Remembering heroism and sacrifice of Australian Army Nurses

This article has photo gallery Published on LCDR Mark Graichen (author), Unknown (photographer)

Location(s): Bangka Island, Indonesia

Lieutenant Commander Mark Graichen at the memorial on Radji Beach. (photo: Bangka Post newspaper)
Lieutenant Commander Mark Graichen at the memorial on Radji Beach.

On the 14th of February 1942, 22 Australian Army nurses and other survivors waded ashore at Radji Beach, Bangka Island in what is now Indonesia after their ship, the Vyner Brooke succumbed to Japanese air attack, sinking in the Bangka Strait.

Two days later, Imperial Japanese Forces discovered the party of survivors on Radji Beach. Offering no quarter, they systematically bayoneted the men, both able bodied and wounded, and then marched the Australian nurses into the surf where they met their deaths in a hail of machine gun fire.

Accepting of their fate, and only seconds before the report of the Japanese machine guns, Matron Irene Drummond addressed her nurses “Chins up girls, I’m proud of you; I love you all.”

Seventy-six years later, Lieutenant Commander Mark Graichen, Assistant Defence Attaché - Jakarta (representing the Australian Defence Attaché Commodore Bob Plath), Lieutenant Commander Bruce Bird and the 1st Assistant Secretary Mathew Barclay (Australian Embassy - Jakarta) along with relatives of the deceased and the Muntok Historical Society, marked the event with a sombre ceremony at the memorial on the site of the Radji Beach massacre.

In a re-creation of the nurse’s final steps, attendees linked arms and walked towards the water’s edge, throwing garlands into the waves to mark the sacrifice.

Navy and Australian Embassy representatives join descendants of the slain nurses and members of the the Muntok Historical Society as they re-create the final moments of the 21 slain Australian Army nurses.

Navy and Australian Embassy representatives join descendants of the slain nurses and members of the the Muntok Historical Society as they re-create the final moments of the 21 slain Australian Army nurses.

The nurses, along with Commonwealth servicemen and merchant sailors, plus civilian men, women and children, had fled Singapore just before it fell to Imperial Japanese Forces. More than 40 ships had fled in the days preceding the fall of Singapore. Many met their end in the Bangka Strait, south east Sumatra, where their flight to safety was thwarted by Imperial Japanese Naval ships and air power.

There were only two survivors - Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, and Private Cecil Kinsley, a British soldier. After hiding in the jungle for several days the pair eventually gave themselves up to the Japanese. Kinsley died a few days later from his wounds, and Bullwinkel spent the rest of the war as an internee. 

Of the 65 Australian nurses embarked in the Vyner Brooke, 12 were killed during the air attack or drowned following the sinking, 21 were murdered on Radji Beach, and 32 became internees, eight of whom subsequently died before the end of the war.