Mr DULUK (Davenport) (12:32): I move:
That this house—
(a) recognises that today is the 75th anniversary of the 1942 Bangka Strait massacre;
(b) honours the memory of Australian nurses killed in the Bangka Strait massacre; and
(c) commends the SA Women's Memorial Playing Field Trust for their ongoing commitment to the annual Bangka Day Memorial Service.
Amongst the many revelations and horrors to emerge in the postwar years, the massacre at Bangka Island, Indonesia, was one of the most prominent in the news and minds of Australians in the immediate aftermath of the war. As time has passed, and we have been inundated with the stories of horror, courage and the ultimate sacrifice, the tale of Sister Vivian Bullwinkel's survival against Japanese forces in World War II still remains one of the most horrific. Seventy five years ago today, 22 brave women walked with their heads held high into the sea, as the Japanese machine guns opened fire behind them. On this day, above all days, we remember them.
The Bangka Strait massacre will be a familiar story for many here today, with members
having a long tradition of commemorating its significance. Many of my colleagues, including yourself, joined me last Sunday for the annual commemoration service at the South Australian Women's Memorial Playing Fields. No words can truly do justice to the atrocities that unfolded on Bangka Island, but such is the bravery of the Australian nurses who endured unthinkable tragedy. It is most important that we remember their story of service and sacrifice.
In February 1942, there were more than 100 military nurses stationed in Singapore as part of the Australian 8th Division. With Japanese forces advancing rapidly across the island, the fall of Singapore was imminent. On 6 February, an order came for all nurses to evacuate. Over the next week, despite their protests and reluctance to leave patients who were not fit enough for evacuation, the nurses departed Singapore.
Three ships were used in the evacuation. The fate of those three ships and that of the
100 plus nurses on board would be profoundly different. As the ascendancy of the Japanese air force gained momentum, all vessels would be subject to bombings. The first ship left Singapore on 10 February and made it without incurring much damage. The Australian nurses on board that ship were safely home within a few weeks. A day later, the second ship sailed, a cargo ship designed to carry 24 passengers but with more than 2,000 people crammed aboard. Although it sustained considerable damage from Japanese bombers, it too managed to reach Australia.
The final ship to leave Singapore harbour was the SS Vyner Brooke, carrying 65 Australian
nurses and severely overcrowded with another 250 men, women and children. It would come under heavy attack just two days after leaving harbour, and on 14 February it sank in the Bangka Strait. While the passengers of the first and second ships were making their way to safer waters, a nightmare was unfolding for those aboard the Vyner Brooke. Many were killed during the initial Japanese attack on the ship. Many more drowned or were killed by machine-gun fire as they struggled in the water.
Under the direction of matrons Olive Paschke and Irene Drummond, the nurses had agreed
to be the last to evacuate the Vyner Brooke so that they could ensure all other passengers had left the ship before they themselves jumped into the sea. Of the 65 Australian nurses on board, only 53 would make it to the island. Some were quickly captured by Japanese soldiers and interned at Muntok on Bangka Island. Another 22 nurses, all wearing their uniforms and Red Cross armbands, made it to shore at the nearby Radji Beach, where they were joined by civilians and servicemen who had also drifted ashore.
One of those nurses was 26-year-old South Australian Vivian Bullwinkel. Vivian was born on
18 December 1915 in Kapunda, training as a nurse and midwife in Broken Hill. When World War II erupted, Vivian applied to be a nurse in the RAAF, but was rejected for having flat feet. Undeterred, Vivian instead joined the Australian Army Nursing Service and was assigned to the 2nd/13th Australian General Hospital. In September 1941, she travelled to Singapore.
Now on Japanese-occupied land, without food and without help for the injured, Vivian and
her compatriots surrendered to the Japanese troops. Vivian was the only survivor of what happened next and described the following in her own words:
…about 10 o'clock on the 16th of February the ship's officer returned with a party of about 20 Japanese (soldiers). They lined us up—the men, of whom there were about 50, on one side and the 22 nurses and one civilian woman on the other. They then took the men away down the beach behind a bluff…they came back and cleaned their rifles in front of us, and then signed us to march into the sea.
They then started machine gunning from behind…
It is a tragedy so horrific it is difficult to recount. The proud and stoic matron Drummond's final words to her sisters as they walked towards the water's edge were, 'Chin up, girls. I am proud of you and I love you all.' It is impossible to comprehend what the nurses must have been thinking in their final moments: thoughts of their loved ones, thoughts of their years lived and their years lost, their unbelievable fear, no doubt hearts pounding through their chests. In 1945, in the aftermath of the war, as Australians learned of the nurses' fate, The Advertiser appropriately wrote:
There cannot be any savage so benighted as to be unable to realise something of the privileged position that an army nurse should hold in war, not only in consideration of her sex, but by reason of the mission of mercy she necessarily discharges, without discriminating between casualties among her own countrymen and wounded prisoners
taken from the enemy.
Nurse Bullwinkel was the lone survivor of this atrocity. A bullet hitting her at waistline and passing straight through her saw her survive. The waves brought her back to the water's edge, where she lay until all fell quiet. Vivian's courage and resilience is unparalleled. She dragged herself out of the sea and into the jungle, tending to her own wounds and that of injured British soldier Patrick Kingsley, who had also miraculously survived the massacre.
After almost two weeks in the jungle, they surrendered to the Japanese and were taken to
the prisoner of war camp at Muntok. At Muntok, Vivian was reunited with those Australian nurses who had washed ashore elsewhere on the island. They were held captive for 3½ years until the war's end. Sadly, eight nurses would never leave, dying from disease and malnutrition. Only 24 of the original group of 65 Australian nurses made it home.
It was not until the end of the war, and nurse Bullwinkel's release, that the horror of Bangka
Island was revealed. It is also a reminder to us all about how fortunate we are and how much we owe to those who have served our country. We live in a time of relative peace, unprecedented prosperity and freedom. The Australia we know today was built on the courage and selfless actions of women like Vivian, the 21 women lost on Bangka Island 75 years ago today and the many thousands of Australian servicemen who have sacrificed their lives so that we can enjoy ours.
It is our responsibility to remember them and commemorate their courage, service and
selflessness. We do so each year at the South Australian Women's Memorial Playing Fields. This year, we were honoured to be addressed by the Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson, Director of the Australian War Memorial. The playing fields eight-hectare site was established by Liberal premier Sir Thomas Playford in 1953 as a living memorial, as a home for and to encourage women's sport.
Today, the playing fields are home to Blackwood Hockey Club, Cumberland United Women's Soccer Club, SACA Women's Cricket and Sturt Lacrosse. A dedication ceremony was held in 1956 in memory of the contribution made by servicewomen during World War II, with a particular focus on the 65 nurses of the Vyner Brooke and victims of the Bangka Strait massacre.
The SA Women's Memorial Playing Fields Trust oversees the memorial aspect of the site
and is also responsible for the annual Bangka Day Memorial Service. I thank Mr Bruce Parker OAM and the trust for their ongoing commitment to honouring the contribution made by our servicewomen. The work of the trust is critical to ensuring that the service and sacrifice of Australian women in armed conflict is never forgotten and that their memory lives on for future generations