House debates

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Questions without Notice

Bangka Island Massacre: 79th Anniversary, Veterans

3:10 pm

Photo of Darren ChesterDarren Chester (Gippsland, National Party, Deputy Leader of the House) Share this | Hansard source

I thank the member for Robertson for her question and her interest in our serving men and women and our veteran community. Among the most tragic stories of World War II was the sinking of the SS Vyner Brooke. Sixty-five nurses sailed from Singapore on the Vyner Brooke on 12 February 1942, bound for Australia; they were heading home. Half an hour from Sumatra, the Vyner Brooke was bombed by the Japanese and sunk. Twelve of the nurses were drowned or killed in the water, and the rest struggled to reach the shore of Bangka Island, with some having spent more than 60 hours in the water. Tragically, one group of 22 nurses and one civilian woman were found and ordered to march into the sea and then they were fired upon by their captors.

Vivian Bullwinkel was hit in the left side by machine gun fire, and the force of the blow pushed her underwater. She feigned her own death until it was safe enough to struggle to shore. Although she crawled through the jungle, she was made a prisoner of war and joined some of the other survivors from the Vyner Brookewho were also prisoners. They were imprisoned on Sumatra, where they remained until the war's end more than three years later. It is one of the most tragic but inspirational stories of survival. Sister Bullwinkel retired from the Army in 1947 and went on to become the Director of Nursing at Melbourne's Fairfield Hospital. She devoted herself to the nursing profession and to honouring those nurses who were killed on Bangka Island. She raised funds for a memorial. She served on numerous committees, including at the Australian War Memorial, and was later president of the Australian College of Nursing. The Bangka Island massacre will be remembered tonight at the last post ceremony at the Australian War Memorial through the story of Sister Rosetta Joan Wight from Fish Creek in Victoria, in my neighbouring electorate of Monash.

A lot has changed in the 79 years since the Bangka Island massacre, but it's stories of courage and determination like that of Vivian Bullwinkel that inspire the current and future generations of Australian servicewomen. I'm proud that today there is no role in the Australian Defence Force that women can't undertake, and that diversity ensures we have increased capability within our Defence Force. More than 15,000 women serve in the Australian Defence Force today, protecting our nation, serving our communities and doing invaluable work to keep us safe. Recently, more than 2,000 women have served on Operation Bushfire Assist, Operation COVID-19 Assist and Operation Fiji Assist, a system of recovery efforts at home and abroad.

We have also seen many great examples of these inspiring women going on and making a huge impact in their civilian lives when they leave the Australian Defence Force. There are many outstanding stories of female veterans who have gone on to be leaders in both the public and private sectors. We have them here in this place as members of parliament; we have advocates for supporting the needs of veterans in the community; and we have others in corporate life. In fact, I note the presence today of retired Wing Commander Sharon Bown, who is in the gallery. Coincidentally, Sharon is here today, and she will be at the last post ceremony this evening as well.

To all of those women who have served, we simply say: thank you for your service. To those we commemorate on the 79th anniversary of the Bangka Island massacre, may we simply say: lest we forget.


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