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Bullwinkel, Vivian (1915–2000)

by Jeremy Clavert

from Herald Sun

Vivian Bullwinkel, by Bruce Howard, c.1975

Vivian Bullwinkel, by Bruce Howard, c.1975

National Library of Australia, 42270171

Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, one of Australia's great heroines of World War II, has died aged 84.

Sister Bullwinkel was the sole survivor of the infamous Bangka Island massacre in 1942, when Japanese troops marched 22 army nurses into the ocean and opened fire with machineguns.

Sister Bullwinkel had been evacuated from the 13th Australian General Hospital in Singapore two days before the massacre.

Almost 300 nurses and civilians crammed on to the SS Vyner Brooke to escape the Japanese forces invading Singapore.

Two days later, on February 15, 1942, the Vyner Brooke was sunk by Japanese aircraft in the Bangka Strait, which separates Bangka Island and Sumatra.

Most of the passengers drowned, but a group including the 22 nurses made it to the shores of Bangka Island.

The survivors were joined the next day by British soldiers who had escaped another sunken ship, taking the number of people on the beach to about 100.

When Japanese troops arrived, they separated the men and massacred them with bayonets.

The women were then ordered to march into the ocean, and were slaughtered by machinegun fire.

"I was towards the end of the line and the bullet that hit me struck me at the waist and just went straight through," she later told the War Crimes Board in Toyko.

"The force of the bullet knocked me over into the water where I stayed for a few seconds and then being more or less too frightened to get up again I stayed lying there and the waves washed me back to the sand where I remained lying for another 10 minutes.

"All was quiet and then I got up. The Japanese had all disappeared."

She then crawled into the jungle, where she survived for 10 days before being captured and sent to a PoW camp.

Sister Bullwinkel spent the next 3 1/2 years in the camp on Bangka Island and in another in Sumatra, helping 31 other Australian army nurses tend the sick and wounded without medicine or clean supplies.

Throughout that time Sister Bullwinkel had to disguise her injury, because her captors would almost certainly have killed her had they known she was a survivor of the massacre in order to prevent her telling her story.

To coincide with the dedication last year of the Australian Service Nurses National Memorial in Canberra, Sister Bullwinkel donated her wartime diary to the Australian War Memorial.

In it she said her nursing training had helped her survive the rigors of the prison camp.

"We were self-reliant people," she said. "We certainly hadn't had any other training before we went to war ... but we just went along and learned how to stay alive."

Her deeds were recognised by the International Red Cross, who awarded her the rare Florence Nightingale Medal.

She was awarded an MBE in 1973 and an Order of Australia in 1993.

Sister Bullwinkel retired from the army in 1970 as a Lt-Col.

She served as assistant matron of the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital from 1956 to 1960.

In 1977, she married Colonel F.W. Statham, then Commonwealth Director of Works in Western Australia.

She was appointed the first woman trustee of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Vivian Bullwinkel

Additional Resources

Citation details

Jeremy Clavert, 'Bullwinkel, Vivian (1915–2000)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/bullwinkel-vivian-32168/text39762, accessed 23 January 2022.

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