Books and reading,  History

As I sit down to write this review, it is leading up to ANZAC Day in Australia, an annual day of commemoration of those who served in military campaigns in Australia’s name. Up until recently, those who served as medical staff and nurses in wartime seem to have been ‘add-ons’ in our military histories.

Take the story of Sister Vivian Bullwinkle. Her name should come easily to Australians thinking about their nation’s involvement in war, like Simpson and his donkey in the ANZAC story, or ‘Weary’ Dunlop in WWII.

There is now a statue of Sister Vivian in the grounds of the Australian National War Memorial. But when it was unveiled in 2023 – last year! – it was the first statue of a woman at the memorial.

I’ll move on from my bewilderment at why it took such a long time to recognise this woman, and onto Grantlee Kieza’s story of her life. What a tale it is.

Vivian Bullwinkle completed her nursing and midwifery training at Broken Hill Hospital in the 1930s. Then came the announcement in September 1939 that Australia was at war with Germany. From the Melbourne hospital where she was working, Viv enlisted as an army nurse. By 1941 she was on her way to Singapore, where she would face the new enemy of the war, Japan.

The book includes vivid descriptions of the rapid and vicious attacks on Malaya and Singapore by Japanese troops. On reading these pages I had a sense of the fear that must have been in every heart, knowing that the Japanese were moving south at a rapid rate, killing anyone who stood in their way. I also felt anger at the apparent lack of preparation on the part of Allied authorities; the complacent belief of Western superiority which was then prevalent, certainly worked in favour of the Japanese. Rumours began spreading about the merciless nature of the Japanese soldiers.

On a personal note, an uncle of mine was involved in that first encounter with the Japanese on Singapore Island; he was reported missing, presumed dead; a fate confirmed by the Australian Army at the war’s end. His mother and siblings never got over the loss of smiling, kind, lovable Ernest Harvey Newton, known as ‘Snow’ to his family. Learning about the cruelty inflicted on those who survived encounters with the Japanese, perhaps Snow’s fate was preferable. Who can say? All I know is that the whole thing was an shocking savagery that should never have happened.

Eventually the nurses were evacuated from Singapore; it is telling that they apparently felt great reluctance and shame to be leaving the sick and wounded soldiers they’d been caring for. The author paints an appalling picture of the chaos and desperation of a defeated Singapore. The nauseating smell of death and raw sewage, oil fires and explosions, terrified civilians climbing over each other in their panic.

Worse was to come for Sister Vivian and her comrades. Put aboard the Vyner Brooke, formerly a royal yacht of Sarawak, over two hundred people endured a terrifying voyage from Singapore heading for the relative safety of the Indonesian islands not yet occupied by Japanese. The stories of those on board are poignant: sixty-five Australian nursing sisters, including one who was seven months’ pregnant; a family of Polish Jews who had fled to the assumed safety of Singapore only to find themselves refugees once again; and many women and children.

The ship was bombed by Japanese aircraft and went down off the coast of Bangka Island near Sumatra. Viv and her nursing colleagues tried to assist the wounded and terrified civilians, before the inevitable order to abandon ship as it broke up underneath them.

But Viv had never learnt to swim.

Somehow, she survived, with the aid of a life jacket and an upturned lifeboat, despite continued bombing from above and the threat of sharks below. She stumbled onto a beach where she recovered enough to find other survivors washed up on the island by the strong currents. At least twelve nurses had died in the water that night. With no food, shelter, and with many needing urgent medical care, the survivors agreed that they had to surrender to the Japanese and hope that the rumours they’d heard about the Japanese taking no prisoners were not true.

What follows is a story of unbelievable cruelty, even sadism, by some of the Japanese they encounter. Men and women alike were coldly gunned down or bayoneted on Radji Beach, left to bleed out in the shallow water or drift off on the tide. Twenty-one of Viv’s nursing companions were murdered that day.

Amazingly, after being hit through her middle by a machine gun and left in the water, Viv did not die. Some instinct told her not to show that she was alive, and even though she couldn’t swim, she allowed herself to float until the men with guns were satisfied that they had killed everyone. Eventually she was taken to a prison camp where she was reunited with others of her nursing sister colleagues.

Moved from camp to camp, starved, with no medical care, minimal fresh water, no way to preserve their hygiene and health, beaten and abused…this was the experience of nurses and civilian refugees on Bangka Island and Sumatra for three and a half years. They survived by caring for each other, pooling any resources they could scrounge, making efforts to raise the spirits of their companions, burying the dead as one by one, women began to succumb to the ravages of malnutrition, tropical diseases and mistreatment by their captors.

It’s a terrible story of unimaginable hardship and suffering. As I read, I often wondered ‘What would I do in this situation? Could I endure it? Would I have survived?’

It’s also about stoicism, bravery, sacrifice and the comradeship that we often hear about amongst soldiers, but is less often applied to those who care for the sick and wounded.

Of course the war did end, Japan surrendered, and the prisoners were eventually found and returned to Australia. We should remember that in the midst of their suffering, none of the nurses knew what would happen. They had no way of knowing what the eventual outcome of the war – and their fates – would be.

After the war, Viv’s strength of spirit, her compassion and her pride in the nursing profession, did not abate. She devoted the rest of her working life to improving the standing and professionalism of nursing in Australia, as well as speaking at many memorials and events where she kept the memory of her dead sisters alive.

And in 1975, aged nearly sixty, she played an instrumental role as one of twelve nursing volunteers in Operation Babylift, the mass evacuation of orphaned babies and children from South Vietnam, aboard a chartered Qantas jet from then Saigon to Sydney.

I was so happy to learn that just a year or so later, she married and was able to enjoy more than twenty years with husband Frank Statham.

Sister Viv is a gripping account of a woman who endured great suffering but went on to live a full and productive life in spite of her awful wartime experiences. Grantlee Kieza has written a biography worthy of this truly remarkable Australian.

Sister Viv is published by HarperCollins in April 2024.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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