Monday, July 31, 2023

Unveiling of Nurse Bullwinkel statue and Bangka Island rapes and massacre

Miniature of Nurse Bullwinkel statue
On August 1, 2023 Washington, DC time or August 2 Australian time t
he installation of the Nurse Vivian Bullwinkel statue will take place. 

It is the first representation of a woman on the grounds of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, Australia.This historic event is hosted by the Australian College of Nursing Foundation and the Australian War Memorial.

You can watch the ceremony HERE. 7:30am AEST Wednesday in Australia, which is 5:30pm EDT Tuesday in Washington, DC

Nurse Bullwinkel was the sole survivor of the February 16, 1942 rape and massacre of 22 women who served with the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) as well as one British civilian woman who were shipwrecked on Radji Beach, Bangka Island in the Dutch East Indies. They were fleeing the fall of Singapore aboard the Vyner Brooke. There were American women on the ship and Bullwinkel ended up in a POW camp on Sumatra where there were also Americans among the many Allied nationalities of women. The Japanese kept the camps housing women secret, making eventual rescue difficult and late.

Bullwinkel symbolizes the extraordinary service of the Allied nursing corps during WWII in the Pacific and their resilience in face of constant starvation, sexual assault, and abuse.

The statue also rights a historical injustice. In 1946, the American Occupation authorities demanded that the Australian government have Nurse Bullwinkel remove from her testimony at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal her descriptions of the gang rapes on Bangka Island and sexual abuse of the women in the POW camps. As a result, she remained quiet until shortly before she died in 2000. When finally asked to tell the truth, Bullwinkel replied "We were actually tortured and raped – and then they [we were] marched out to sea." What she never admitted, but the POW camp medical records suggest, was that she contracted syphilis from the gang rape and miscarried. 

The perpetrators of the Bangka Massacre were never prosecuted. Reportedly, they were the same soldiers who were responsible for the rapes, mutilations (possible cannibalism), and murders the nurses and doctors at St Stephen's hospital in Hong Kong on December 25, 1941.

After the women were assaulted, the Japanese set up a machine gun on the beach. Senior Nurse Irene Melville Drummond whispered to her colleagues as they entered the surf  "Chin up, girls. I'm proud of you and I love you all." The women were then machine-gunned when they were about waist deep in the sea. Nurse Drummond fell first.

Thus far, there is no indication that anyone from the U.S. government intends to attend the August 2nd event for Nurse Bullwinkel in Canberra. Attendance would be an affirmation of the American commitment to women's rights, victims of sexual violence, and our Australian allies. 

There is legislation honoring American WWII nurses (H.R.3272) pending. Unfortunately, the clauses on WWII in the Pacific are grossly inaccurate and I hope they are corrected. On July 28, 2023, one of the "Angels of Bataan," Nurse Susan Josephine Pitcher was featured as the VA's Veteran of the Day.

Resources and readings on Vivian Bullwinkel and the Bangka Island Massacre.

-A thorough analysis of the Bangka Massacre:  The compelling conclusion, arrived at through the lengthy research conducted in compiling this memorial document, is that the events at Radji Beach were even more complex, cruel, and barbaric than mainstream reports have to date led us to believe. The empathy of those honouring the memory of those women murdered at Radji Beach may need to also consider the torture experienced during their last hours - perhaps even more so than has been the case to date. Nothing detracts from the exemplary behaviour and everlasting honour of these brave and noble women.
-For an overall history of the atrocities on Bangka see the The Muntok Memorial Peace Museum.
-Women Interned in World War Two Sumatra: Faith, Hope and Survival, Hardcover – August 9, 2022, Barbara Coombes (Author). 
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