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.
“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.