Miracle amid a Pacific bloodbath
THIS is an utterly fascinating book. At one level, the story of the murder of 21 Australian nurses on Radji Beach, Banka Island, on the morning of February 16, 1942, is a minor part of the much wider story of Australians in the Pacific war.
But at another, deeper, level it is a compelling tale of what happened to scores of young women after the dramatically unexpected fall of Singapore to the Japanese. It is also a powerful counter-factual history of what might have been had things been different.
Among hundreds of evacuees scrambling to the docks to escape Singapore were 65 members of the Australian Army Nursing Service, led by matrons Olive Paschke and Irene Drummond. All boarded the coastal freighter Vyner Brooke. Named after the third and last White Rajah of Borneo (Sarawak), the ship, captained by Richard “Tubby” Borton, made it only as far as the waters off Banka Island near Sumatra when it was attacked by Japanese bombers.
The small ship sank within a half hour. Those who survived the sinking of the Vyner Brooke included 22 Australian nurses who, after drifting at sea, some of them for days, found their way to Muntok, the largest settlement on Banka Island, which now boasts the world’s largest tin smelter. Having been escorted to Radji Beach, a few kilometres to the west of Muntok, the nurses were ordered into the sea by a senior Japanese officer, Captain Orita Masaru, and executed in a hail of machinegun bullets.
The gruesome events of that morning left a sole Australian survivor. She was the remarkable Vivian Bullwinkel who, covered in blood, remained up to her waist in the sea until the Japanese had left. Significantly, like Bullwinkel and many other Australians at the time, most of Masaru’s troops could not swim. Although later interned, Bullwinkel, born at Kapunda in South Australia and trained at the Broken Hill Hospital, survived the starvation and disease that killed many of her friends. She was eventually able to bring to light the truth about the atrocities committed against Australian nurses on Radji Beach and elsewhere in the Pacific.
Author of a brilliant work of social history, The Bloodbath, about the 1945 VFL grand final, Ian W. Shaw has turned his talents to this powerful tale about a much more important bloodbath. Some of the most riveting and revealing material in On Radji Beach comes from surviving first-hand accounts. Thus nurse Betty Jeffrey described the doomed city of Singapore as she boarded the Vyner Brooke: “There were fires burning everywhere behind and about us and on the wharf hundreds of people trying to get away, long queues of civilian men and women, and a long grey line — us. Masts of sunken ships were sticking up out of the water, but there were no ships in sight other than forlorn-looking barges.”
Looking back at the blazing city, Veronica Clancy wrote: “In the distance, Singapore appeared to be just ablaze, the flames almost reaching the sky. The planes of the enemy caught in the searchlights looked like silver moths around an enormous light. The smoke from the burning oil dumps seemed to hang in dark clouds overshadowing everything.”
Most poignant of all is Bullwinkel’s account of the slaughter of her comrades. At the end of the line of Australian nurses, Alma Beard said to her: “Bully, there are two things I’ve always hated in my life, the Japanese and the sea, and today I’ve ended up with both.”
Unable to reply, Bullwinkel thought: “How can something as dirty and evil as this be happening in a place that is so beautiful?” As a believer, one thought gave her comfort; that she would be reunited with her dead father and some time in the future with her mother, and brother John. As the line of 22 young Australian women began to move forward, she heard the indomitable Irene Drummond call out to them: “Chin up, girls. I’m proud of you and I love you all.”
Shaw powerfully describes the situation seconds before the nurses were murdered: “There was a moment of almost supernatural silence as they set off. Several of the girls looked across and made eye contact with friends, but most just looked straight ahead, seeing something that no one else would or could ever see. And then the killing began.”
Is it any wonder that the sole survivor of the massacre on that beautiful beach couldn’t explain why she was spared, other than to be able to recount this terrible tale, or that Shaw often visits Bullwinkel’s corner in the Australian War Memorial because he finds it inspirational? At least in part, it hints “at lives cut short, of sacrifice and self-sacrifice”. It also highlights, as the author of this unforgettable book concludes, “just what the families of those who did not return actually lost in Banka Strait, on Radji Beach, and in the camps of Muntok and Sumatra”.
On Radij Beach, By Ian W. Shaw, Macmillan, 346pp, $34.99
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Weekend Australian October 9-10, 2010