History detective, historian, investigative writer & specialist tour guide

Investigation into the Rape and Murder of 21 Australian Army Nurses on Bangka Island in WWII

In 2019, Lynette published a book Angels of Mercy, which told, in part, the story of 22 Australian army nurses, captured by the Japanese on Bangka Island, off Sumatra. As part of her research, she compiled sufficient evidence to disprove the long-held belief that that they had been marched into the sea and shot, leaving one survivor, Sister Vivian Bullwinkel to tell the tale.

Her research showed that the nurses had not simply been marched into the sea and machine-gunned. They had been raped, and then massacred, with at least one cut down on the beach with a sword. Lynette also proved that Vivian Bullwinkel, who remained in the Army Nursing Service, had been ordered by a series of well-meaning army officers not to reveal what had happened. She was even effectively gagged by her own biographer, who refused to allow her to tell the truth, in her biography, eventually published in 2000, without the facts that she wanted to be included. By the time it was released, Vivian had suffered a stroke and died just a few months later.

After the publication of Angels of Mercy, Lynette was contacted by two women, first-hand informants, who were able to add significantly to her considerable research. In particular, Lynette was keen to locate four Repatriation Department (now Department of Veterans’ Affairs) files, relating to Vivian Bullwinkel. One of her informants had revealed that these files had been kept securely locked in a safe, on the orders of a very senior government servant, as they had papers in them referring to the rapes on Bangka Island. This information led to Lynette’s joining forces with Georgina Banks, whose great aunt was one of the nurses massacred on the beach, in an effort to locate the files.

In response to an application for access made by Georgina, Australian Archives advised that there was now only one file extant. At first glance, it appeared to be of no particular value, and it was not until Lynette closely scrutinised each of the hundreds of pages in the file that she realised the significance of the entries in a document entitled ‘Clinical Notes’. Although Archives staff had scrutinised the file, the importance of the contents had evidently been overlooked or not realised, as they were not redacted, or masked. Lynette consulted with her informant, who shed even more light on the discovery.

Lynette’s original investigation is recorded in the final chapter of her book Angels of Mercy. However, the additional research has been summarised in a lengthy and comprehensive article by senior ABC journalist Ellen Fanning, a presenter on The Drum program. The link, along with a copy of the article, is below.


‘A war crime has been censored’: Truth revealed about a WWII massacre on Bangka Island

By Ellen Fanning

A studio portrait of Australian Army nurse Vivian Bullwinkel in service dress uniform. Sister Bullwinkel was the sole survivor of the infamous Bangka Island massacre in which 21 of her colleagues were killed by Japanese troops.(Australian War Memorial)

World War II Australian Army nurse Vivian Bullwinkel was the sole survivor of a wartime massacre, and prisoner of war of the Japanese for three and a half years.

But for the rest of her long life, she remained a prisoner of silence – only ever permitted to tell part of her harrowing story of survival. 

Now, as the Australian War Memorial prepares to erect a statue in her honour, her full story is starting to be told.

A well-known WWII massacre always hinted at darker horrors

It seems such an obvious thing to accept – in wartime, there will be casualties.

Troops will be killed and maimed. There will be civilian massacres. And women will be raped.

Surely, there has never been a conflict in human history that did not contain all three elements.

Yet, as Australia waits for more charges to be laid over alleged war crimes by Australian special forces troops in Afghanistan, Vivian Bullwinkel’s story reminds us again of our nation’s instinct to whitewash the ugliest truths of war.

A group portrait of Australian Army Nursing Service nurses who were former prisoners of war, on board the hospital ship Manunda on its arrival in Australia. The tall woman, third from the right holding flowers, is Vivian Bullwinkel.(Australian War Memorial)

Her story is set on a beach on Bangka Island, Indonesia, in February 1942, the scene of one of the worst massacres of the War in the Pacific.

A group of soldiers, civilians and Australian Army nurses had fled Singapore ahead of invading Japanese forces, only to be bombed by Japanese aircraft and shipwrecked off the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

The Australian War Memorial records this brief, sanitised description of what befell the unarmed party after they scrambled ashore at Radji Beach and attempted to surrender to Japanese forces.

They shot and bayoneted the males and then forced the 22 Australian nurses and the one British civilian woman who had remained to wade into the sea, then shot them from behind.

Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, a 26-year-old from Broken Hill of the Australian Army Nursing Service, was the sole survivor.

She recalled the scene to an Australian newspaper reporter at the end of the war. 

“Women around me shrieked, stiffened and sank.

“I was hit in the left side. I lost consciousness, then woke again among the bodies. Hardly knowing what I was doing, I dragged myself into the jungle, where I think I fainted again through loss of blood.”

This official account of what happened to Sister Bullwinkel on the beach and in the years afterwards in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, a story so well known to the generation in the years after the war, has always hinted at darker horrors.

Yet for decades, the unpalatable truth of what she suffered has been censored, mainly by military men concerned about women’s reputations, about personal and national shame.

But this is not a story about Sister Bullwinkel’s shame – the shame belongs to the perpetrators.

The details here only confirm her reputation as a remarkably strong, courageous woman, leaving us to ponder at what reserves of courage she must have drawn upon to endure and prosper for her long, consequential life.

Colonel Coralie Gerrard (right) escorts Vivian Bullwinkel away from the memorial commemorating the Australian Army Nursing Service nurses who died at the hands of the Japanese in the Bangka Island massacre.(Australian War Memorial)

‘A war crime had been censored’

Finding out precisely what happened on Bangka Island all those years ago has preoccupied Melbourne writer Georgina Banks for years.

Her great aunt, nursing sister Dorothy Gwendoline Howard Elmes – known to her family as Bud or Benda – did not survive the slaughter.

Included among Sister Bullwinkel’s personal papers, held at the Australian War Memorial, are many letters written to her from relatives of her murdered nursing colleagues.

“Dear Sister Bullwinkel,” wrote Bud’s aunt Evie on November 5, 1945.

“You will no doubt be pestered with letters from friends and relations of those nurses who did not survive that terrible massacre.”

Aunt Evie had heard rumours the nurses died a gruesome death.

“I wish you could report to me that Benda was not bayoneted,” she writes.

Less than a month later, it’s Bud’s mother Dorothy writing to Sister Bullwinkel:

“I received your letter of sympathy last night. It was good of you to write and tell us of Buddy.

“We feel heartbroken about our loss … we had hoped for three and a half years that she might turn up from somewhere. But it wasn’t to be.”

Sister Bullwinkel later visited Bud’s family in Wangaratta.

“I have tried to imagine her sitting there over cups of tea and scones and seeing the devastation on their faces,” says Ms Banks, who is writing a book Back to Bangka: Searching for the truth about the wartime massacre of my great-aunt Bud.

“Understandably she wanted to provide them with some comfort,” she adds.”I think that’s when she developed this narrative of the noble death, the mythologised death, that the nurses walked into the water with their heads held high – that none cried out or called for mercy.”

Bullwinkel and her mother attend a reception held at the 115th Australian General Hospital in honour of returned Australian Army nurses who had been prisoners of war.(Australian War Memorial)

In an interview for an ABC documentary recorded before her death in 2000, Sister Bullwinkel again resorted to this understated, stiff-upper-lip account of the nurses’ final moments:

“We just looked at each other and said, ‘well, they’re not taking prisoners’.”

She shakes her head slightly and squints at the camera —

“And we seemed to accept that fact.”

In 2017, around the 75th anniversary of the massacre, writer and broadcaster Tess Lawrence published an article revealing what the late Sister Bullwinkel had told her in a conversation years before:

That most of the nurses had been “violated” before they were gunned down.

That Sister Bullwinkel wanted to put this in her statement before the war crimes tribunal in 1946 but was ordered not to by the Australian government.

And, reports Ms Lawrence, “she was tortured by these secrets”, her “sense of justice was offended by keeping them locked in.”

Vivian Bullwinkel giving evidence before the War Crimes Tribunal.(Australian War Memorial)

“I was devastated to read that,” writes Ms Banks, a mother of two adult daughters.

“Because of what has happened in our contemporary world, with women reckoning with these things, I couldn’t look away. Vivian Bullwinkel had tried to get the truth out and had been censored — a war crime had been censored.”

‘We were actually tortured and raped’

Noted military historian Lynette Silver has been working alongside Ms Banks to search for further evidence about what really happened to the nurses.

Ms Silver has uncovered a key witness to whom Vivian Bullwinkel disclosed the rapes.

Retired Australian Army major Patricia Hincks told of a brief 1991 meeting with Sister Bullwinkel in the Officers’ Mess in Fremantle’s Leeuwin Barracks.

Major Hincks says she felt privileged to meet the war hero but when she enquired about her forthcoming biography, Sister Bullwinkel became anxious and upset.

“She said she was having a dispute with her publisher, because he did not want to publish the whole truth about the massacre – on the basis that it would upset the relatives of the murdered nurses,” she says.

Sister Bullwinkel was referring to her biographer, a retired army public relations officer Norman Manners, who was effectively self-publishing her life story through a small publisher in Perth.

The now-retired Major Hincks asked Sister Bullwinkel, “Well, what is the truth?”

Sister Bullwinkel replied, “We were actually tortured and raped – and then they marched out to sea.”

Tortured and raped.

“I could see she was very upset that the truth wouldn’t be told before she died,” Major Hincks says.

Ms Silver is celebrated for her ability to comb through wartime archives to get at the truth.

All records of Sister Bullwinkel’s initial statements to war crimes investigators in 1945 were culled six years later, along with every other investigation file that did not result in a trial.

No-one was ever held to account for the atrocities on Bangka Island because the Japanese soldiers involved in the massacre had all died later in the war in fierce fighting in Papua New Guinea.

“Senior Australian Army officers wanted to protect grieving families from the stigma of rape,” Ms Silver surmises. “It was seen as shameful – rape was known as a fate worse than death, and was still a hangable offence in New South Wales until 1955.”

However, given the military propensity for paperwork, it is generally difficult to cull every file and there is always someone who knows where else to look.

A search for evidence

In the late 1960s, Barbara Barlow was working as a clerk in the Repatriation Department in Melbourne – now the Department of Veterans Affairs – processing claims from ex-service personnel who had been disabled due to their war service.

Vivian Bullwinkel’s file was kept at that office.

After reading a newspaper article about Ms Silver’s search for the truth of the Bangka Island massacre, she contacted the historian last year from her home in rural France to recall an incident that occurred in 1968.

“My supervisor was busy writing and stamping a file on his desk and said ‘I have to finish this and get it into [the deputy commissioner’s] safe’,” Ms Barlow says.

It was Vivian Bullwinkel’s file.

“That a file should be held under security was unheard of.

“All departmental files were stored in the central file library.”

The supervisor explained, “she was raped by the Japs on Bangka you know.”

“Of course I didn’t know and I assumed [the file was locked away because] Vivian had developed some special problems such as a result,” said Ms Barlow, who in the months since has provided vital assistance in the archival search for Bullwinkel’s records.

What Ms Silver and Ms Barlow eventually found in remaining archives reveals that three months after the assault, Sister Bullwinkel developed symptoms consistent with secondary syphilis, and for eight months after the rape, she did not have a period.

A document dated September 16, 1945, marked “clinical notes, Sister Bullwinkel, V, aged 29”, begins with the blunt diagnosis of a woman who had endured years in captivity.

1. Mild debility (muscle wastage)

2. Old B.W. (bullet wound) abdominal wall

3. Scabies

The four-page medical history was dictated to allied doctors by Sister Bullwinkel herself, relying on the detailed diaries she kept in captivity.

On May 2, 1942 – about 10 weeks after the massacre on the beach – Sister Bullwinkel developed what she described as “furuncles” or boils on her thighs, and what she thought was a fungal infection or tinea on her feet.

By May 28, her symptoms had become so bad she was hospitalised for 25 days and upon discharge noted her feet were only “slightly improved”.

David Lewis, a professor in sexual health at The University of Sydney, provided a detailed written review of Vivian Bullwinkel’s medical file.

Asked whether she could have been suffering from a sexually transmitted disease, widespread among Japanese troops in the Pacific, Professor Lewis cautions that a definitive diagnosis would have required a blood test, but adds – syphilis is known as ‘The Great Imitator’, a bacterial infection that can mimic many other common conditions.

While he writes that the most likely cause of the feet lesions might well have been tinea, the timing fits for syphilis.

“The appearance of the foot lesions and furuncles on the thighs 10 weeks after the massacre are in keeping with the incubation period for secondary syphilis, and we do know that matron was in good health up until February 1942,” says Professor Lewis.

“Given your comment that [Bullwinkel] subsequently revealed that she was raped by the Japanese soldiers, this could provide an opportunity for the transmission of the causative bacterium, and weknow that syphilis is a highly infectious condition.”

Five months after the rape, in mid-July 1942, Sister Bullwinkel was hospitalised again for nine days.

She was still a healthy weight at this time.

While the brief clinical notes indicate she was being treated for her feet – is it possible she miscarried a child during that hospital stay?

After giving birth or miscarrying, a woman’s periods generally resume after four to six weeks.

Sister Bullwinkel’s periods resumed eight weeks after her discharge from hospital and continued uninterrupted for several years until June 1944, until such time as the nurses and other prisoners of war were all suffering from starvation and malnutrition.

Again, Professor Lewis cautions the absence of Sister Bullwinkel’s periods was most likely stress related, following the trauma of the massacre.

“However, pregnancy cannot be excluded based on the lack of a result from a pregnancy test in the notes, and if [Bullwinkel] was pregnant and infected with syphilis, then there would be a higher chance of miscarriage,” he says.

Ms Banks describes being “absolutely grief stricken” when confronted with the four, scant pages of yellowing, typewritten medical records for Sister Bullwinkel.

Ms Silver was similarly affected.

“The knowledge that the nurses had been raped was bad enough,” she says.

“The possibility that Vivian Bullwinkel may have become pregnant and contracted syphilis is just devastating. We may never have a definitive answer because she was required to keep so much of her wartime suffering a secret. But it is clear she suffered terribly as a prisoner of war, and we know that for years afterwards she endured a devastating effect on her health.”

The truth is revealed – eventually

Vivian Bullwinkel returned to Australia after the war and continued a distinguished nursing career.

She was awarded both the Order of Australia and the MBE for her bravery.

In 1946, she gave evidence about the massacre at a war crimes trial in Tokyo, making no mention of the rape and torture of the nurses.

She served on the council of the Australian War Memorial and was the president of the Australian College of Nursing.

Vivian Bullwinkel was President of the College of Nursing Australia in 1973. She devoted herself to the profession and to honouring those killed in the Bangka Island massacre, raising funds for a nurses’ memorial and serving on numerous committees.(Australian College of Nursing Archives)

In 1975, at short notice, she led a team of nurses to Vietnam to rescue 80 orphaned babies and children and bring them back to adoptive homes in Australia.

She never had children, marrying in 1977 at the age of 61.

Before her death in 2000, she returned to Bangka Island to unveil a shrine to the nurses who did not survive the war.

The War Memorial is planning a statue in her honour, the first to recognise a female war hero.

But Sister Bullwinkel never wanted recognition for herself; what she wanted was the truth to be told.

Perhaps her real legacy should be a willingness to confront those unpalatable truths about the inevitable atrocities of war.