Wartime nurses survived shipwreck, only to be gunned down on a tropical island

The 21 nurses were killed on Bankga Island on February 16, 1942.
The 21 nurses were killed on Bankga Island on February 16, 1942.

As Vivian Bullwinkel and 21 other Australian nurses walked into the sea, with Japanese guns aimed squarely at their backs, it was in a state of disbelief.

"How can something as dirty and evil as this be happening in a place that is so beautiful?" the sole survivor of the following massacre later recalled thinking.

The same sense of disbelief was with the families and friends as they gathered together for the first time on Thursday at the same spot of the war-time atrocity 75 years ago.

Philippa Dickson laid a wreath on Radji Beach in Indonesia in memory of her aunt, Matron Irene Drummond.

Vivian Bullwinkel survived the massacre on Radji Beach. Photo / Australian War Memorial
Vivian Bullwinkel survived the massacre on Radji Beach. Photo / Australian War Memorial

It was here Dickson's aunt stoically told the women as they walked to their deaths on February 16, 1942: "Chin up girls. I'm proud of you and I love you all."

The nurses who died in the Bangka Island massacre were among 65 Australian nurses who, having been evacuated from Singapore four days earlier, had their ship sunk by Japanese bombers in the Bangka Strait.

Twelve nurses died at sea. Twenty-two others washed up at Radji Beach.

Here they tended to more than 60 British sailors, soldiers and injured civilian internees who lay strewn across its shores.

But it was in vain. On the morning of August 16 the Japanese returned to shoot and bayonet the shipwrecked men.

As the Japanese began walking towards the women, the Australian nurses watched as they wiped blood off their bayonets.

Georgina Banks, grand-niece of Sister Dorothy "Buddy" Elmes who was killed that day, said her ancestor's story was a mystery to her while she was growing up.

It was simply too painful for her surviving sister, Banks' grandmother, to speak about.
Instead, letters by Buddy or Bud - as she was known by her family - sat silently in a rattan box in her grandmother's home for decades.

In them are details of a fun-loving, adventurous country girl who tried to protect her mother from any worries.

Banks said the story of what happened on Radji Beach is not just that of horror - but also incredible resilience.

"We are less resilient now than they were," she told AAP.

Much of this strength, Banks believes, comes from the women's service to something bigger and their camaraderie.

"While it is only one experience and there are many more, I think it is a symbol of women's involvement [in the war]."

For the sole survivor of the massacre, Vivian Bullwinkel, the horrors didn't end of the beach.

She, with other Australian nurses from the shipwreck, spent three-and-a-half years in an internment camp on the island.

Only 24 of the original 65 nurses would make it home.

- news.com.au

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