Episode 64 - Knocker and Chisholm's Leather Emporium (Nurses Week)
Tom's Notes; Bangka Island Massacre
I’ve chosen a very emotive story today. It’s very sad, but there are uplifting themes of strength, stoicism, resilience and camaraderie.
• Of all the things I’ve researched for this podcast, this has been one of the few stories that elicited a strong emotional response.
• It’s worth reiterating that I am British, so that emotional response might have been a quiver of my top lip, or the raising of an eyebrow, or the faintest dilation of the pupils. So strong stuff.
To prevent my piece from becoming too heavy, I will throw in some limericks at the start and end.
So, my story involves Australians and the Japanese.
• So, I hear our regular listeners cry, this could go a number of ways!
• Will it be a shipwreck?
• Will it be a story of persecuted native populations?
• Will it involve war crimes?
• Or will it involve weird and wonderful monsters and their obsessions with arse holes?
Let’s spin the Wheel of Genius!
• Bruce Forsyth; spin, spin, safety pin, stop it spinning with my chin. Round it goes, up my nose, where will it land? Nobody knows.
That’s right, it’s a shipwreck followed by war crimes! Hooray!
Right, let’s get on to the topic.
I’m going to tell you and our listeners about the Bangka Island Massacre of February 1942. We’re already starting to get a feel for where this is going aren’t we? More particularly, I’m going to talk about nurse Vivian Bullwinkle; a truly astonishing women. One of many brave nurses involved in this story.
There once was a man called Pete
Who had the most enormous feet
If the tales be true
His cock would be too
But as it turns out it was quite petite
Allow me to set the scene with some history. This is the learny-learny bit.
December 1941, only a matter of months earlier, Germany had decided to attack the Soviet Union. Bad idea. This time, Japan decided that, what the fuck, the Axis powers aren’t finding this hard enough already, let’s attack the USA! Hooray! Because they’ll be a walk over. But wait, rather than put your hands up and say “nozzzing to do vith us!”, Germany and Italy declare was on the US too (there’s a reason the Axis powers lost WW2; decision making issues).
• So, Japan entered the war with a bang, bombing Pearl Harbour (and other US bases in the Pacific) and bringing the US into the war, and also attacking British colonies Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaya, Burma etc. The Dutch East Indies were attacked, they were Dutch. Darwin in Australia was also bombed and Australian territories in the area were also capture. All within the space of a few months
Anyway, of interest to us is the capture of Singapore by the Japanese in February 1942. Singapore was hugely important strategically to the British because it was the major British military base in that corner of the world, where Britain had lots of interest. The allied forces in Singapore, mostly British, Australian and Indian, were there to fight. This wasn’t a territory that could be lost and regained some time later; the Commonwealth forces intended to hold it. So when the Japanese captured it, 80,000 troops surrendered; the biggest British surrender in the nation’s history.
Three days before the surrender, midway through the week-long battle of Singapore, a merchant steamship turned naval ship called the SS Vyner Brooke attempted to leave Singapore. It contained injured servicemen, 65 Australian nurses and a number of civilian men, women (many elderly) and children; somewhere in the region of 250 in total (for a ship designed to carry 12).
The ship was bombed by the Japanese and it sank. In a demonstration of heroism and stoicism, the nurses quickly assumed positions all around the ship when it was under attack and helped all of the civilian crew into lifeboats first, before doing whatever they could to survive the sinking whilst being strafed by Japanese planes.
Most of those on the ship managed to get into lifeboats (a few inevitably died) and the survivors of the sinking found themselves washed up in various places on the island of Bangka (now part of Indonesia). There are vivid stories of the survivors clinging to whatever they could, battling the currents, trying desperately to reach shore where a fire had been lit on a beach to attract survivors. It sounds like chaos.
Around 80 survivors reunited on this beach, and parties quickly explored the area searching for help. They discovered uncooperative locals who informed them that the island was Japanese now. So one of the ship’s officers set off to Muntok, the islands capital, to surrender shortly followed by a party of the civilian women and children. The 22 nurses in this party (there were 65 on the boat) remained behind to look after the wounded servicemen. They erected a red cross to highlight that they were non-combatants and should be treated as such.
That night, on the beach, the survivors peered out to sea, warmed by the fire, and watched another ship being shelled by aircraft. A few hours later, 20 shipwrecked British soldiers joined the group.
The officer returned with 20 Japanese soldiers. These soldiers promptly rounded up the injured servicemen capable of walking, walked them around a headland in 2 groups, shot them and bayonetted them.
These soldiers then returned to the nurses, calmly sat down to clean their rifles and bloodied bayonets, then ordered all of the nurses (and one elderly civilian women who remained to be with her injured husband) to walk into the surf, where they too were machine gunned to death. The remaining injured servicemen unable to walk were then killed.
The matron of the nurses, Matron Irene Drummond, is reported to have said "Chin up, girls. I’m proud of you and I love you all” as they walked out. The accounts of Drummond make her sound like a legend by the way; calm, stoical, organised and dutiful. In fact, it was she who told the civilian women and children to walk to Muntok; which saved their lives. She was also instrumental in organising the fire on the beach to attract survivors.
As it turns out, the Japanese soldiers, the wankers, couldn’t even commit a war crime properly. One of the nurses, the lady mentioned earlier, Vivian Bullwinkle, miraculously survived, in her words:
“started firing up and down the line with a machine gun. ... They just swept up and down the line and the girls fell one after the other. I was towards the end of the line and a bullet got me in the left loin and went straight through and came out towards the front. The force of it knocked me over into the water and there I lay. I did not lose consciousness. ... The waves brought me back on to the edge of the water. I lay there 10 minutes and everything seemed quiet. I sat up and looked around and there was no sign of anybody. Then I got up and went up in the jungle and lay down and either slept or was unconscious for a couple of days.”
Bullwinkle awoke a few days later and found that one of the injured servicemen had survived too, a chap called Patrick Kingsley. As it turns out, 2 more servicemen survived the execution. Kinglsey had somehow survived being bayonetted. Bullwinkle dressed her wounds, and his, and the two of them managed to survive for about 12 days by begging for food at a nearby Indonesian village. The two rehearsed a story about how they arrived on the island, realising that they should not mention the massacre Bullwinkle did what she could to hide her wound, and they eventually conceded that they would have to surrender and hope for the best.
The arrived at a POW camp and, fortunately, discovered that the civilian women and children had arrived safely. There were also 31 other nurses from the shipwreck. Of the 65 nurses on the ship, 12 were presumed drowned, 21 were shot, and 32 survived. On the beach, over 80 people were murdered, at least 21 of whom were women with red crossed on their uniforms.
For the remainder of the war, Bullwinkle lived in horrendous conditions in Japanese POW camps. 8 of the Australian nurses actually died in POW camps in the subsequent years. The nurses kept organised, and kept doing what they could to help the other POWs. This included burying the dead, taking shit in coconut shells out of the POW camp into the jungle and looking after the sick.
After the war, and I’ll be quick about this, Bullwinkle went on to be a very well respected and experienced nurse in Australia. She got on with her life and it would appear had the strength to not allow this experience to define here. Top bloke-ette. She died in 2000.
There’s a twist to this story Sam, a twist bought to light recently by a few historians and journalists. The version I have told was the version of the story from 1946, when this was investigated as a war crime, to only a few years ago. Just in case things couldn’t get any worse, the 21 women who were massacred on Bangka Island were probably raped before being murdered.
For a long time, there were rumours that there was more to the story, many military historians strongly believed that this was the case. But the people who experienced these atrocities had a code of silence to protect each other’s reputations and also to facilitate the forgetting of these events. It is well known anecdotally that survivors of Japanese POW camps in general were always reluctant to talk about their experiences. It could well be that some of the survivors did things, with a degree of cooperation, to survive and they do not want to remember what they were pushed to do to survive, this is also the case with many holocaust survivors. Or possibly, people like Bullwinkle were ordered to be silent. This is strongly argued by many; the Australian government felt guilty that it had not protected these nurses better, particularly as it was known that Japanese soldiers had raped and killed British nurses when Hong Kong was taken. It has also been argued that the USA wanted to build Japan back up as a capitalist ally in the East post war. Although I can’t how censoring small details of atrocities already well known could help this.
One of the main clues regarding the rapes is Bullwinkles clothing and mismatching entry and exit holes. In a nutshell, this evidence strongly suggests that her clothes had been ripped open prior to being shot.
Here’s a quote from another male survivor of the shooting:
“All the male bodies had been piled on top of one another in one big heap. Then I went further along and found the bodies of the Australian nurses and other women. They lay at intervals of a few yards – in different positions and in various stages of undress. They had been shot and then bayoneted”
Here’s a quote from another source, where a Japanese soldier was interrogated, presumably after the war…
“Kiyoshi admitted to hearing screams coming from nearby houses situated between groves of pawpaw and mango trees, and was told by platoon members that some officers and NCOs were pleasuring themselves (raping) some Australian nurses. He was told that after the officers and NCOs were satisfied it would be the platoon’s turn.”
It has been speculated that this account could actually refer to another massacre on the island, because some details don’t quite add up. Possibly the 12 nurses presumed dead had actually found their way to shore only to be raped and executed.
Bullwinkle herself, it is alleged, told her biographer off the record that rapes had taken place.
I once met a man on Hampstead Heath
Who was known as arse-gob Keith
His mouth had the stench
Of an incontinent wench
Because he never once cleaned his teeth
A man once saw a big, orange ghost
Whilst eating marmalade on toast
At his posh BnB
He’d been served some tea
That had been spiked with shrooms by his host