The Bangka Island massacre

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One of the worst sorts of evil one can commit is to do harm or kill those who look after the infirm and injured. People who clearly care and have a kind spirit.

Alas this happened during WWII and still happens nowadays and not only in war torn countries.

The Bangka Island massacre was one of those atrocities committed by the Japanese forces in 1942.

On 12 February 1942, with the fall of Singapore to the Japanese imminent, sixty-five Australian Army nurses, including Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, were evacuated from the besieged city on the small coastal steamer Vyner Brooke.

In addition to the Australian nurses, the ship was crammed with over two hundred civilian evacuees and English military personnel. As the Vyner Brooke was passing between Sumatra and Borneo, Japanese aircraft bombed and strafed the overloaded ship and it sank quickly. The ship carried many injured service personnel and 65 nurses of the Australian Army Nursing Service from the 2/13th Australian General Hospital, as well as civilian men, women and children. The survivors in lifeboats were strafed by Japanese aircraft but some reached Bangka Island off the coast of Sumatra. Twelve Australian nurses were either killed in the attack on the ship or drowned in the sea. The remaining fifty-three nurses reached Bangka Island in lifeboats, on rafts, or by drifting with the tide.

Wearing their Red Cross armbands, and having protected status as non-combatants by convention of civilised nations, the nurses expected to be treated in a civilised manner by the Japanese when they reached shore. About 100 survivors reunited near Radjik Beach at Bangka Island, in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), including 22 of the original 65 nurses. Once it was discovered that the island was held by the Japanese, an officer of the Vyner Brooke went to surrender the group to the authorities in Muntok. While he was away nurse Irene Melville Drummond suggested that the civilian women and children should leave for Muntok, which they did.

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The nurses stayed to care for the wounded. They 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 travel around a headland. The nurses heard a quick succession of shots before the Japanese soldiers came back, sat down in front of the women and cleaned their bayonets and rifles. A Japanese officer ordered the remaining 22 nurses and one civilian woman 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.

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Wounded soldiers left on stretchers were then bayoneted and killed.

Shot in the diaphragm, Bullwinkel lay motionless in the water until the sound of troops had disappeared. She crawled into the bush and lay unconscious for several days. When she awoke, she encountered Private Patrick Kingsley, a British soldier that had been one of the wounded from the ship, and had been bayoneted by the Japanese soldiers but survived. She dressed his wounds and her own, and then 12 days later they surrendered to the Japanese. Kingsley died before reaching a POW camp, but Bullwinkel spent 3 years in one. She survived the war and gave evidence of the massacre at a war crimes trial in Tokyo in 1947.

Vivian retired from the army in 1947 and became Director of Nursing at the Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital. Also in 1947 she gave evidence of the massacre at a war crimes trial in Tokyo.She devoted herself to the nursing profession and to honouring those killed on Banka Island, raising funds for a nurses’ memorial and serving on numerous committees, including a period as a member of the Council of the Australian War Memorial, and later president of the Australian College of Nursing.

Bullwinkel married Colonel Francis West Statham in September 1977, changing her name to Vivian Statham. She returned to Bangka Island in 1992 to unveil a shrine to the nurses who had not survived the war.

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She died of a heart attack on 3 July 2000, aged 84, in Perth, Western Australia

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