Ceremonies were held on February 12 and 13 in Adelaide and Brisbane to mark the 80th anniversary of the Bangka Island massacre, attended by 17th Sustainment Brigade personnel.

On February 16,1942, 22 Australian Army nurses and 60 Australian and British soldiers and crew members were bayoneted and gunned down by Japanese forces on the Pacific island. 

The nurses and soldiers had survived the sinking of the Vyner Brooke, the last ship to leave Singapore harbour as the Japanese forces advanced. The ship was sunk during a Japanese air attack.

While encouraged to continue the journey to Muntok, 22 nurses stayed behind to care for survivors wounded in the shipwreck. Infamously, those nurses were ordered to walk into the sea and, while their backs were turned, were gunned down.   

Sister Vivian Bullwinkel was the only nurse to survive the ordeal. After being shot in the back and feigning death, she fought to survive and stay out of sight. However, she was later captured and incarcerated in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps over the next three years.

In Brisbane, 2nd Health Battalion and the 1st Regiment personnel formed a catafalque party at St Augustine’s Anglican Church to commemorate the event with ADF nurses, along with flag bearers, musicians and singers from Brisbane-based Army units.

Speaking at the Brisbane event, Commanding Officer 2nd Health Battalion Lieutenant Colonel Anna Reinhardt reflected on the example made by the WWII nurses of putting the care of others ahead of personal survival.

“It’s essential that we pause to remember the courage, compassion and ultimate sacrifice of those who have gone before us,” Lieutenant Colonel Reinhardt said. 

“Those brave nurses who chose to stay back to provide care, in spite of their own dire situation, is the legacy that our health battalions carry forward.

“By putting the lives of others ahead of their fear, they embodied what became the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps motto ‘Pro Humanitate’; Latin for ‘For Humanity’.”

In Adelaide, South Australian Women’s Memorial Playing Fields Trust personnel remembered the Army nursing sisters from their state who were massacred.

As part of the ceremony, Governor-General General (Retd) David Hurley dedicated a new memorial at the playing fields, which were established in 1953, and dedicated as a war memorial in 1956, to recognise Australian women who have served and sacrificed in all Australian conflicts.

Speaking at the ceremony in Adelaide, Commanding Officer 3rd Health Battalion Lieutenant Colonel Craig Schmeider said it was important to learn from past events.

“As we learn from the past and look to the future, this ceremony is important not only to honour the memory and sacrifice of those who came before, but also to build pride and esprit de corps for those members of the future,” he said.

“Our catafalque party was made up of nursing officers, and served not only as an opportunity for members to reflect, but also an opportunity to demonstrate the integration between our full-time and part-time members.

“We are very fortunate to have such a strong legacy to build on.”  

To learn more about the massacre, visit the Australian War Memorial online at: https://www.awm.gov.au