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Appreciating War-Time Nurses the World Over

November 14, 2012

Peggy McDaniel, BSN, RN, an occasional contributor to this blog, works as a clinical liaison support manager of infusion, and is currently based in Brisbane, Australia.

Vivian Bullwinkel / Wikipedia

“Chins up, girls. I’m proud of you and I love you all.”

According to a survivor’s account, these words were spoken by an Australian nurse, Irene Drummond, on Radji Beach, February 16, 1942. This crescent-shaped stretch of white sand is in the Banka Strait near Banka Island, Indonesia. Ms. Drummond and 21 fellow Australian nurses (plus one civilian) walked into the warm sea holding hands, creating a human chain. As their feet touched the surf they were riddled with bullets from Japanese machine guns set up on the beach behind them.

The Banka Strait was an escape route from Singapore and the larger region just before and during the Japanese occupation of Singapore during World War II. The Aussie nurses, some of the very last military personnel to be evacuated from Singapore before the occupation, had snuck away under at night aboard the Vyner Brook in February 1942. They were among approximately 200 passengers attempting to escape to safer ground, but Japanese pilots bombed and sunk the ship. Civilians, military personnel, and nurses died during the attack on the Vyner Brooke, and many of the same escaped into lifeboats. Some of the survivors made it to the shore and ultimately ended up on Radji Beach.

As an American nurse living and working in Australia and the greater Asia Pacific region, I recently had the chance to visit the Australian War Memorial. As I wandered through this amazing museum, I read about Radji Beach and the one nurse who survived that particular massacre. Afterward, in the bookshop I picked up On Radji Beach, by Ian W. Shaw. It’s the story of Australian nurses after the fall of Singapore during World War II, and is the primary reference for this blog post.

The lone nurse survivor of the Radji Beach massacre was Vivian Bullwinkel. Her story and that of the other nurses kept me engaged and often on the brink of tears. I couldn’t imagine working as a nurse during World War II, and felt proud to share the same vocation as Vivian.

Ms. Bullwinkel was one of 65 nurses evacuated from Singapore on the Vyner Brooke in 1942. Only 23 returned to Australia, after finally being discovered in a Malaysian POW camp in 1945. She left the Australian Army Nursing Service in 1947 and subsequently had a distinguished career in civilian nursing, passing away in July 2000.

My few hours in the war memorial and the book also brought to mind our U.S. military and the medical teams that work near the front lines every day. I know I’m not cut from the same cloth, as this is not something I would choose to do, but I thank them for doing it. Since Australia celebrated Remembrance Day and the U.S. celebrated Veteran’s Day this past week, my thoughts go to those who have fought and died for both countries, especially all the medical personnel—particularly nurses.

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9 comments

  1. This story is very inspiring and also makes me very proud to have the same vocation as all of these women who died in this horrible massacre. They risked their lives during the war and were very brave to hold hands and walk on the beach knowing they would be killed. I cant imagine being a nurse during a war but it must be a horrible experience knowing your life is at stake. I thank Peggy for giving us the opportunity to share this story with us. I am sure that some blog readers including myself did not know about this story.

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  2. Wartime nurses have touched many lives and I agree with the author in this article. Although I am currently a nurse I don’t think I would be cut out to be a nurse during WWII. It is inspirational to read their stories and how they have overcome the challenges in taking care of others during those darks times. It makes my job small compared to what they have done for their countries and others during those times. Reflecting how nurses have come from it is encouraging to know what they have done in our field. Also, knowing what have these nurses accomplished has influenced our current nurses.

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  3. This blog regarding appreciating the war time nurses is awe inspiring. Whenever you contemplate war and standing on the front lines, nurses never come to mind. The thoughts that are usually had are about the soldiers that are risking their lives for our freedom and never the medical professionals. Doctors and nurses are placed in the same amount of danger if not more when they are trying to rescue the lives of the wounded. Reading this blog shows me the bravery and strength that these nurses had to possess while being rattled down with the heavy artillery on Radji Beach. It forces me to reflect on my own self and made me think if I too share these traits, and to be quite frank I don’t think I could. Honestly, I am not cut out for war and for all that it entails. Often times, nurses are said to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their patients, i.e. bathroom breaks and lunch times but the real question is, will you possibly give your life for your patient? Having read this story of the Australian nurses in World War II, I have a renewed respect for my profession. When Veteran’s Day comes around next year I will not only say thanks to the soldiers but also to the wonderful nurses who have also displayed the same amount of courage.

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  4. Ms. McDaniel, thank you for this post reminding everyone of those nurses who risked their lives to care for their patients during war-time. In the United States, it is easy to forget that we are at war. The war in Afghanistan has gone on for so long that it feels as if we are desensitized to the violence there. I am thankful to all of those serving their country. In my career, I care for patients with traumatic head injuries and neurological disorders. My job is hard enough in a stable and safe environment. I cannot imagine what the nurses at the front lines experience.

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  5. Peggy, I think, in the interests of keeping the post’s focus, I didn’t include that bit from your original. Hope that’s okay! Cheers. -Jacob

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  6. I’d like to add that I get to Singapore often and it is a wonderful city. It certainly does not reveal the challenges it faced during WW2.

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  7. Well done Peggy!

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  8. Terrific !

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  9. Great post, Peggy. Thank you for sharing this amazing story with us.

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