Wednesday, 16 February 2022
Statements on Indulgence
Bangka Island Massacre: 80th Anniversary
Today marks the 80th anniversary of the Bangka Island Massacre. Earlier today I visited the Australian Service Nurses National Memorial on Anzac Parade. Eighty years ago this week, the SS Vyner Brooke, a 1,670-ton cargo vessel, fled Singapore a day before the city fell to the Japanese. The Vyner Brooke had 181 passengers, including 65 Australian nurses. Off Bangka Island in the Bangka Strait, the Vyner Brooke was attacked by Japanese aircraft and was sunk. Over the course of the next two days, some 150 people eventually made it ashore to Radji Beach. They were sunburnt, they were dehydrated and they were exhausted. The survivors surrendered to the Japanese, expecting fair treatment as they were mostly noncombatants. It was not to be.
On this day 80 years ago, a terrible war crime took place. The men and women were separated. The men were shot and bayoneted, and the women, including 22 Australian nurses, were made to wade into the sea and then machine-gunned from behind. The sole survivor, Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, later said about the brave women who walked into that sea:
They all knew what was going to happen to them but no one panicked. They just marched ahead with their chins up.
We now know of this atrocity because Sister Bullwinkel, though hit by a bullet, played dead and she survived. She hid along with another survivor, a wounded British soldier, Private Patrick Kingsley. After 12 days, Sister Bullwinkel and Private Kingsley surrendered again, choosing the risk of execution over the certainty of starvation. Private Kingsley died from his wounds shortly thereafter. Sister Bullwinkel became a prisoner of war for 3½ years, and it was during this time that Sister Bullwinkel did something absolutely extraordinarily brave: she kept and hid the bloodstained uniform that had been pierced by a bullet. Had the uniform been found and its significance understood, certainly it would have meant death for her. The uniform she had worn on that day, with its bullet hole, now stays on display at the Australian War Memorial. It is a national treasure held in trust for all generations. It was that very piece of evidence that was presented to the war crimes tribunal.
In the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial, there are 15 stained-glass windows depicting defence force personnel. The windows stand watch over the shrine of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. One of those windows represents a nurse, and on it there is one word: 'Devotion'. Today on this anniversary we remember all who were killed: the service personnel, the civilians and especially the nurses, who call to mind the thousands of Australian nurses who have served Australia in conflicts. We remember their devotion to their patients, to their country and to their duty, and I have no doubt their great example of sacrifice, duty, service, love, care and compassion is exactly what has motivated the thousands upon thousands of nurses who have served the Australian community so faithfully and in such a dedicated way over the course of this pandemic. There could be no greater tribute to Sister Bullwinkel than the service that has been shown by our nurses over these past two years of the pandemic. But to all of those who were killed on that dreadful day and all of those who have served: lest we forget.
'Marched into the water at Bangka to be machine-gunned in the back': there are many details in the Sydney Morning Herald original report on the Bangka massacre, but it is perhaps this line, unvarnished, unadorned, that jars the most. The brutal murder of 22 Australian nurses and a civilian woman on Radji Beach 80 years ago still shocks us.
They were fleeing the Fall of Singapore with British servicemen only for their ship to be sunk by Japanese bombers. Washed up on the Indonesian island of Bangka, they were at the mercy of a ruthless enemy. Japanese soldiers took away the men and killed them, and then they murdered the women. These were not troops who had taken up arms against them but members of the most selfless, humane profession that we can imagine. As they waded into the surf and the fate that they knew awaited them, matron Irene Melville Drummond called out, 'Cheer up, girls. I'm proud of you, and I love you all.' Their courage is beyond imagining. They stood tall until the moment in which they fell, and yet one survived.
Shot but alive, Vivian Bullwinkel played dead among those from whom life had just been so savagely torn. She eventually surrendered to a Japanese patrol because even after all that had happened Ms Bullwinkel knew that was her one chance of survival. She spent over three years in a prison camp, but survive she did. Vivian Bullwinkel then took the truth to the world. She took it to the families. She took it to the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. As she explained:
I have tried so hard all this time to drive these scenes from my mind.
And yet she was resolute:
This story is one that must be told everywhere …
She was the only one who could, even when it must have been just so difficult. When Holocaust survivor Primo Levi performed his final weighing up of the burden of the witness, he turned to 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner':
Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns;
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.
Historians would later say that Ms Bullwinkel wasn't able to tell her full story—that the nurses were raped before they were killed. Ms Bullwinkel was directed by the military to not reveal that detail in order to protect the families of those victims. But Vivian Bullwinkel kept bearing witness, and she kept honouring the profession that they had all served together. Indeed, as Vivian Statham, she became the matron of Melbourne's Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital and helped turn it into a teaching hospital.
Today we think of the brave nurses working with this dreadful infectious disease that the world is dealing with at the moment and their bravery on all of our behalf.
Through her survival, so many more lives would be saved through her ongoing contribution as a nurse. Throughout it all, she made sure her friends who didn't come home would never be forgotten, a great Australian who we once again honour here today. Lest we forget.