Australian Navy personnel participated in a service in Indonesia recently to honour the victims of a Second World War tragedy and pay tribute to their legacy.
On 12 February 1942, 22 Australian Army Nurses came ashore on Bangka Island after their ship was sunk by Japanese forces in the Bangka Strait.
The nurses, along with British sailors and soldiers, and men, women and children had escaped Singapore which was about to fall to Imperial Japanese forces.
More than 40 ships had left the chaos of Singapore Harbour days before and most were attacked by Japanese aircraft or hit sea mines in the Strait.
The survivors washed up on or near the remote Radji Beach. Women and children walked to the nearby town of Muntok to surrender, while the nurses stayed on the beach to care for the wounded.
The Japanese patrol who found them on 16 February did not accept their surrender. They ordered about 50 British soldiers and sailors to march around a headland before executing them and bayonetting the wounded.
As they returned to the beach the women were in little doubt about what their fate would be. With nowhere to run, they accepted their fate. The Japanese soldiers ordered the nurses and one female civilian to walk into the surf.
Seconds before the machine gun opened fire on the row of women, the head nurse, Matron Irene Drummond was the last to speak, “Chins up, girls. I’m proud of you and I love you all.”
Only one Australian nurse lived through the mass killings. Sister Vivian Bullwinkel was badly wounded but survived in the jungle for two weeks with the assistance of local village women.
She eventually surrendered to the Japanese and was sent to a prison camp. She survived the camp and went on to give evidence at the war crimes trial of those who murdered so many of her friends and colleagues.
Australian Defence Force members gathered with the families of some of the nurses killed, 75 years on. They included 12 Australian Army nurses from across Australia and Defence Staff at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, led by Commodore Robert Plath.
Commodore Plath said that it was a very special day for all present.
“While the 22 Australian nurses are the natural focus of the Bangka Island story, we also reflected today on the many Royal Navy sailors and British Army members who died that day,” he said.
“Ultimately though, this event was organised for the families.”
The ceremony on Radji Beach was the most emotional of a series of activities to mark the anniversary.
The local community turned out in force with Indonesian nurses joining the Australians and paying their own tribute to those who died.
“Vivian Bullwinkel survived for two weeks in the jungle thanks to the goodwill of some local people,” Commodore Plath said.
“So it was great to see their descendants together on the beach today.”