Sister Bullwinkel

By Major Van Harl USAF Ret.

Vivian Bullwinkel was a young Lieutenant in the Australian Army Nursing Service. She joined the Army in 1941. Australia had been at war since 1939 fighting with the British in North Africa.

In the British/Australian medical world a Registered Nurse, what in the US we refer to as an RN, is called a Sister. It is a title left over from the days when Nuns staffed hospitals working in patient care. Vivian was addressed as Sister Bullwinkel by the medical staff, the Army troops she served with and her patients.

She was posted in Singapore when it was attacked by the Japanese in December of 1941 along with Pearl Harbor. It was decided to evacuate civilians and women military medical staff from that besieged city.

On 12 February 1942 Sister Bullwinkel, sixty-four other Australian Army nurses and over two hundred civilian evacuees sailed from Singapore. Their ship was sunk off of Sumatra by Japanese aircraft. The survivors were strafed in their lifeboats. Sister Bullwinkel drifted to shore clinging to a partly submerged life boat.

The survivors were rounded up on shore by Japanese soldiers and the British soldiers were separated from the women. The men were taken down the beach out of site of the Sisters. There was gunfire and then the Japanese come back wiping blood off their bayonets.

The Sisters were non-combatant medical officers and in protected status under the Geneva Convention. Some even still had their Red Cross armbands on their uniforms. The Japanese then ordered the twenty-two Sisters to form a line and walk into the sea. When the water reached the nurse's waists the Japanese opened fire and shot all of them.

Between the sudden wound she received and the force of the waves Sister Bullwinkel was knocked off her feet and floated in the ocean. The Japanese just left the bodies in the water and eventually Sister Bullwinkel drifted to shore. She found one of the British soldiers, Private Pat Kingsley who had been bayoneted, but was still alive in the jungle. He was already severely injured by the attack on his ship.

Sister Bullwinkel cared for him as best she could without any medical supplies or food. They both eventually were forced to surrender to the Japanese. Bullwinkel hid her wound because she knew that, if the Japanese found out she had survived the Bangka Island Massacre of twenty-one Army nurses, she would be shot. You cannot leave witnesses when you commit atrocities. Wartime atrocities were committed by the Japanese throughout the Pacific region during WW II.

Today the problem is that Japan is working hard to re-write history. Every student in Japan has been taught about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and what a horrible thing the US did to the people of those cities. However, next to nothing about the atrocities that were systematically conducted by the Japanese military in China, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand and other Asian countries is found in Japanese textbooks.

Japanese who come to the US and turn on the History Channel are shocked at what they learn. When Japanese tourists visit Australian WW II memorial sites they are also shocked at what they learn about their country's actions during the war. A classic message that they leave in visitor logs at those memorials is "so sorry--we did not know."

They do not know because they are not taught by their educational system. And, our system does not want to offend anyone, so we fail to remind them.

Now North Korea has nuclear weapons and Japan is getting very worried. If Japan changes its constitution and builds up an offensive military I am concerned that they will very shortly also have nuclear weapons.

Is a nuclear armed Japan really a good thing, even if they are supposed to be our best ally in that part of the world? They do not remember their own violent history. I am not sure we need them creating a new violent history, especially with nukes.

Sister Bullwinkel was taken prisoner and spent three and a half years as a POW in Japan. She was the only one of those twenty-two machine-gunned nurses who got home to Australia. She was retired from the Army in 1947 as a Lieutenant Colonel and continued civilian nursing until 1977 when she married an Army officer.

She returned to Japan in 1947 to testify at a war crimes trial about the massacre of her fellow twenty-one Sister-Nurses. Including shipwrecked victims, thirty-two of the sixty-five evacuated nurses died on that beach. Eleven more died while being held as POWs. Japan was good at atrocities, do we need more?

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Copyright 2006 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.