Welcome to episode eighteen of the Ausmed Handover podcast – Betty Jeffrey: ‘The Girls on the Beach’
Welcome to this special edition of the Ausmed Handover podcast. In this episode you are going to hear a rare piece of history taken from the personal account of Australian war nurse, Betty Jeffrey. Held as a prisoner of war in World War Two on Banka Island alongside the famous Vivian Bullwinkel, the two were instrumental in the formation of the Nurses Memorial Centre, dedicated to honouring nurses past, present and future.
2017 marks the 75th anniversary of the infamous Banka Island Massacre. On the 16th of February 1942, Japanese forces executed 21 Australian army nurses, and some 60 surrendered Australian and British servicemen.
The following account, entitled ‘The Girls on the Beach’, was written by Betty Jeffrey in 1969 and retells the events of the massacre as relayed to her first-hand by Vivian Bullwinkel, the only person to survive.
‘The Girls on the Beach’ will be narrated for The Handover by Betty’s grandniece, Emily Malone.
Excerpt from The Girls on the Beach by Betty Jeffrey
When Vivian Bullwinkel was shot with 21 other Australian army nurses by Japanese soldiers on the beach of Banka Island in February 1942, she eventually arrived in the local jail in Muntok alone. She had miraculously survived machine gun fire and was the only member of that group of nurses to do so.
In the Muntok jail she joined up with other nurses, also survivors of the tiny ship, Vyner Brooke, who had come ashore from this bombed ship at various places along the shores of the island and had missed being with Vivian’s group on the beach.
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Those of us already in the jail were expecting another 22 nurses to arrive so we were very shocked when we heard her story.
The amazing thing about the bombing and sinking of the Vyner Brooke is that between us all we could account for every Australian nurse who had been on the ship.
There was 65 of us who embarked at Singapore; 32 were now in this jail as prisoners of war; 12 had drowned after the ship sank, and 21 had been killed by machine gun fire on the beach at Banka Island. We were quite sure of the identity of the 12 nurses who were drowned as each one of us saw someone in the sea who was not alive and we all reported each name back to the main group later in the jail.
The list of 12 names checked and rechecked as each nurse reported her story.
Before Vivian’s arrival, we were still expecting another 22 nurses to join us. Most of us had seen a group of nurses on the beach moving around a big fire they had lit while others were still swimming and trying to get ashore on bits and pieces of wreckage.
Vivian arrived about a week after the first group and told us her terrible story. It was such a dreadful and dangerous story that we all decided, then and there, never to mention it again until we arrived home in Australia.
As we were prisoners for the following three and a half years, it was never mentioned unless we were talking about one or another of the girls, and we would say, “oh, she was one of the girls on the beach…” – which of course meant nothing to anybody but us. We had all been on the beach at some stage of our getting ashore from the sunken ship.
Imagine my horror when I arrived in Singapore with the surviving nurses in 1945, and a Melbourne newspaper reporter took me aside and said, “Are you from Melbourne?” I told him I was. His next words were,“Tell me about the massacre!”
I was stunned. I had no idea what he was talking about, so said, “What massacre?”
I really meant this. I was sure he had the wrong group. Never at any stage did we think of that awful shooting of our nurses as a ‘massacre’.
It was always ‘the girls on the beach’. It still is, to this day.
26 years later I heard Vivian tell her story again, this time to Lady Casey. It was just as she told us in February 1942. Time and the years had not erased anything from her memory.
(Listen to the full story in the podcast audio above)
Thank you sincerely to Emily Malone and her entire family for sharing her great-aunt’s incredible story, and giving The Handover the opportunity to share it, in turn, with you.
For more on Betty Jeffrey’s story and her ongoing legacy, you can visit the Nurses Memorial Centre website at www.nursesmemorialcentre.org.au.
Betty Jeffrey also published a book on her experiences, entitled ‘White Coolies’, which was also the basis for the 1997 film, ‘Paradise Road’ starring Glenn Close.
This is the Ausmed Handover podcast, thank you for listening.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe to the channel for future episodes, and please feel free to leave your comments and feedback for us: we always welcome your opinion.
For more famous nurses, listen to Episode 16 of The Handover – Ten Ordinary Nurses Who Were Simply Extraordinary
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- Australian Nursing History Project, Susan Hudson 2012, Jeffrey, Agne Betty (1908-2000), Encyclopedia of Australian Science, viewed 18 April 2017, http://www.eoas.info/biogs/P004118b.htm
- Jeffrey, B 1985, White Coolies, Angus and Robertson Publishers, Melbourne, VIC.
- Nurses Memorial Centre 2014, Melbourne, viewed 18 April 2017, http://www.nursesmemorialcentre.org.au/
- Paradise Road 1997, motion picture, Fox Searchlight Pictures, California, USA. Produced by Sue Milliken; directed by Bruce Beresford.
Agnes Betty Jeffrey OAM, 1908 - 2000.