she moved to the Angaston District Hospital as charge sister. Later, she became sister in charge and acting Matron at the Broken Hill and District Hospital, NSW.
In 1940, Irene enlisted with the AANS and was attached to 2/4th Casualty Clearing Station, a medical Unit of 8th Division, AIF. In 1941, she left Australia to serve at the Singapore General Hospital.
Irene was later appointed matron of 13th Australian General Hospital, AIF, and established a hospital in Malaya. As the Japanese closed in, she returned to Singapore and was soon prepared for evacuation.
Matron Drummond and other nursing staff begged to stay and assist the sick and wounded. The commanding officers however, decided that she and her entire nursing staff must go. They ordered them aboard the SS Vyner Brooke, a makeshift transport ship. One day out and while off Bangka Island, Sumatra, their small ship was sunk by enemy aircraft. On a life raft Irene reached Radji Beach where she tended to the wounded. The next day, the group surrendered but, with twenty one of her nursing colleagues, Irene was summarily shot by the Japanese. She was thirty six.
Drummond Avenue at Loxton South, is one of several memorials that recognise this fine woman who gave her life in serving this country.
When Australian Army nurse Kathleen Neuss sat down to write a letter home from Singapore on 6 February 1942 she couldn’t have known it would be her last. “Guess you will be thinking I’ve gone up in smoke,” she quipped. “There is plenty of it about.”
Ten days later she was dead, one of 22 Australian nurses who were ordered into the sea at Radji Beach and shot by Japanese soldiers during the infamous Banka Island massacre.
She was just a lovely fun-loving lady. She was a tall, fun loving and gregarious woman with brown eyes and dark hair. She had a wicked sense of humour and was full of life, her letters home telling of a young woman enjoying her experiences overseas …
Neuss enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service in December 1940 and embarked for Singapore in February 1941 on the SS Queen Mary, the same ship her younger brother William had sailed on only a few months earlier.
She was working on the Malay Peninsula when the Japanese attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and invaded Malaya. Once the fall of Singapore became inevitable, Neuss was one of 65 Australian nurses who were evacuated. Although they protested leaving their patients, the nurses left Singapore on 12 February aboard SS Vyner Brooke. Two days later, the desperately overcrowded ship was attacked and bombed by the Japanese, sinking in the Banka Straits within half an hour of Sumatra.
Neuss was hit in the hip by shrapnel from a bomb blast, and had to be helped up on deck by her friends Wilma Oram and Mona Wilton, who were already wounded. They all but carried her to a lifeboat, her friend Pat Gunther giving her tin hat to Neuss in case she needed to bail water from the lifeboat, saying, ‘We’ll see you on shore’. Neuss gave Gunther her lifejacket, and Gunther made it to another part of Banka Island and survived the war as a prisoner of the Japanese.
Many lives were lost during the sinking. Some, like Neuss, were helped into lifeboats, while others swam or desperately clung to debris. Those who could made for the nearby Banka Island. It was there that some of the survivors travelled from Radji beach to the nearest port to formally surrender to the Japanese, but Neuss was among the 22 Australian nurses who remained to tend the wounded.
The Japanese signed for the remaining nurses and one civilian woman to march into the sea. Aware of what was about to happen to them as they walked to the water’s edge, Matron Irene Drummond said to her sisters, “Chins up, girls. I’m proud of you … I love you all.”
When the water reached their waists the Japanese opened fire with machine-guns. Of the 22 Australian nurses ordered into the sea that day, all but one were killed. The only nurse to survive the massacre was Sister Vivian Bullwinkel who was shot in the hip but survived by feigning death in the surf. After the war she contacted the families of the nurses who were killed and testified at the International War Crimes Tribunal.