Vivian Bullwinkel, sole survivor of the 1942 Banka Island massacre, was born on 18 December 1915 at Kapunda, South Australia. She trained as a nurse and midwife at Broken Hill, New South Wales, and began her nursing career in Hamilton, Victoria, before moving to the Jessie McPherson Hospital in Melbourne in 1940.
In 1941, wanting to enlist, Bullwinkel volunteered as a nurse with the RAAF but was rejected for having flat feet. She was, however, able to join the Australian Army Nursing Service; assigned to the 2/13th Australian General Hospital (2/13th AGH), in September 1941 she sailed for Singapore. After a few weeks with the 2/10th AGH, Bullwinkel rejoined the 13th AGH in Johor Baharu.
Japanese troops invaded Malaya in December 1941 and began to advance southwards, winning a series of victories and, in late January 1942, forcing the 13th AGH to evacuate to Singapore. But the short-lived defence of the island ended in defeat, and, on 12 February, Bullwinkel and 65 other nurses boarded the SS Vyner Brooke to escape the island.
Two days later, the ship was sunk by Japanese aircraft. Bullwinkel, 21 other nurses and a large group of men, women, and children made it ashore at Radji Beach on Banka Island; they were joined the next day by about 100 British soldiers. The group elected to surrender to the Japanese, and while the civilian women and children left in search of someone to whom they might surrender, the nurses, soldiers, and wounded waited.
Some Japanese soldiers came and killed the men, then motioned the nurses to wade into the sea. They then machine-gunned the nurses from behind. Bullwinkel was struck by a bullet and pretended to be dead until the Japanese left. She hid with a wounded British private for 12 days before deciding once again to surrender. They were taken into captivity, but the private died soon after. Bullwinkel was reunited with survivors of the Vyner Brooke. She told them of the massacre, but none spoke of it again until after the war lest it put Bullwinkel, as witness to the massacre, in danger. Bullwinkel spent three and half years in captivity; she was one of just 24 of the 65 nurses who had been on the Vyner Brooke to survive the war.
Bullwinkel retired from the army in 1947 and became Director of Nursing at Melbourne’s Fairfield Hospital. 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.
In the decades following the war, Bullwinkel received many honours and awards, including the Florence Nightingale Medal, an MBE and the AO. She married in 1977 and returned to Banka Island in 1992 to unveil a shrine to the nurses who had not survived the war. Vivian Bullwinkel died on 3 July 2000.
Interested in becoming a member of the SA Women’s Memorial Playing Fields Trust?We would love your support. To become a member contact the President, Helen Fischer, on 0413 348 445 or [email protected]
The SA Women’s Memorial Playing Fields Trust Committee membership has representatives from sporting groups, State Veterans Advisory Committee, RSL, 3rd Health Battalion and community representatives.
- Patron Her Excellency the Honourable Frances Adamson AC
Current committee office holders are as follows:
- President Helen Fischer
- Vice President April Williams
- To conduct the annual Bangka Day Memorial Service on the Sunday nearest to the 16th February. This service is to honour and remember women who served and those who made the supreme sacrifice for our country from the Navy, Army and Air Force.
- To assist in the maintenance and enhancement of the Playing Fields for the use of sports women in South Australia
- To maintain the public memorial status of the entire Playing Fields in accordance with the wishes of our forebears who developed the site.
- To raise money to assist our objectives.
Phone: President, Helen Fischer
0413 348 445
Email: [email protected]
Visit the memorial at South Australian Women’s Memorial Playing Fields, Corner Shepherds Hill & Ayliffes Roads, St Marys SA 5042
Postal address: PO Box 143 MSC,
Torrens Park, SA, 5062