2008 Brigadier Rob Atkinson


First part is to thank those who invited me to speak to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land namely the Kaurna people.

The day is a commemoration and acknowledgement of the commitment and values of a previous generation that enabled them to survive and Australia to be one of the victors in World War II

In essence this day is epitomised by the circumstances in Bangka Strait. Bangka means Tin Island and there is still tin there and thus the strategic importance of the Island is noted. One could argue why the Captain of the Vyner Brooke went that way and not by the Malacca Straits. The threats and strategic circumstances are lost in the mists of time but the decision making was fairly hasty and understandably so. There is an old lighthouse at Mentok and down from this is a memorial and grave overlooking the beach. This is in memory of those who died on February 12 1942 from the small British coastal steamer the Vyner Brooke which was making its way south from Singapore towards Batavia, now Jakarta. It was dreadfully overloaded with 200 civilians and English military personnel including 65 Australian Army Nurses. It was the third vessel to depart Singapore on the same errand of mercy at one day intervals. The Wah Sui left on February 10 and the Empire Star on February 11. Both suffered damage and some loss of life but arrived safely in Java and eventually Australia.

The Vyner Brooke wasn’t so lucky. At around 2pm on February 14, just 260 miles south of Singapore, six Japanese aircraft attacked the poorly defended vessel. The bombs missed on the first pass. The valiant ship turned suddenly and fired a single gun but her fate was sealed when the funnel to the engine room took a direct hit and machine gun fire finished the job. It took only 15 minutes from first strike for her to sink. Some survivors spent 65 hours in the water before making it to shore. Twelve Australian Nurses died either during the attack or drowned afterwards and the remaining 53 reached Bangka Island lifeboats, rafts or the tide.

Although as non-combatants civilised treatment was expected from the Japanese these expectations did not occur.

The unluckiest survivors landed in lifeboats on the northern coast of Bangka Island with 22 nurses. Their group expanded to about 100 and with no food or help for the injured they decided to surrender. The Australian nurses looked after the injured and erected a red cross to identify themselves as non-combatants. Twenty Japanese soldiers came from Mentok and the nurses remained under guard while 50 male survivors were marched down the beach and around the headland out of sight and gunfire was heard and the Japanese returned alone wiping blood from their bayonets.

The Japanese then ordered the 22 nurses to form a line and walk into the sea. Matron Drummond called out “Chin up girls. I’m proud of you and I love you all”. When the water was up to their waists the Japanese opened fire. They went up and down the line with a machine gun and Vivian Bullwinkel was towards the end of the line and a bullet hit her in the left loin and went straight through and came out the front and knocked her over into the water where she lay. The waves brought her back to the edge and she laid there for 10 minutes and sat up and looked around and there was no sign of anybody. She lay down and slept and was unconscious for a couple of days. She was the only survivor.

Regaining consciousness she came upon an English soldier who had survived the massacre behind the headland. Private Kingsley had been left for dead after being shot and bayoneted in the chest. For 12 days they survived on food from the local village and the men were worried this help would bring down the wrath of the Japanese. Eventually Sister Bullwinkel realised that surrendering gae them a slim change of survival and they handed themselves over at Mentok having concocted a story to cover up the incident. They discovered many of the women had left the beach to walk to Mentok and were in the camp along with 31 nurses who had landed on various parts of the coats. Shortly afterwards Private Kingsley died of his wounds.

Sister Bullwinkel concealed her injuries, treating them herself, and the other nurses realised that if any of them admitted knowledge of the massacre it would mean their deaths. She survived harsh treatment during three years in prisoner of war camps and gave evidence at the War Crimes Trial in Tokyo in 1947.

In 1993, a group of Army nurses including Vivian Bullwinkel returned to Bangka Island and to Radji Beach, the scene of the massacre. The memorial was unveiled on March 2 1993 overlooking the waters where the Vyner Brooke sank and the plaque lists the names lost at sea, shot and killed and those who died in the camps. Sister Bullwinkle died in 2000 aged 84.

So what went wrong? The Japanese Bushido Code has its links to chivalry and many communities have developed honour in war but not always obeyed. That is a shame the Japanese nation now has to carry but in many ways it is a product of the military dictatorship that ran the country.

The 100th Division of the United States Army was a Japanese Division. The recruits came from Hawaii and California and their families were behind barbed wire. The Division was never used in the Pacific for obvious reasons but it was used in the European conflict. It was the most decorated Division in the United States Army. What was going on? The Japanese Americans needed to prove they were good Americans and they did exactly that.

Free people in a free country are quite capable of misdemeanours of wars but it is unusual. In the end to quote Sun Tzu “War is a mind game” and although one needs equipment to win. The one who wins is the “firstest with the mostest” as quoted by General MacArthur. Morale ascendancy with the right gear is the formula to win. This is not lost on the issues facing us today. Our values are tested in many areas as we face terrorism in the name of Islam in many areas, none least of which Iraq and Afghanistan, where our forces are serving today.

If you have seen the film Paradise Road you will have a very good idea of the mind game and how the women in captivity impressed their captors and gained a moral ascendency.

So there it is. They did it under terrible circumstances and guess what, – we need to do it again. Until the world has the freedoms that we take for granted the mind game will continue.

We need to acknowledge as John F Kennedy talked about the Russians when confrontation over Cuba brought the world to the brink of nuclear conflict. He enlightened that Russians breathe the same air as us and to this day our enemies breathe the same air as us and they are human beings too and that we acknowledge that and give every opportunity of a peaceful progress to occur and must never allow the values exemplified by these nurses to be compromised.

That is our debt.