Australian Women in War
Anzac Day Speech

Speech by the Acting Prime Minister and Minister for Trade, The Hon Tim Fischer at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, Saturday, 25 April 1998.


Your Excellency and Excellencies, serving members of the Navy, Army, and Air Force, boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen, it is a privilege for me to represent the Prime Minister in the national capital today, to mark this very special and sacred day for Australia as a returned servicemen, and to salute all those who gave their lives for their country.

The Prime Minister, of course, is this day delivering the commemoration address at the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery in Thailand, as part of this year's pilgrimage honouring those who served and died on the Burma -Thailand railway in 1942 and 1943.

This is an important day for the survivors of that horror, and their families, and I know many of us here will be imagining what it will be like in the tropical jungle of Thailand some three hours from now - at 11am Thai time - when a service like this one is conducted in the infamous Hellfire Pass.

It is an important day of remembrance for all Australians, and here in Canberra I would like to speak for a few minutes about another group of heroic Australians.

To pay tribute to the thousands of women - many of them very young and very brave - who have served their country in the nursing services.

A memorial to our nurses and to our women in war is now in the pipeline for Anzac Parade here in the national capital, and it is long overdue.

The story of Australian Army nursing has been placed on the record by author Jan Basset in her excellent book "Guns and Brooches" - a story which starts with three civilian nurses from Tasmania who paid their own way to the Boer War in 1900, and finishes with the four combat-trained, fulltime commissioned Army officers who served on the US Navy's ship "Comfort" in the Gulf War in 1991.

It is a story of caring and courage, of duty and determination, and of survival in the face of appalling conditions and treatment.

And if there is one story among all those thousands of nurses that best captures the spirit and character of the nursing service, it is the remarkable story of Sister Vivian Bullwinkel.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Sister Bullwinkel just a few days ago - Mrs Vivian Statham, as she now is. She is in her '80s and living an active and fulfilling life in Perth. And she is still surprised that people make a fuss about her experiences during the War in the Pacific.

Vivian Bullwinkel was among 65 Australian nurses who were evacuated from Singapore in early February of 1942. Their ship, the "Vyner Brooke", was bombed and sank two days out of Singapore. After several hours in the water, 22 of the nurses and some other survivors from the "Vyner Brooke" reached a beach on Banka Island, off Sumatra.

Officers with the survivors arranged for the group to surrender to the Japanese forces occupying the island.

So on the morning of February 16, 1942 a party of about 20 Japanese soldiers arrived at the beach to take prisoner a group of 22 nurses and some 50 men - with the nurses expecting that, as non-combatants, they would shortly be repatriated.

Instead, Sister Vivian Bullwinkel became the sole survivor of an inexplicable and brutal massacre. At the end of the war, then Lieutenant Bullwinkel VX61330 gave the War Crimes Board an account of the events which followed that is chilling in its simplicity. She wrote:

"They then took half the men away down the beach behind a bluff, came back and took the other half away. The ship's officer tried to explain to them that we were Army personnel and we were giving ourselves up as prisoners of war, but they just ignored him and took the two ship's officers away.

"After the second party they came back and cleaned their rifles and bayonets in front of us, and then lined us up and signed us to march into the sea. They then started machine gunning from behind.

"The rest of us got quite a distance out to sea, nearly up to our waists, before any of the bullets hit us.

"I was toward the end of the line, and the bullet that hit me struck me at the waist and just went straight through. The force of the bullet knocked me over into the water where I stayed for a few seconds, and then being more or less too frightened to get up again I stayed lying there and the waves washed me back to the sand, where I remained lying for another 10 minutes.

"All was quiet, and then I got up. The Japanese had all disappeared. I went up into the jungle where I lay down for the next two days, and seemed to sleep most of the time away."

Sister Bullwinkel stayed near the beach for some days, finding and caring for a badly wounded English soldier in the process. They surrendered to a Japanese officer who found them on the road to a nearby village, and she was taken to a camp at Muntok on Banka Island, where she was reunited with 31 other nurses who had survived the sinking of the "Vyner Brooke" - but who had not, mercifully, landed on Sister Bullwinkel's fatal shore.

These nurses spent the rest of the war on Banka or nearby Sumatra, facing the worst that Japanese prisoner of war camps could throw at them, and tending to the needs of fellow prisoners.

During all this, and as their own health failed, they continued nursing: they nursed solders, sailors, airmen, civilians, children, and eventually they nursed each other. They finally left the camps on September 16, 1945.

Tragically, as in all theatres of war, not all these nurses came back home, and I know their former comrades remember these girls with particular affection.

Ladies and gentlemen, in paying tribute to the heroic women of the nursing services, I cannot do better than leave you with Sister Bullwinkel's own words, from a postscript she attached to her evidence to the War Crimes Board, in which she described the way her comrades went into the sea on that fatal morning in 1942:

"I wish to say that the conduct of all the girls was most courageous.

"They all knew what was going to happen to them, but no-one panicked.

"They just marched ahead with their chins up."

Ladies and gentlemen, let us remember them all, forever.

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