Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The “Bangka Island Massacre”: Australian military nurses in the Pacific War

Angharad Fletcher
London and Hong Kong


Artwork of fiery ship exploding with people jumping into the water and escaping in lifeboats. Two women are shown swimming in the foreground. Text across the top reads: "WORK • SAVE • FIGHT" and "and so / AVENGE THE NURSES !" across the bottom.
Centaur Poster

“Civilian nurses, bound on errands of mercy among the worst underworld dens, are never in danger from the most hardened criminals. But Australia’s nurses were not safe from the Japanese. No British citizen forgets the name of Nurse Edith Cavell. Australia now has her own Edith Cavells to remember.”1


Sometime during the afternoon of February 16, 1942, Staff Nurse Vivian Bullwinkel regained consciousness on Radji Beach, an isolated stretch of coastline running along the northern edge of Bangka Island, and located approximately 50km from the Dutch colony of Sumatra. Shot by members of the Japanese Imperial Army (JIA) and left for dead, she was the only survivor of one of the most infamous war crimes of World War II (1939–45), an event that would later become known as the “Bangka Island Massacre.” As Bullwinkel crawled from the shoreline to the relative safety of the jungle, she began a journey that would entail over three years of imprisonment in Indonesian internment camps before taking her back to her native Australia where she, alongside some of her fellow nurses, would become cultural icons, symbolizing heroic resistance, altruistic sacrifice, and bravery.

During World War II about 3,500 Australian military nurses served in combat regions throughout the world, most of whom were enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS). After the Japanese advance and the fall of Hong Kong (December 1941) and Singapore (February 1942), many of these nurses spent over three years as prisoners of war (POWs) in Indonesia, Hong Kong, Japan, and the Philippines. While there these women experienced starvation, disease and deprivation, and repeatedly cited instances of physical and sexual abuse. A further twenty-two nurses were shot on Radji Beach by the JIA during the “Bangka Island Massacre”. Vivian Bullwinkel, as the sole survivor of this event, consequently became the focus of many postwar narratives and reinterpretations of the event. This process began, as illustrated by the quote from the Australian Women’s Weekly at the start of this essay, as soon as the nurses were released in 1945, with the media playing a key role and war correspondent Haydon Lennard as the individual who actually located and collected the nurses from Indonesia after the cessation of hostilities.

The stories of the nurses who became prisoners of the Japanese on Sumatra between February 1942 and September 1945 have been told and retold, in newspaper accounts, autobiographies, films, exhibitions, and historical narratives. These stories played a significant role in the development of a professional nursing self-identity in Australia and across the British Empire. They have also been incorporated into the ceremonial rituals surrounding the remembrance of the Pacific conflict and have consequently helped to shape the construction of a distinctive post-war Australian nationalism. The experiences of this highly specific group of medical personnel, both during World War II and in the immediate post-war era, provide a unique opportunity for the study of the role of Australian women in the Pacific War, and the nature of national commemoration practices. Perhaps the most notable of these influences was the post-war feminist reshaping of the previously almost entirely masculine “Anzac legend,” Australia’s militaristic interpretation of national character.2

The wartime experiences of these nurses, and the more general impact of the war on military nursing, is by no means a neglected chapter in the history of the World War II, yet the significance of Australian nurses within the conflict is often characterized in one of two ways. Firstly, the rise of feminist history in the 1970s and 1980s provoked interest in female interpretations of defining moments in Australian history, including World War II. However, this tended to result in simplistic and overly sentimental histories of female empowerment that lacked critical analysis and failed to compare or contextualize the accounts of nurses; for example, Rupert D. Goodman’s Our War Nurses (1988). Secondly, the nurses killed on Bangka Island and interned on Sumatra have become exemplars of Japanese war crimes enacted against “Western” women and, as such, are often discussed in anthologized works alongside reports of “comfort women”, those individuals who were forced into prostitution by the Japanese military, for example in the work of Yuki Tanaka and Yoshimi Yoshiaki.3 Such an approach ignores the unique perspective offered by some of the first Allied female military personnel to be interned by the enemy in active battlefields. Furthermore, Australia’s nurses have come to represent ideas that are very different from those characterized by Asia’s comfort women, many of which are influenced by the specific fears of Asian invasion Australia had long since maintained.

The AANS still feature heavily in commemorative rituals in Australia and overseas. Betty Jeffrey, one of the nurses interned alongside Bullwinkel on Sumatra, wrote a book about her experiences entitled White Coolies, which became one of Australia’s most consistently best-selling books. The Australian Nurses Service memorial on Anzac Parade, close to the Australian War Memorial was not unveiled until October 1999, and the interned nurses, as well as those killed aboard the Centaur, occupy a permanent display in the AWM’s World War II galleries. The AWM, Australia’s second most popular tourist attraction after the Sydney Opera House, also recently opened a lavish new exhibition entitled Nurses: from Zululand to Afghanistan in 2012. The Muntok Memorial Peace Museum, constructed largely by surviving members of the nurses’ families and Sumatran volunteers, was opened at the former site of the women’s camp at Kampong Menjelang. The continued exposure of the experiences of these women, their place in national memory, and the retelling in many forms, demands a more objective and nuanced analysis of the nature of Pacific internment, race and gender relations during wartime, and the role of key medical personnel during conflicts.

The execution of members of the AANS on Bangka Island, and the subsequent internment of surviving nurses on Sumatra, has become a symbolic episode in Australian history. Like many Pacific prisoners of war, when recounting their experience, the nurses developed a formulaic style, replete with reoccurring themes, images and motifs. As this dissertation has also demonstrated, these narratives were shaped by social conventions, and reflected strategies of psychological self-preservation, as well as multiple and shifting conceptions of identity. The nurses were women, professionals, and Australian nationals, whose overlapping identities created tensions and contradictions in the stories they told. Indeed, a key aim of this study has been to recuperate these tensions, probing the inconsistencies, which have tended to be overlooked or even denied.

The nurses’ narratives have been incorporated into Australia’s post-war nationalism through a process of enshrinement and collective ritualization, the legitimacy of which is only now being belatedly contested. Thus, aside from furnishing a unique perspective on internment in the Pacific, the experiences of the returning members of the AANS provide a distinctive opportunity for reconsidering the relationship between private and public memory, the role of testimony in history, and what Hobsbawm and Ranger memorably term “the invention of tradition”; the process of self-invention through which “national” cultures are produced. The Bangka Island executions demonstrate how nursing history, particularly in Australia, needs to move beyond the reiteration of “heroic” exploits to adopt analytical approaches that reconnect nursing history to wider historical formations. To do so would mean that the history of nursing as a field of research will move to the forefront of historiographical debates, offering fresh insights into transformative cultural, social and political processes, with consequences for the contemporary world.


End notes

  1. The Australian Women’s Weekly, September 29, 1945, p. 10.
  2. The Anzac legend, sometimes also referred to as the Anzac myth or Anzac spirit, is a concept originating in World War I, which argues that Australian and New Zealand servicemen possess qualities that render them superior warriors. These merits include bravery, egalitarianism, humour, disrespect for commanding officers, endurance, ingenuity, devotion to “mates” and a more impressive physique than that of other colonial soldiers. These characteristics were ostensibly forged by Australia’s punishing physical landscape and stockman traditions. The name itself derives from the abbreviation for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). Literature on this subject is vast and the issue continues to fuel controversial historical debate in Australia. The Anzac legend will be discussed further in relation to commemoration in Chapter 5 of this thesis, but for a broad overview of the subject, see: Patsy Adam-Smith, The ANZACS (Melbourne: Thomas Nelson Australia Pty Ltd, 1997); Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarization of Australian History (Sydney: New South Books, 2010); Jane Ross, The Myth of the Digger: The Australian Soldier in Two World Wars (Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1985).
  3. Yuki Tanaka, Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes in World War II (Oxford: Westview Press, 1996) and Japan’s Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery and Prostitution during World War II and the US Occupation (London: Routledge, 2002). Yoshimi Yoshiaki, Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military during World War II, trans. Suzanne O’Brien (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000) and Jugunianfushiryoshu, “Collected Documents Relating to Comfort Women” (Tokyo: Otsuki Shoten, 1992).



ANGHARAD FLETCHER is currently completing a joint PhD at King’s College, London, and the University of Hong Kong. She holds a BA and MA from University College London, and her present research focuses on British imperial nursing during the third plague pandemic in Cape Town, Hong Kong, and London. She was awarded the inaugural Wang Gungwu Prize for her MPhil. Her work has also appeared in Medical History and Manchester University Press’ recent release, Colonial Caring.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 9, Issue 4 – Fall 2017
Summer 2016  |  Sections  |  War & Veterans

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