Vivian Bullwinkel: The Nurse Who Survived Hell

Even through despair and death, she never forgot her grand duty to be a nurse.

Wilma would later remember Vivian’s arrival in the camp, saying, “When we first saw Vivian, we were overjoyed and hoped that there were more of our colleagues to come. Vivian was sunburnt, tired, and hungry. Her bloodstained uniform was taken from her and some of the blood washed out and, although clothes were not plentiful, Vivian was given something to wear to cover her wound. A little cooked rice was found and a small amount of water. A sleeping space was made for her on the sloping concrete slab, but we had no bedding.”

Curious as to what have happened, on and on, her colleagues kept asking Vivian about the other nurses but she kept mum about it. Recalling, she said: “I’ve made up my mind that I wasn’t going to say anything about any of these girls who were with me. ‘Coz these are the very people they keep asking because they’re are the ones who are still missing! And I said ‘No.’ and then in the end I said ‘Yes. I do know.’ And when I told them, they were absolutely appalled.”

Not a single person breathed a word about her as an eyewitness to the bloodbath that happened in the shores of Bangka beach. She had to hide her bullet-riddled nurse’s uniform and diary, made from bible pages. She would remain hidden, emerging later as a witness to one of the most violent war crimes committed against defenseless women on the siege of Singapore.

Not a single person breathed a word about her as an eyewitness to the bloodbath that happened in the shores of Bangka beach.

Shortly after her arrival in the camp, she found out that Pat had passed away. His wounds were terribly fatal, as he got hit with bullets in the abdomen, and his death was presumed to brought about by damaged organs and infection. Despite her best efforts, Vivian was not able to save him. In the end, she find solace in the thought that they had time together in the jungle, where they hoped, fought, and celebrated a few days with each other as free as they were alive. Pat’s death left Vivian the only survivor to tell the massacre in Radji Beach.

Vivian wanted to live because she wanted to tell her story. It would seem unfair that she was the only one who lived, but she later contested that it was God’s grace, for if she had not lived, how would the world know of the names of the bravest nurses there was. Without her, the people who she called her friends would be forgotten beneath the history books of war.

Treated like cattle more than human beings

Vivian remained a prisoner of war for three years and a half, where she survived beatings and vicious inflictions in the Sumatran prison walls. Treated like cattle more than human beings, they worked for hours and then paid with 80 cents a day for their trouble. They were constantly harassed by their captors and one example was when they would sometimes stand up in the sun without a hat on for 12 hours. She laboured cooking, nursing, and working on the hygiene and burial rites. They had to endure cleaning out the clogged toilet drains with the use of a coconut shell, then dumping the human wastes a half mile into the jungle in manual labour. The longest wait for the war to end was in their prayers every night, and they were hopeful that the brutality would soon end.

Edie Leembrugen
Edie Leembruggen, another prisoner of war in the Sumatra camp.

Former civilian prisoner of war Betty Kenneison (Edie Leembruggen), gave a glimpse of what harsh life they had in the camp was like: “Imagine what it’s like not to have a toothbrush, a comb, no shoes, tattered clothes, [body] so thin that you could put your fingers around your upper arm. Food that is thrown at us rotting food, putrid meat our feet are covered in mud, and the monsoons come awashed with feces.”

Nursing Against All Odds


Despite being prisoners of war, Vivian together with the other nurses made it a point to make life as comfortable as possible for their fellow captives. Lacking medical supplies the nurses did not forget their grand duty to care for the sick whilst having nothing.

“We had nothing, literally nothing to care for our patients with,” Vivian recalls. “The hospital [was] just a hut, roof-leaf, earthen floor and bamboo and bench on a side. No mattresses or linen, or anything like that. Nothing.”

Their remarkable resourcefulness as a nurse exemplified as they made use of what they have, “Now we did pound the embers of the fires into a powder which we gave to our patients, that’s supposed to be literally good for diarrhea but our patients all had dysentery by this time.”

Betty recalls the time when Vivian saved her life, “I was being attended to by my step grandmother and she had boiling water in a cloth which she applied to my head. The flies had laid maggots in my head and she was trying to kill them. I was screaming and shouting with pain. And the door opened and Vivian walked and went up to my nan and she said to her, I will attend to this girl in the future. My nan was not pleased. But actually, Viv’s intervention was a blessing in disguise because it was the maggots that cleared up the pus in my head.”

There, Betty found a hero on Vivian. “Viv always looked out for me. She would say, I want you to see me everyday and report to me and let me know what you’re doing. She was very caring. She made me her responsibility in a way.”

Vivian was the light among many POWs, with her friend Wilma saying, “Vivian was a stalwart in the camp and everybody admired her for what she did.” Vivian’s friendship helped her survive three and half years as a POW.

Three and a half years of starvation and torture took toll in Vivian and her colleagues. Over the next few months, Vivian lost eight of her colleagues that even through the face of death, the nurses are still caring for others and would apologize for wasting valuable resources for taking too long to die.

even through the face of death, the nurses…would apologize for wasting valuable resources for taking too long to die

In 1945, the war ended. The original 65 nurses who boarded the SS Vyner Brooke were reduced to 24 survivors. Australia’s army senior nurse Col. Annie Sage personally joined the rescue and evacuation of her missing nurses. She flew to the prison camp and opened the plane’s door expecting to see 65 nurses, saying “I am the mother of you all, where are the rest of you?” To her dismay, she only saw 24 survivors. Returning to the Australian shores after peace was declared post World war II. It was believed that 12 nurses drowned during the sinking of the ship, 21 nurses massacred on the Radji beach, and eight of them perished as prisoners of war in the camps.

Bullwinkel and her mother at a reception held at the 115th Australian General Hospital in honour of a party of returned Australian Army Nursing sisters who had been POWs. Via awm.gov.au
Bullwinkel and her mother at a reception held at the 115th Australian General Hospital in honour of a party of returned Australian Army Nursing sisters who had been POWs. Source: awm.gov.au

Taking pride on being members of the Australian Army Nursing Service, the remaining 24 nurses saved up their uniforms during their captivity. Their code of honor is so admirable that they insisted to be seen publicly again wearing the same uniforms despite being tattered with bullet holes or tainted with dirt.

Stepping down of the plane in Singapore to a sea of journalists, the nurses dressed in their uniforms with emaciated bodies and worn condition, in a sense, were enough to give the press the hell that they’ve been through.

The nurses dressed in their uniforms, stepped down of the plane in Singapore to a sea of journalists. With their emaciated bodies and worn condition, in a sense, gave an idea to the press the hell that they’ve been through.

Rescued POWs landing in Singapore.
Rescued POWs landing in Singapore.

Vivian stood up and says “I want you to hear this story, because I don’t want anybody to believe that the Japanese are not as black as they have been painted, because they are.” That is the time when Vivian narrated the horrific incident in Bangka Island.

And of the daily news people heard on the atrocities of the Japanese, they were extremely appalled by what the soldiers did to the defenseless nurses. Her story was so sensational that when injured Australian soldiers hospitalized in Singapore heard of it from the radio, they became hysterical and angry that wanted to shoot the Japanese soldiers in the head. In a similar manner, an Australian army sergeant wept in shame as he saw the wasted nurses get off the plane in great regret that the men should have protected the women.

ID discs issued to Vivian Bullwinkel after her release from captivity.
ID discs issued to Vivian Bullwinkel after her release from captivity.

Newspapers were fixated on Vivian’s remarkable story of survival but as far as possible Vivian avoided the limelight and insisted that her story was of little significance when compared to the bravery of her fallen friends. Instead, she concentrated on spending time with and writing to the families of those who would not return home.

Calm After the War:
Vivian’s Legacy


Together with Wilma, they worked together at the Heidelberg Military Hospital in Australia until June of 1946. It would seem that their experience with the rage of war would make them hide behind safe walls, but it never wavered their courage and need to serve the people. With their POW colleagues, they travelled to all parts of Australia, helping those who needed care and medical treatment.

Vivian Bullwinkel during years as Presi
Vivian Bullwinkel during years as Director of Nursing in Fairfield Hospital.

In 1946, Vivian gave evidence to the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo where she relieved her horrifying experiences on Radji beach. The tribunal congratulated her on the courage she showed in testifying which resulted in 26 Japanese soldiers being tried. But the Japanese commander accused of ordering the massacre escaped justice by committing suicide in his cell.

Bullwinkel giving evidence at the war crimes trials in Japan. Source: news.com.au
Bullwinkel giving evidence at the war crimes trials in Japan. Source: news.com.au

Vivian found going to Japan difficult, after three and half years as a prisoner of war, and losing many of her colleagues to the Japanese, she felt forgiveness was beyond her. But after visiting the devastated city of Hiroshima, she couldn’t fail to be moved by the suffering of the Japanese people.

She then retired after December 1947 from the AANS, and returned to become a civilian nurse. She was also loved dearly as a Director of Nursing at the Fairfield Hospital in Melbourne.

Vivian Bullwinkel (front) at the party held for the closing of the Fairfield Hospital. She is surrounded by nursing staff who worked with her at the hospital where she worked as Director of Nursing. Via: awm.gov.au
Bullwinkel (front) at the party held for the closing of the Fairfield Hospital. She is surrounded by nursing staff who worked with her at the hospital where she worked as Director of Nursing. Source: awm.gov.au

In a later period of her life, Vivian and Betty Jeffrey, one of the POW survivors, took a fundraising tour all across Victoria in the hopes to gain enough funds to build a memorial for the fallen nurses at the time of the war, and their efforts paid off. Unbelievably, they were able to raise 240,000 pounds.

The Nurses Memorial Centre was also launched as a place for the welfare and development of the nursing profession, where Vivian left her legacy, her mark in the bequest of Australian nurses. She remained a patron to the memory of her fallen colleagues, going to philanthropic activities, and serving the veterans in honor of those who sacrificed so much for peace.

She later became a council member, then progressed to becoming the President of the College of Nursing in Australia (later known as the Royal College of Nursing, Australia). She worked tirelessly in establishing a movement of the Australian nursing education from the hospital to the University division. This had become a catalyst in improving the nursing education curriculum, as well as improved the employment grade of the nurses, bringing forth an upgrade in the salary scheme and working conditions of the Victorian nurses.

Vivian Bullwinkel and Husband Frank Statham
Vivian Bullwinkel and Husband Frank Statham

Working to pay her gratitude to the people of Malaysia for helping her at the time of her needs, she supported a scholarship fund for the Malaysian nurses to pursue a postgraduate study in Australia. She then became the patron of the National Service Nurses’ Memorial. In October 1999, in a joint affair to commemorate 100 years of military nursing, she became a guest of honor in dedicating this memorial in Canberra. This memorial is still located alongside other military memorials in Anzac Parade.

Remembering the Fallen


In a moving chapter fifty years after the Bangka Island massacre, in 1993 she returned to the island, to pay honor to the ones who were forgotten by time, but had equally sacrificed so much without receiving any mercy.

Bullwinkel together with other POWs during the unveiling of shrine in Bangka Island.
Bullwinkel together with other POWs during the unveiling of shrine in Bangka Island.

“Why me?”

After all, what kind of heart would she be if she doesn’t look back to the place that gave more meaning and hope to her life? Recalling the question she had in mind she said, “At that time, I ask ‘Why me? Why me?’ And then this time went on — I still say, ‘Why me?'” She walked the sandy shore, trying to spark an emotion from the past, but the horrors of the island seemed to have transformed into a mere nightmare that she had now forgotten. She was healed, with time. The island had buried and transformed that memory into a secret, never to be found again by anyone.

Colonel Coralie Gerrard, Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps (right) escorts Vivian Statham (nee Bullwinkel), after laying a wreath, away from the memorial commemorating the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) nurses who died at the hands of the Japanese in the Banka Island massacre on 15 February 1942. Source: awm.gov.au
Colonel Coralie Gerrard, Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps (right) escorts Vivian Statham (nee Bullwinkel), after laying a wreath, away from the memorial commemorating the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) nurses who died at the hands of the Japanese in the Banka Island massacre on 15 February 1942. Source: awm.gov.au

She visited the fresh water springs, remembered Private Pat Kingsley in it, walked into one of the POW camps, and visited the grave sites, but she was unable to locate the exact beach that almost washed her life away. It was as if she forgot that she was an active participant of the massacre, and her memories of terror were overruled by the goodness of the life that she had after the war. Nothing evil can really darken the heart, no matter how haunting and poisonous the past was.

Before she left the island, together with some of her POW colleagues, they picked a spot where they thought was almost similar to the location of the massacre, and revealed a shrine as a tribute to the 41 nurses who lost their lives, so that they could move on and live.


The Contributions of the Nurses at War Often Go Unrecognized

One of the nation’s greatest resource during war are the medical corps that aids the wounded soldiers during battle. At that time, the patriotism had spurred the citizens like Vivian to engage in situations that required them to risk their own lives for the sake of the greater good. They already knew that it was a solitary suicide to sign up for the war. Still, Vivian, along with many civilians and nurses at that time, volunteered themselves anyway.

But whenever the new age talk about history, oftentimes, the names of these nurses were no longer put into reference. Most of their stories of bravery against fascism were forgotten and never published.

Being a nurse of war is often a distinction that was rarely made from the ones that were working in the hospitals, but nevertheless, they are the nurses that deserved all the recognition there is. To say the least, signing up for battle would mean getting behind enemy lines, and be dead without rhyme or reason, just because, you are part of the opposing team.

The wartime dedication of the nurses during World War II was impressive in the sense that most of these nurses have no experience with warfare, yet they worked with soldiers with commitment.

People also failed to realize that the minute the nurses and the medical team got captured, the battalion is equally handicapped. As resolute as an army may seem, the presence of unyielding nurses would became the backbone of the army, holding the soldiers straight for them to survive.

War is ugly and exhausting

War is a sin that we try to glorify by saying that these men and women have brave hearts that are fighting for a good cause, for the wellbeing of everyone. But take off all the sugar coats, and the real face of war will always remain unappealing.

Nurses in these situations face the horrors of war, a horror so wild it destroys the nurses state of mind. It is often believed that the medical team usually goes unharmed during war as the enemy could use them as back up medical aid for their wounded soldiers. But the story of Vivian proved that nurses are also required to pay the ultimate price.

What is in exchange for signing up?

Nurses took the opportunity to be in the corps perhaps to take advantage of the provisions doled out to anyone who would want to work at the front lines of war. These provisions would include free education, a competitive salary, and an appetizing retirement scheme. But upon signing up, these nurses knew that they are now pressured to try to make it out alive. There is still that uneasy feeling of impending doom. In the end, wars are sickening, the environment harsh, it is terribly abhorrent, and unkind in totality. It makes us think was it really worth it in the end?

The many faces of these anonymous nurses who went headfirst into the unknown remained mere echoes in the dreadful battlegrounds, and their deaths highlighted their purpose of serving the world for peace. There are still many of these nurses out there who are going to be like Vivian, seduced to join the army, all because fighting for a good cause gives them a sense of fulfilment as a person.

References and External Links

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