Built in 1928, the SS Vyner Brooke was a British-registered cargo vessel of 1,670 tons. She was named after the Third Rajah of Sarawak – Sir Charles Vyner Brooke.
Up until the outbreak of war with the Japanese, Vyner Brooke plied the waters between Singapore and Kuching, under the flag of the Sarawak Steamship Company.
She was then requisitioned by Britain’s Royal Navy as an armed trader.
On the evening of 12 February 1942, Vyner Brooke was one the last ships carrying evacuees to leave Singapore.
Although she usually only carried 12 passengers, in addition to her 47 crew, Vyner Brooke sailed south with 181 passengers embarked, most of them women and children. Among the passengers were the last 65 Australian nurses in Singapore. Throughout the daylight hours of 13 February Vyner Brooke laid up in the lee of a small jungle-covered island, but she was attacked late in the afternoon by a Japanese aircraft, fortunately with no serious casualties. At sunset she made a run for the Banka Strait, heading for Palembang in Sumatra. Prowling Japanese warships, however, impeded her progress and daylight the next day found her dangerously exposed on a flat sea just inside the strait.
Not long after 2:00pm, Vyner Brooke was attacked by several Japanese aircraft. Despite evasive action, she was crippled by several bombs and within half an hour rolled over and sunk bow first. Approximately 150 survivors eventually made it ashore at Banka Island, after periods of between eight and 65 hours in the water. The island had already been occupied by the Japanese and most of the survivors were taken captive.
However, an awful fate awaited many of those that landed on Radji beach.
There, survivors from the Vyner Brooke joined up with another party of civilians and up to 60 Commonwealth servicemen and merchant sailors, who had made it ashore after their own vessels were sunk. After an unsuccessful effort to gain food and assistance from local villagers, a deputation was sent to contact the Japanese, with the aim of
having the group taken prisoner. Anticipating this, all but one of the civilian women followed behind. A party of Japanese troops arrived at Radji Beach a few hours later. 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.
There were only two survivors – Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, and Private Cecil Kinsley, a British soldier. After hiding in the jungle for several days the pair eventually gave themselves up to the Japanese. Kinsley died a few days later from his wounds, and Bullwinkel spent the rest of the war as an internee.
Of the 65 Australian nurses embarked upon the Vyner Brooke, 12 were killed during the air attack or drowned following the sinking, 21 were murdered on Radji Beach, and 32 became internees, 8 of whom subsequently died before the end of the war.
The stories of the Vyner Brooke and Vivian Bullwinkle are completely inter-connected.
Lieutenant-Colonel Vivian Bullwinkel (Mrs Statham) AO MBE ARRC ED FNM, 18.12.1915 – 3.7.2000, the sole survivor of the Bangka Island Massacre
Vivian Bullwinkel was born on 18 December 1915 in Kapunda, South Australia, to George Francis and Eva Bullwinkel (née Shegog). She had a brother, John. She trained as a nurse and midwife at Broken Hill, New South Wales, and began her nursing career in Hamilton, Victoria, before moving to the Jessie McPherson Hospital in Melbourne. In 1941, wanting to enlist, Bullwinkel volunteered as a nurse with the Royal Australian Air Force but was rejected for having flat feet. She was, however, able to join the Australian Army Nursing Service; assigned to the 2/13th Australian General Hospital (2/13th AGH), in September 1941 she sailed for Singapore. After a few weeks with the 2/10th AGH, Bullwinkel re-joined the 13th AGH in Johor Baharu. Japanese troops invaded Malaya in December 1941 and began to advance southwards, winning a series of victories. By late January 1942 they were advancing through Johore and the 13th AGH was to evacuate to Singapore.
A short-lived defence of the island ended in defeat, and, on 12 February, Bullwinkel and 65 other nurses boarded the SS Vyner Brooke to escape. Two days later, the ship was sunk by Japanese aircraft. Bullwinkel, 21 other nurses and a large group of men,
women, and children made it ashore at Radji Beach on Banka Island. Others on board either went down with the ship or were swept away and never seen again.
The group were joined the next day by others making a total of about 100 including about twenty English soldiers from another ship sunk earlier. They elected to surrender to the Japanese.
An officer from the Vyner Brooke walked to Muntok, a town on the north-west of the island, to contact the Japanese. While he was away Matron Irene Drummond, the most senior of the Australian nurses, suggested that the civilian women and children should start off walking towards Muntok. In an action that later became known as the Banka Island Massacre, Japanese soldiers came and killed the men, then motioned the nurses to wade into the sea. They then machine-gunned the nurses from behind. Bullwinkel was struck by a bullet which passed completely through her body, missing her internal organs, and feigned death until the Japanese soldiers left. She hid with British Army Private Cecil George Kingsley of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps for 12 days, tending to his severe wounds, only then realising the extent of her own wound, before being captured. They were taken into captivity, but Private Kingsley died soon after due to his having sustained such serious wounds, including a gunshot wound in his abdomen. Bullwinkel was reunited with survivors of the Vyner Brooke. She told them of the massacre, but none spoke of it again until after the war lest it put Bullwinkel, as witness to the massacre, in danger.
Bullwinkel spent three and half
years in captivity. Another surviving nurse, Pat Darling died in 2007. Vivian retired from the army in 1947 and became Director of Nursing at the Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital. Also in 1947 she gave evidence of the massacre at a war crimes trial in Tokyo. She devoted herself to the nursing profession and to honouring those killed on Banka Island, raising funds for a nurses’ memorial and serving on numerous committees, including a period as a member of the Council of the Australian War Memorial, and later President of the Australian College of Nursing. Bullwinkel married Colonel Francis West Statham in September 1977, changing her name to Vivian Statham. She returned to Bangka Island in 1992 to unveil a shrine to the nurses who had not survived the war. She died of a heart attack on 3 July 2000, aged 84, in Perth, Western Australia.
Australian Ex POWs return to Japan
Over the years, the memories of the Burma Thailand Railway fade away with the passing of the survivors of the Railway. As part of the experience of coming to terms with the horrors of the Railway experience, a number of survivors returned over the years. The following is a description of one such visit.
Five Australian ex POWs and their family members (a total of ten people) visited Japan from 1st to 9th March 2011 at the invitation of the Japanese Government as part of the project “The Japanese/POW Friendship Programme”. Few young Japanese know that Japan fought against Australia during the Second World War and fewer still knew of
the atrocities which occurred.
About 22,000 Australians became prisoners of war (POWs) under the Japanese army after the invasion of the Far East. Most of the POWs were sent to Japan and Southeast Asia and the latter included Thailand, particularly the Thai-Burma railway, so called the “Death Railway”. About 8,000 of them died of the harsh labour, starvation and diseases. The death rate was as high as 36 per cent. The total number of Australian deaths in WW2 was about 19,000. The fact that 40 per cent of them died as POWs under the Japanese army has put a dark shadow on Australian national history. Many survivors suffered from the scars on their bodies and hearts, and anti-Japanese
feelings arose from time to time. With this historical background, the Japanese government invited personnel related to the Australian army to return
to Japan. During a one-week stay by the ex-POWs, a sincere apology by the then Foreign minister, Maehara, was a highlight. There were assemblies in Kyoto and Tokyo and escorted trips to internment camp sites. All ex POWs were warmly
welcomed in each region. Two days after the group left Japan (saying “It was a very fruitful trip”), an earthquake hit Japan.
Visiting members of the party were: Mr. Harold Ramsey, born 1921 (89 years old at the time) of Victoria. Joined the Australian army at the age of 18.
Involved in the action in the Middle East. Before being sent to Java, captured by the Japanese army and was interned in Changi. Forced to work at the Burma-Thai Railway. On his way to Japan on the “Hell Ship” Rakuyo Maru, his ship was torpedoed by a US submarine and sunk in the South China Sea on 12 September, 1944. Rescued by a Japanese ship, he was interned in the Tokyo No.11 dispatched camp (later No.14 Branch camp, in Tsurumi ward, Yokohama city). Forced to work at Toshiba Tsurumi factory. After the camp was destroyed by American air bombing on 15 April, 1945, he was transferred to the Tokyo No.15 Branch camp in Niigata and worked at Niigata iron factory. Accompanied on the trip by Mr. Stephen Ramsey (son).
Mr. Norman E. Anderton, born 1921 (89 years old at the time) of Queensland. Signalman of 8th Battalion. Injured before the fall of Singapore on 13 February 1942 and became a POW at the hospital. Was forced to work at the Thai- Burma railway. The war came to the end while he was in Tambaya hospital camp in Burma (Myanmar). Accompanied by Ms Nichole (Nikki) Wood (niece).
Mr. Alfred John Simmonds (Jack), born 1922 (88 years old at the time) of Queensland. Became a POW in Singapore, interned in Changi POW camp and transferred from Singapore to Moji, Japan, on the Kyokko Maru in May 1943. Interned in the Osaka No.10 Branch camp (Taisho Branch in Shinchitose-machi, Taisho ward, Osaka city) and forced to work at the Osaka iron factory Transferred to the Osaka No.7 Branch camp (2 Kitago, Takefu city, Fukui) in May 1945 and forced to work for Shin-Etsu Chemical in Takefu. He had earlier visited Japan in 2004 with Australian ex-
POWs, Mr. Neil MacPherson and Mr.Jack Boon courtesy of the Japan-Australia Society of Nara and visited the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Yokohama. Accompanied by Ms. Dawn June Steindl (partner).
Dr. Charles Rowland Bromley Richards, born in 1916 (94 years old at the time) of New South Wales. Became a POW in Singapore, was sent to the Thai-Burma railway and instrumental in saving the lives of fellow POWs as a medical
officer. Sent in Saigon and on the way to Japan on the Rakuyo Maru the ship was torpedoed by a US submarine and sunk. He was rescued by a Japanese naval frigate, interned in the Sendai No.9 Branch camp (Sakata city, Yamagata) forced to work at Sakata branch of Nippon Express. Accompanied by Dr. David Alexander Bromley Richards (the eldest son), Ms. Patricia Margaret Reed (partner), Ms. Maria Clare Richards (the wife of the eldest son). Ms. Lois Yvonne Richards (the wife of the second son). Published “A Doctor’s War”. Previously visited Japan in 1959 and had a reunion with two civilians who were kind to him in Sakata. Rowley had made a speech at a seminar held at th Australian National University in Canberra under the auspices of the University in 2006.
Mr. GF (Fred) Brett, born in 1925 (85 years old at the time) of Tasmania. Captured in Timor in 1942, interned in Changi POW camp and forced to work on the Thai-Burma railway. He was later transferred to Fukuoka No.13 camp (in Saganoseki, Oita) in September 1944, after a two-month journey on the Rashin Maru, the so called Byoki Maru (sick ship). He was forced to work at the Saganoseki refinery at Nihon Kogyo and later at the No.8 camp (later called No.5 Branch camp) in Kawasaki, Fukuoka. He was forced to work in the coal pit of Omine mine of Furukawa Kogyo. He was accompanied by Mr. Robert Bennett (registered nurse).