To mark the 81st anniversary of the sinking of the SS Vyner Brooke and the massacre of 21 nurses at Bangka Island, the Australian College of Nursing (ACN) has today unveiled the design of the statue of Lieutenant Colonel Vivian Bullwinkel AO, MBE, ARRC, ED, FNM, FRCNA that is set to be installed at the Australian War Memorial later this year.
FILE PHOTO: Model of the statue of Lieutenant Colonel Vivian Bullwinkel that is set to be installed at the Australian War Memorial later this year. Supplied by Australian War Memorial.
The sculpture will be the first of an individual woman or nurse on the grounds of the Australian War Memorial.
ACN CEO Kylie Ward paid respects to the nurses who lost their lives during the sinking of the SS Vyner Brooke on 14 February 1942 and the Bangka Island Massacre two days later.
Eighty-one years ago, sixty-five Australian Army Nursing Service nurses were evacuated from Singapore on the SS Vyner Brooke because of the pending Japanese invasion.
Twelve died at sea when the ship was bombed in the Bangka Strait shortly after leaving port.
Twenty-two of the group made their way to the nearby shores at Bangka Island, where they became victims of one of the worst atrocities of the war.
The nurses were ordered to walk into the sea and were machine-gunned from behind in what is now known as the Bangka Island Massacre.
Lieutenant Colonel Bullwinkel was struck by a bullet and pretended to be dead before realising she was the sole survivor.
After hiding with a wounded soldier, whom she also cared for, for 12 days, she surrendered and spent three and half years in captivity as a Prisoner of War.
Adjunct Professor Ward reflected on the incredible courage the nurses displayed in the most horrific situations and highlighted that their legacy still had a lasting impact on the nursing profession today.
“Eighty-one years ago, a group of Australian nurses paid the ultimate sacrifice for their dedication to serve their country and use their expertise to care for those who needed it most,” she said.
“They endured exceptionally trying conditions in the face of death.
“Even in their final moments, they stayed true in their commitment to care for others, with several supporting their injured nursing colleagues as they walked into the water before their tragic deaths.
“For those nurses who spent the following years as Prisoners of War watching their colleagues suffer, starve and sacrifice, with only a few returning home, I am committed to ensuring they are never forgotten.
“Erecting a sculpture of Bullwinkel at the Australian War Memorial will link the past, present and future for us to remember and be inspired by the sacrifice, service and leadership of Australian nurses.”
Brisbane-based artist Charles Robb was appointed to create the sculpture following a limited-invitation design competition in 2020.
“Whether on the Radji Beach or in her decades of service and advocacy to the nursing profession, Lieutenant Colonel Bullwinkel was dedicated to the act of caring for others,” Mr Robb said.
“I have aimed to reflect her incredible altruism in the design of my sculpture – Bullwinkel is placed to one side of her bronze pedestal, revealing a rippling surface in which twenty-one inlaid silver discs reflect the victims of the Banka Island massacre and the main constellations of the night sky as it would have appeared on 16 February 1942.”
To ensure their legacy lives on, and in addition to leading the fundraising to erect a sculpture of Vivian Bullwinkel on the grounds of the Australian War Memorial, The Australian College of Nursing Foundation is establishing a scholarship in the name of each of the 21 nurses who died in the Bangka Island Massacre, thanks to donors such as Aspen Medical.
Please donate to the Vivian Bullwinkel project to inspire generations, commemorate all nurses and midwives, and remind us of their selfless service to Australia – in war and peace.