When the Japanese invaded Singapore in World War Two, 65 nurses were hurriedly forced to evacuate by any means they could.
This resulted in them leaving Singapore on one of the last ships out of the country. The SS Vyner Brooke was the name of the boat that took them, as well as many civilian women and children off the island as Singapore fell to the Japanese military forces.
Once at sea, the SS Vyner Brooke tried to evade the powerful Japanese bombers, which were combing the area searching for the evacuees.
The heavily laden boat crept along in the dark of night and clung to the shoreline by day. But, their luck was short lived.
On the second day at sea, along with other boats who were also trying to escape, the ship was bombed. 12 of the nurses were killed at the time of the attack or perished in the sea in the next few hours as a result of the enemy assault.
Of the remaining nurses, 22 eventually came ashore at Banka Island, Indonesia.
These nurses gathered on Radji Beach, where they lit a fire as a beacon to those who were believed to still be in the water. They hoped the beacon would light their way to safety.
Whilst on the beach they cared for the sick and injured – many of whom were male soldiers who had also survived the sinking of their ships.
Eventually Matron Drummond suggested the civilians – women and children – should walk into the nearest town and give themselves up to the Japanese. On the journey, they met a Japanese military patrol.
This was the same group who – a short time later – was responsible for committing an horrific act of violence.
When the Japanese arrived on the beach they found men, the nurses, and a civilian woman who had stayed with her injured husband– all survivors of the sunken ships.
The Japanese military forces first ordered the surviving soldiers to walk around a rocky outcrop out of sight of the nurses. A short time later, a sound of gunfire erupted on the quiet of the beach.
It became obvious to the nurses that the soldiers of the allied forces were being massacred.
Indeed, what eventuated was an horrific war crime, the unarmed and weakened men had been shot and bayonetted to death.
After committing this act of extreme violence, the Japanese soldiers returned to the beach where the nurses were located. They ordered the nurses and the British civilian woman to line up and walk into the sea in front of them.
All of the nurses showed enormous bravery as they stoically helped those who could barely walk and marched forward into the sea. They must have been aware of the fate that awaited them.
On the 16th of February 1942, 22 nurses of the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) were brutally machine-gunned in the back by the Japanese forces on Radji Beach.
As they walked forward, Matron Drummond said she was proud of them and that she loved them all. The Japanese military mowed them down and the sea turned red with blood as the nurses fell into the waves.
This action occurred despite the fact the nurses wore Red Cross arm bands – an action that was a clear contravention of the Geneva Convention.
Only one nurse survived the massacre – Vivian Bullwinkel. Her story is truly remarkable but was not told until several years later when she returned to Australia at the end of the war.
Of the 65 nurses on the SS Vyner Brook, only 24 would eventually survive the war.
At the end of World War Two, when Vivian returned to Australia, the public was outraged to hear her story. A significant amount of money was raised by Victorian nurses which funded the building of The Nurses Memorial Centre.
It remains a significant and living reminder of the bravery of our nurses who suffered during the war.
Every year The Nurses Memorial Centre hosts The Vivian Bullwinkel Annual Lecture, held in August.
To find out more about The Nurses Memorial Centre, support or become a member, contact:
The Nurses Memorial Centre
431 St Kilda Road
Melbourne, Victoria 3040
Arlene trained as a nurse at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. She holds certificates in Coronary Care and Midwifery nursing. She completed a Graduate Diploma in Adult Education and Training at the University of Melbourne. She has held positions as a Charge Nurse and Nurse Educator at the RMH, as well as President of The RMH Graduate Nurses’ Association. She is a member of the RMH Heritage & Art Advisory Committee, Friends of RMH Committee. She Chairs the History & Heritage Committee at the Nurses Memorial Centre. She is also the mother of 2 teenage boys.