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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.

"We could smell decayed vegetables and bad Chinese cabbages long before the truck bringing them arrived in the camp. Every now and then a piece of wild pig, called a ‘moving mass’ by some bright soul, would arrive and be thrown on to the roadway, where it was immediately surrounded by dogs. We were not allowed to call the dogs away. The drill then was for a Japanese guard, to cut it with his penknife into so many pieces—one piece to each house … Our ration for 24 people would not cover the palm of a hand." (Betty Jeffrey, White Coolies, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1954) 

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

Below is a story of one of those who didn't make it, republished with kind permission.

6 February 2024, is the 82nd anniversary of the last letter that Sister Kath Neuss, an Australian Army Nurse in Singapore, wrote to her family in Australia. She started the letter by saying

"Guess you will be thinking I’ve gone up in smoke. There is plenty of it about”. 
Only 10 days later Kath Neuss was dead; cruelly executed on Radji Beach, Bangka Island on 16th February 1922.

272825932 4930305953696319 5095824581644748389 n

Sister Kathleen ‘Kath’ Margaret Neuss NFX 70527, was born on 16 October 1911 at Mollongghig near Ballarat in Victoria. Kath was the second daughter of John Henry Neuss and Mary Catherine Neuss (nee Perry). Kath’s paternal grandfather was George Neuss, a German immigrant and her maternal grandfather was Samuel Perry, a veteran of the Eureka Stockade in 1854.
In 1913, when Kath was 18 months old her parents packed all their possessions, travelled to Sydney by boat, then train to Glen Innes in northern NSW and finally by Cobb & Co coach to uncleared land her father had selected for farming about 32kms northwest of Inverell.
Life was very hard for the young family. Her father had to clear the land and build their first ‘house’ of 3 rooms with an iron roof and walls lined with hession and papered with wallpaper. The ceilings were also of hessian. Their only water tank was a 500 hundred gallon tank at the side of the house. Kath’s parents called their new home “Kalimna” after the Victorian coastal town where they spent their honeymoon. All water for washing and cooking had to be carried by bucket. Kath’s elder sister Jessie (“Jess”) had also been born in Mollongghip and over the next decade another 4 siblings were born at Inverell.
Kath Neuss was initially educated at Bannockburn Public School. Her father would take Jess and Kath on a horse to school and each afternoon the girls would walk the 4 miles home. During a severe drought in 1915/16 Jess and Kath returned to Victoria for about 18 months and went to schools at Mollongghig and Rocky Lead where their respective grandparents lived.
Back at “Kalimna” as the family increased a sulky was acquired which, driven by the eldest child, then took the kids to school. Often the children travelled to school by horse; two to each horse with the youngest in front.
In 1926 Kath sat and passed an examination that enabled her to go to Inverell High School in 1927 and 1928. She would board with an Inverell family during the week and then return home each weekend, travelling by horse and sulky; very tiring for a young teenager. Kath initially wanted to be a school teacher but did not pass the teachers entrance examination; a big disappointment to her. After leaving school she trained as a private nurse in Inverell and then at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, graduating as a Registered Nurse in 1939.
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entertaining a child at Royal Prince Albert Hospital, Sydney. 
Kath Neuss enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service on the 6th January 1941 and was posted to the 2/10th Australian General Hospital. On 4 February the “SS Queen Mary” sailed from Sydney; destination Singapore. On board were elements of the 8th Division AIF and 51 Australian nurses, including Kath who served in Malaya and Singapore. For part of her time Kath was seconded to the 2/13th Australian General Hospital.
273437161 4930306483696266 8635496169955251992 n
In a strange coincidence, as part of the 2/13th Battalion 9th Division AIF her younger brother Bill had sailed on the “SS Queen Mary” for the Middle East on 20 October 1940. The 9th Division disembarked at Bombay in India and the “SS Queen Mary” returned to Sydney to take the nurses to Singapore. Bill's pre-embarkation leave in Sydney on 18th October was the last time Kath saw her brother, but letters from Kath in Malaya and Singapore to Bill remain. The last letter to Bill was dated 16th January 1942; exactly one month before Kath died.
Kath was a tall, fun loving and gregarious woman with brown eyes and dark hair. She had a wicked sense of humour, was full of life and her letters home from Malaya and Singapore tell of young woman enjoying her experiences overseas. 
The nurses had a very good social life and in many of her letters Kath talks about a very close friend Lieutenant Jock Pringle of the 2/18th Battalion. In a letter dated 2 January 1941 Kath wrote
“Jock is still at the Convalescent Depot and hating it still. He too had a move on Monday. I spoke to him on Sunday evening and he was very miserable. Said the medical unit were worse than the police to get out of their clutches. Said they were acting as though it was a concentration camp”.
In a very sad and tragic irony both Kath and Jock were executed by the Japanese, exactly one week apart; Jock on Singapore Island after he surrendered to the Japanese when his composite unit was overrun on 9th February and Kath at Radji Beach on the 16th February.
Kath wrote many letters and about 20 remain and these give a terrific insight into Kath. They almost ‘bring her alive’. In a letter dated 5 October 1941 Kath compared the airforce people with the slog of the soldiers
‘The RAAF are entirely different to the AIF. Most of them have been here over 12 months and most of the time in Singapore which is certainly a very artificial city. And naturally they adopt some of its atmosphere and some of its eastern flourish. The right wine with right soup and the right soup with the right fish and at the right time, to say nothing of a spray of flowers to act as a guide to your place. And their ability to guide you onto the rarest dishes is as though they have been used to it for years. Their conversation is rare though as they want to live very much for every moment. One lad I met was being instructed to fly a Hudson and his instructor was in the party. The instructor said that when you flew with ‘Jeep the learner’ he always felt that the “Grim Reaper” was in the cockpit. “No” said Jeep “there's Lady Luck there too, ready to seduce the Grim Reaper”.
‘Rather a naughty story, but subtle I thought. They are bright lads and never let the show have a dull moment. One lad, I’ll never forget him, ordered an Emu for dinner. The poor waiter unabashed said “We haven't one Sir”. “Well” said Jacko “you should have one”. He said “Sorry sir we did have one but it's all used” and went on with his job.”

Nursing sisters of the 2/4th Casualty Clearing Station, photographed in Malaya in 1941. 

It is likely that all but one of these women died as prisoners of war.

She was missing out on a lot of weddings of her friends in Australia and on 2 November 1941 she wrote
“Can’t bear to think of many more weddings over there without me being present. You had better wait or there will be a fuss”.
In the same letter Kath wrote

“Had a very gay weekend. The Air Force lads who passed through here the previous weekend on the way to Frasers Hill arrived back on Thursday. Bleating that it was too lonely up there. So Pat and I had the job of comforting them.”

At the time of boarding the “SS Vyner Brooke”on 12 February 1942 Kath was aged 31. Along with Winnie May Davis and her very close friend Pat Gunther, she was ordered amongst the various duties of the Australian Army nurses on board, to be responsible for the forward part of the ship (On Radji Beach P148). When the ship was bombed she “… received a nasty shrapnel wound from the bomb that hit aft. Struck in the left hip, she struggled to walk and had to be helped onto the deck by Wilma and Mona…” (ORB, p.154).
When the time came for evacuating the ship and the second lifeboat was being filled with the elderly, mothers and children and the more seriously wounded nurses, Kath Neuss had to be practically carried all the way into the lifeboat (ORB P159). Pat Gunther gave her tin hat to Kath ‘in case she needed to bail water from the lifeboat, saying, ‘we’ll see you on shore’. (Portrait of a Nurse P21) Kath gave her life jacket to Pat. The rest is history; Pat survived as a POW.

Pat Gunther
Second World War enlisted Australian Army Nursing Service
Gum tree
sewn in Palembang, Sumatra, in 1944
acquired in 1998

Presumably landing on Radji Beach in the lifeboat, Kath was definitely executed by the Japanese on the beach along with the other Australian Army Nurses. Whether she was amongst those told to walk into the water and killed or whether she was amongst the wounded on stretchers brutally bayoneted to death is unclear. She is remembered on the Inverell Roll of Honour and a tree is planted at the RSL branch in Inverell in her memory.
On 7 April 2018 the story of Kath Neuss was featured in the Last Post Ceremony at the Australian War Memorial.
Principal sources
(1) Letter dated 6 February 1942 from Kath to her sister Jessie (“Jess”)
Family sources and letters from Kath
Public records
On Radji Beach by Ian Shaw
Portrait of a Nurse by Pat Gunther

 Further reading:

A PDF of  Vivian Bullwinkel's  testimony

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