Friday, February 14, 2014

Bangka Massacre

Seventy-two years ago today, the SS Viner Brooke and a convoy of ships were sunk by Mitsubishi Zeros in the Bangka Strait. The survivors, evacuated from Singapore, washed up on Bangka Island, east of Sumatra. Australian women, children, wounded soldiers, and army nurses found themselves without shelter, food, or protection.

With few choices, the civilian women and children set off to find the invading Japanese so that they could surrender. Left behind were the wounded, 100 British troops from another bombed ship, 22 Australian nurses, and an elderly lady.

On February 16, Japanese troops discovered these survivors on Radji Beach. The soldiers immediately rounded up the men and took them over a bluff. After hearing several bursts of machine gun fire, the women on the beach knew the men were gone. The Japanese detachment returned, cleaned their bloody bayonets, and reloaded their guns.

They then ordered the 22 Army nurses, two of them wounded, together with the elderly civilian, to march into the sea, line abreast, and face the sea. It was about noon; the sea was tranquil, a light breeze played, palms lined the tropical shore. The nurses wore their grey dresses and Red Cross armbands. The Japanese soldiers then machine-gunned the women and left their bodies to float as so much debris onto the shore.

One survived.

Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, struck by a bullet that pierced her thigh, floated on the sea in shock. She gathered her wits 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.

In captivity, the nurses and civilian women recall that their Japanese captors tried to "coerce" them into becoming Comfort Women in brothels set up by their military. Refusing meant that they faced starvation and other deprivations. Few felt that there was a choice. One nurse, Elizabeth Simmons records in her book, While History Passed that “I think all the girls would agree that this club [brothel] experience was the most repulsive and unpleasant in our whole imprisonment. I know it stands out grimly in our memory.” 

Another nurse, Betty Jeffrey in White Coolies notes that “Somebody suggested that we should all swear never to mention it, or tell any tales about anyone if and when we were released.” And nobody ever broke that promise. Simmons' book was the basis of the movie Paradise Road.

Nurses Memorial on Bangka
On March 2, 1993, in the presence of seven of the surviving nurses, including Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, the Nurses Memorial was dedicated on Bangka Island.

It is situated near, Radji Beach, the spot where survivors of the sinking of SS Vyner Brooke came ashore and where 21 Australian Army nurses were massacred.

The memorial incorporates stone from the: 'Women's Camp' which the Australian Army nurses occupied for a time as Prisoners of War. A bronze plaque records the names of all 65 nurses who were aboard the SS Vyner Brooke
Bangka Island is reputedly the setting for Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim.

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