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Army honours Broken Hill nurse

Friday, 11th October, 2019

Vivian Bullwinkel in her army nurse’s uniform at the age of 26, just before her posting overseas. Vivian Bullwinkel in her army nurse’s uniform at the age of 26, just before her posting overseas.

By Craig Brealey

The largest Army barracks in Brisbane has been named in honour of Vivian Bullwinkel, the Broken Hill Hospital nurse who survived a massacre in World War II and went on to serve with distinction during and after the war.

Gallipoli Barracks’ 17th Brigade Precinct was renamed the “Bullwinkel Lines” at a ceremony held last month.

This is a signal honour because usually a barracks is named after a battle.

Lieutenant Colonel Vivian Bullwinkel is the Australian Defence Force’s most decorated nursing officer.

She was the sole survivor of the Bangka Island Massacre in which 22 Australian nurses were machine-gunned to death by Japanese Imperial Army forces.

Another Broken Hill nurse, Army Matron Irene Drummond, was among those killed.

Nurse Bullwinkel was then held as a prisoner of war on the island of Sumatra where she cared for wounded and sick prisoners for three years. 

After the war, she gave evidence to the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal and went on to have a distinguished career, including serving on the Council of the Australian War Memorial and as president of the Australian College of Nurses.

She died in 2000 at the age of 84 in Perth.

According to the army publication, Defence Connect, at the unveiling of a monument at the renaming ceremony, 2nd General Health Battalion nursing officer, Lieutenant Kylie Johnston, said 17th Brigade members were proud to further recognise the contribution of Lt.Col. Bullwinkel.

“This ceremony is a testament to the courage that Vivian Bullwinkel showed, not only during her service, but also in her tireless advocacy for nursing and those who served,” Lieutenant Johnston said.


Commander of the 17th Brigade, Brigadier Andrew Freeman, said Lt. Col. Bullwinkel represented the Army values of courage and leadership, Defence Connect reported on September 25.

Vivian Bullwinkel was born in Kapunda, South Australia, and completed her general nursing training at the Broken Hill Base Hospital in 1938 at the age of 23 and midwifery the following year.

She enlisted with the Australian Army Nursing Services in 1941 and worked at the Singapore Hospital until just before the city fell to the Japanese in 1942.

The patients and staff were evacuated on ships and Nurse Bullwinkel, 64 fellow nurses and 265 men, women and children, were aboard the last to leave, the SS Vyner Brooke.

But the small coastal steamer was bombed by aircraft and sunk. The survivors drifted to Bangka Island, south of Singapore, where they surrendered to the Japanese who killed the wounded men and ordered the nurses to walk into the sea.

As the firing squad readied, Matron Drummond told the nurses: “Chin up, girls, I’m proud of you and I love you all.”

Nurse Bullwinkel was shot through the side of the waist and after the Japanese troops left the beach, she spent 12 days hiding in the jungle with a British soldier who had survived another massacre.

She looked after him until he died and then surrendered to the Japanese but did not mention the Bangka Island atrocity; as the only witness, she would have been killed.

Among the honours bestowed upon Vivian Bullwinkel were the Order of Australia and Member of the British Empire. Several hospitals in Melbourne and Perth named wings after her and the Broken Hill Hospital’s foyer is also named in her honour. 

A park dedicated to the memory of Irene Drummond was opened at the hospital in 1949.

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