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'So we marched into the sea and when we got out to about waist level they then machine gunned from behind."

The words of the sole survivor of the horrific massacre of  Radji Beach on Banka Island off the coast of Sumatra. 

On 16 February 1942, Japanese soldiers machine-gunned 22 Australian World War II Army nurses and killed 60 soldiers and crew members from 2 sunken ships. From the 22 Nurses shot on that day, there was only one sole survivor, Sister Vivian Bullwinkel.

On the evening of 12 February 1942, the requisitioned ship SS Vyner Brooke was one of the last ships carrying evacuees to leave Singapore following the fall to the Japanese Imperial Forces. Although she usually only carried 12 passengers, in addition to her 47 crew, Vyner Brooke sailed south with 181 passengers embarked, most of them women and children. 

As she made a run for the Banka Strait, heading for Palembang in Sumatra, she was attacked by Japanese aircraft and bombed, Of the sixty-five nurses on board, twelve were lost at sea. Twenty-two of the remaining fifty-three who survived the sinking were washed ashore on Radji Beach, Banka Island. They were soon joined by survivors from another bombed ship. 

 

The headland where the soldiers were executed on Radji Beach. Source: Muntok nurses and internees

The survivors decided that it was best that the civilian men, women, and children leave for Muntok, a town northwest of Rajdi Beach,  and separate themselves from the servicemen and women. An officer from the Vynor Brooke also traveled to Muntok to alert the Japanese authorities of the servicemen and women's presence and offer their surrender.

A group of twelve Japanese soldiers.soon arrived. All those on the beach surrendered. Most of the nurses were wearing the Red Cross brassard (sleeve band), and all were in uniforms of some sort that made it clear they were nurses. They assumed that they would be treated as prisoners of war in accordance with the Geneva Convention. They were wrong.

The British soldiers were ordered to walk up the beach. Once out of sight, they were bayoneted to death. The Japanese soldiers returned, wiping their now bloodied bayonets, and told the Australian nurses to walk into the water and stand in a row facing the sea. When they did so, they were machine-gunned from behind. All except one died.

Vivian Bullwinkel was shot, but not fatally. 

Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, before her embarkation.

She said later:

So we marched into the sea and when we got out to about waist level they then machine gunned from behind. I was hit in the sort of side, left side, and the bullet went just straight through and came out on the front. The impact of that and the waves, together with the fact that I thought once you were shot, you know, that you’d sort of had it, I overbalanced into the waves and just sort of lay limply there. To my amazement, I remained conscious and found that I wasn’t dying at all. Then my next fear was that the Japanese would see me moving, because by this time I was being violently sick from having swallowed a fair amount of sea water …" (Vivian Bullwinkel) 

Where the bullet came out, Vivian Bullwinkel shows the holes in her uniform, Fairfield, Victoria, ca. 1975 

Once back on the beach she met an English soldier, Private Kinsley, who had also survived the massacre by feigning death. She tended to his severe wounds for 12 days in the jungle until they surrendered to the Japanese.  Kinsley’s wounds were such that he died soon afterwards.

The local people who had helped Vivian Bullwinkel and Private Kingsley were afraid of retribution from the Japanese and abandoned their village. The villager whose family had helped Vivian Bullwinkel and Kingsley was rewarded by the Australian government after the War.

The thirty-one other surviving Vyner Brook nurses, who had not drifted to shore at Radji Beach had been assembled in Muntok as prisoners of war with around 600 other prisoners, all survivors of the 70-odd ships fleeing Singapore that had been sunk that week in the Banka Straits. There were a number of wounded, and the Australian nurses cleared a dormitory to use as a hospital and began treating patients. They had no idea what had happened to their comrades, and assumed they had drowned. Then Vivian arrived.

"Well, once I got there and realised they were taking prisoners I sort of felt that all my troubles were over. All I had been wanting during this time was to get with people and be with my own countrywomen … I heard somebody say, ‘It’s Bullwinkel’. That was sort of the end. I then immediately burst into tears. (Vivian Bullwinkel)"

She told the Australian nurses what had happened, but they were all sworn to secrecy so that the Japanese would not be aware that there was a witness to the atrocity.

After two weeks in Muntok, the group was transferred by ship to Palembang in Sumatra, where the Japanese attempted to persuade the nurses to join a brothel. When they refused, they were sent to live in appalling conditions with Dutch women and children at the other end of the town. Sanitation was inadequate, mosquitoes tormented them and food was scarce:

Vivian would then spend more than 3 years as a Japanese POW with other Australian nurses. She would later give evidence of the massacre at a war crimes trial in Tokyo in 1947.

 

Vivian Bullwinkel giving evidence at the War Crimes trials, Tokyo, 1946

 Further reading:

A PDF of her testimony

Grateful thanks to the following:

http://muntokpeacemuseum.org/?page_id=260

https://a20aviationart.com.au/blogs/interviews/banka-island-massacre-16th-february-1942

https://the-history-girls.blogspot.com/2017/12/a-nursing-tragedy-massacre-at-radji.html

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