Massacre at Radji Beach

Content Warning: the following article contains material that may be harmful or traumatising to some readers

80 years ago today, 22 scared women walked into the sea and were machine gunned down.

Those who were not shot dead immediately were bayoneted to death.

A lone woman survived, feigning death and trying hard not to vomit or drown.

Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, who trained in nursing and midwifery in Broken Hill, lived to tell the tale of the brave nurses and Matron Drummond who died on that day.

It was 1942, just days before the attack on Pearl Harbour Japanese troops landed on the Malay Peninsula.

The seaward side of the British Malay base seemed impenetrable, but the land side had been almost forgotten.

The Japanese forces marched along the peninsula and attacked the British bases from the land side.

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On February 12, 1942, the remaining evacuees; 65 nurses, servicemen injured soldiers and civilians boarded the SS Vyner Brooke had escaped Singapore before the Japanese took the city.

The ship was attacked by several Japanese warplanes on February 14, as it sailed through the Banka Straight.

After being decisively damaged, she sunk within half an hour.

22 nurses, civilians, servicemen, and sailors had made it ashore on Radji Beach in two days.

Without support or food and numbering over a hundred people, it was decided the group would surrender. A deputation went to contact the Japanese forces. The civilian women and children, except one woman, followed the men soon after.

The nurses stayed on the beach to nurse the wounded.

12 hours later a group of Japanese soldiers arrived at the beach.

According to sources the men were separated, taken up the beach and around an outcrop. The sounds of gunshots followed and the Japanese soldiers returned, cleaning their bayonets.

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According to recent research, the women were then raped and finally forced to march out into the water with those struggling to walk being helped by the others.

When the water was waist-deep a Japanese soldier machine-gunned the nurses in the back.

Those left alive were bayoneted.

Sister Vivian Bullwinkel was shot just above the waist on the left side.

Luckily the bullet missed all vital organs and passed through her body.

She lay in the water wanting to vomit and at the same time trying to play dead.

Around her, those moaning and still alive were being killed.

Sister Bullwinkel stayed in the water till the Japanese soldiers left.

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She hid in the jungle near the beach, meeting a soldier who had also managed to stay alive.

They eventually decided to surrender.

The soldier unfortunately died soon after.

Sister Bullwinkel was imprisoned in Japanese camps until the end of the war.

On returning her story was reportedly censored and she couldn’t tell of the women being raped before being shot as it was declared a state secret.

Only after her death, after forensic investigation of her uniform from that day and after others have told her full story do we know the full tragic events of that day, including the suffering and final strength of those nurses so far away from home.

Matron Drummond is commemorated at Drummond Park on the corner of Thomas and Chloride Streets near the hospital.

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