Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Bangka Island Massacre

Wars bring about many untoward and horrendous incidences, some are best forgotten, but some cannot be forgotten. And massacres are indeed horrific experiences. The Chinese would always remember the Nanking Massacre of 1937. But an incident quite near Sarawak, and very related to the Brooke Rule,was the Massacre at Bangka Island. I am writing about this because the massacre involved women and in particular, nurses. And it was related to Sarawak's last Rajah's coastal steamer, especially requisitioned for war effort. Wars also bring about greatness in men and women.

16th February 2007 will be 65th anniversary of the Bangka Island massacre.

Not many people today know of massacre. On 16 February 1942, Japanese soldiers machine gunned 22 Australian military nurses. There was only one survivor.

On 12 February 1942, the Vyner Brooke was requisitioned to help in the war effort. It left Singapore just before the city fell to the Imperial Japanese Army. The ship contained many injured service personnel and 64 Australian nurses of the 2/13th Australian General Hospital. The ship was shelled and sunk by the Japanese. Two nurses were killed in the bombing, nine were last seen drifting away from the ship on a raft and were never heard from again, and the rest reached shore at Bangka Island, in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).

These nurses joined up with a group of men and injured personnel from the ship. Once it was discovered that the Island was held by the Japanese, an officer went to surrender the group to the authorities in Muntok. A small group of women and children headed off after him. The Australian nurses stayed to care for the wounded. They set up a shelter with a large Red Cross sign on it.

Shortly afterwards, ten Japanese soldiers led by an officer appeared. They ordered all the wounded capable of walking to travel around a headland, where they were shot and bayonetted. The soldiers returned and ordered the remaining twenty two nurses to walk into the surf. A machine gun was set up on the beach and when the women were waist deep, they were machine-gunned. All but Sister Lt Vivian Bullwinkel were killed.

Shot in the diaphragm, Bullwinkel was unconscious when she washed up on the beach and was left for dead. She evaded capture for ten days, but was eventually caught and imprisoned. She survived the war and gave evidence of the massacre at a war crimes trial in Tokyo in 1947.

In addition to my research notes above, I am including an account by a Maritime Historian, Vincent Foo, dated dated 6/10/2001 :

"According to an article published on pages 278 to 279 in the 1 November 1927 issue of the Sarawak Gazette, the Vyner Brooke had cabins on the upper deck for 44 first class passengers. These cabins were situated amidships. In addition, on the shade deck were situated the deluxe cabins. It is safe to say that the Vyner Brooke could accommodate 50 first class passengers. I have not, so far, been able to ascertain how many deck passengers she could carry. However, as her tonnage was 1,679 and she carried lifeboats, rafts and lifebelts for 650 persons (according to the same Sarawak Gazette article), she probably carried at least 200 deck passengers. There are no records to show that between 1927 and 1942 that the Vyner Brooke had been renovated so that her carriage of first class passengers had been reduced to only 12."

Here's Vivian Bullwinkel's recollection:
Originally built to carry 12 passengers, the Vyner Brooke soon became terribly overcrowded with over 265 frightened men, women and children, plus the 65 AANS nurses. Short of food and water, the ship finally set sail just as darkness set in. It was to be a never-to-be-forgotten scene: huge fires were burning along the whole front of Singapore and a heavy pall of black smoke hung over the island. In the gathering darkness, the captain unwittingly steered the vessel into a minefield and was forced to stop for the night.

The next day (Friday the 13th February) was spent hiding behind islands and avoiding detection. The day was hazy and hot, the sea was calm and the captain knew that he would be foolish to attempt to breakout in these conditions. That night, the Vyner Brooke attempted to slip out to freedom, and eventually it reached the Bangka Strait. After dodging bombs from Japanese planes and machine gun fire which had left the starboard lifeboats holed, the ship eventually received three direct hits (it was 2pm on the 14th of February). One bomb went down the funnel, while another exploded on the bridge, the third hit the aft section injuring scores of civilians. The vessel began to pitch and soon the frightened passengers heard the sound of pouring water. The Vyner Brooke was sinking and the captain gave the order to abandon ship. The ship was to sink in approximately 15 minutes.

Some of the nurses helped to move the wounded topside, while others lent a hand getting everyone up on deck. The civilians were ordered to go over the side first, and Vivian Bullwinkel was later to recall that "…those that weren't too keen to leave, we gave a helping hand to!" They were no sooner in the water, than enemy pilots returned and began strafing the human flotsam. There was utter pandemonium, one lifeboat holding the elderly and children turned over and two empty lifeboats, with bullet holes in them , dropped into the sea.

Later, Bullwinkel helped to see to the casualties and eventually evacuated the ship by climbing down a rope ladder. She was able to get ashore by hanging onto the side of one of the life boats. Though the lifeboat was overcrowded, they were able to reach Bangka Island by late afternoon. Earlier survivors, including Matron Drummond (one of the senior nurses), had lit a fire on the beach and it was this fire that acted as a beacon for the others still in the water.

Here is a write up on her life's contribution to Australia, and Malaysia.

In 1941, at the age of 26, Bullwinkel enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS), Australian Imperial Force (AIF). She reported for duty in May and in September embarked for Singapore as a staff nurse with the newly-raised 2/13th Australian General Hospital (AGH).

Bullwinkel served in Singapore from September 1941 until she was evacuated with 64 other Australian Army nursing sisters aboard a small coastal steamer, the Vyner Brooke. It was 12 February 1942, only three days before Singapore fell to the Japanese. On 14 February, heading for Sumatra via Banka Strait, the ship was sunk by Japanese bombers. She was with a group of survivors on Banka Island when a Japanese patrol arrived and ordered the 22 women in the group to walk into the sea. They were machine-gunned from behind. All except Bullwinkel were killed.

After two weeks in the jungle caring for a wounded British soldier, Bullwinkel gave herself up and rejoined 31 other nurses who had made it to shore. The surviving 32 nurses spent the next three and a half years as prisoners of war on Banka Island and Sumatra. Of the original 65 nurses evacuated from Singapore on the Vyner Brooke only 24, including Sr Bullwinkel, returned to Australia. During their internment eight nurses died as a result of malnutrition and other easily treated diseases; tragically this occurred in the last seven months of their captivity.

Among Bullwinkel's papers (recently donated to the Australian War Memorial) is the only postcard she was allowed to send home, in March 1943. Exemplifying the courage of the nurses, she made light of her situation. Bullwinkel wrote to her mother with a great sense of humour, "My roving spirit has been somewhat checked."

Bullwinkel gave evidence before the Tokyo war trials in December 1946 and was described a model witness. After the war, she could not face working in Japan with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF), and so she decided to become a civilian nurse. She retained her position at Heidelberg Military Hospital when it was taken over by Repatriation, and as assistant matron continued to care for Australian servicemen. From 1955 to 1970, Bullwinkel served as a lieutenant colonel in 3 Royal Australian Nursing Corps Training Unit (CMF).

On retirement in 1977, she was Director of Nursing, Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital, Victoria. While at Fairfield, she organised a rescue mission to evacuate Vietnamese war orphans from Saigon and supervised their convalescence before adoption to Australian families. She worked tirelessly for the Red Cross, ex-service, nursing and other voluntary organizations. An achievement close to her heart was the instigation of nursing scholarships so that Malaysian nurses could finish training in Australia.

Bullwinkel received many honours and awards and was selected by the National Heritage 200 Committee for inclusion in the bicentennial publication The people who made Australia.

Bullwinkel married Colonel Francis West Statham OBE, ED in September 1977. She returned to Banka Island with Frank in 1992 to select a site for a memorial, and found herself once more standing on Radji beach, struggling to understand why such dedicated young women had so ruthlessly lost their lives.

In 1993, with the dedication of the memorial on Banka, she fulfilled a long-held ambition to make a fitting tribute to her colleagues. Vivian and Frank came to Canberra in October 1999 for the dedication of the Australian Service Nurses Memorial. Sadly, Frank died on 3 December 1999.

Bullwinkel was a great supporter of the work of the Australian War Memorial. From 1964 to 1969 she was the first woman trustee. On display in the Second World War gallery, her white nurse's uniform with the trace of a bullet hole above the hip gives testimony to the loss of life on Banka Island. To coincide with the dedication of the Australian Service Nurses National memorial, she donated diaries with entries dated from August 1941 to February 1942 to the Memorial. These describe her life in Singapore before it fell and the desperate evacuation aboard the Vyner Brooke. Then in April 2000, she donated her collection of personal papers, a rich source of material for historians and a significant heritage acquisition for the Memorial.

Vivian Bullwinkel died on July 3, 2000 and the whole of the Australian nation went into mourning. In the end, this naturally reserved woman, with the gentle smile, had helped her friends achieve a measure of immortality.

Malaysian nurses,in particular, have lost a great friend and a role model.

2 memories:

Howesy said...

Vivian, wherever you may be your courage and enduring spirit make us feel terribly humbled by your deeds and your horrific experiences.
God bless you and keep you always safe and resting easy a world away from the conflict you endured.
Job well done....does not seem appropriate.
You are a true heroine and inspiration to all of us left behind.
Long live your deeds and the memory of the 13th AGH.
Allen Howes

Howesy said...

Dedicated to the memory of all those who served in the AIF and in particular the nurses of the 13th AGH.


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