2 August 2023

Heroic nurse Vivian Bullwinkel honoured in a first for the Australian War Memorial

| Sally Hopman
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Statue of woman

The first statue of a woman to be installed at the Australian War Memorial, heroic nurse Vivian Bullwinkel, is manoeuvred into place. Photo: Australian War Memorial.

She was the woman who saved the lives of hundreds of others as a nurse and humanitarian.

She was also the woman who survived one of the worst atrocities of World War II.

And on Wednesday (2 August), she became the first individual woman or nurse to be honoured with a statue, unveiled at the Australian War Memorial.

The erection of the statue of Lieutenant-Colonel Vivian Bullwinkel was a joint project with the Australian College of Nursing. It recognises not only Lt Col Bullwinkel, but all the Australian nurses who have lost their lives, survived atrocities or made sacrifices while serving their country.

CEO of the Australian College of Nursing Adjunct Professor Kylie Ward said she was inspired by the thought that generations of children to come would see a figure in bronze of a nurse and midwife at the Australian War Memorial.

“The sculpture will be a powerful and long-lasting symbol of nurses’ selfless service to Australia and its citizens whether in war or in peace,” she said.

Portrait of nurse

A 1962 portrait of Matron Vivian Bullwinkel by Shirley Bourne. Image: Australian War Memorial.

To mark the erection of the statue, Adjunct Professor Ward also announced on Wednesday that the Australian College of Nursing would introduce 22 scholarships in honour of the memory and sacrifice of the 21 nurses who were massacred at Radji Beach on Bangka Island, Indonesia, in February 1942, along with the sole survivor Lt Col Vivian Bullwinkel.

She said the nurses were doing the work they loved until the very end.

“For two days following their evacuation to Bangka Island, the nurses cared for other wounded evacuees, including women and children, civilians and soldiers,” Adjunct Professor Ward said.

“They were then ordered to walk into the sea and were machine-gunned in the back. Vivian was shot and wounded but lived to share this harrowing story of strength and sacrifice.”

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“In their memory, the ACN Foundation will invest the Bullwinkel Scholar funding to provide the 21 scholarships in perpetuity,” she added.

“Vivian Bullwinkel devoted her life to ensuring the nurses would not be forgotten, and the ACN Foundation intends to carry on her work and legacy.”

Dr Charles Robb, a Brisbane-based artist who was chosen to create the bronze statue of Lt Col Bullwinkel, said the artwork told more than just one story – he wanted it to capture the challenges and accomplishments of all Australian nurses.

“I’ve had the joy of spending the last few years spending time with and obviously working on the sculpture but also researching into Vivian’s awe-inspiring life,” Dr Robb said.

“The key thing that I wanted to achieve was to capture a likeness and a sense of the way she carried herself in the world. This quite strong and self-contained individual while reflecting the perseverance that drove her.”

A close-up of the healing hands of nurse Vivian Bullwinkel, as depicted in the new bronze sculpture. Photo: Australian War Memorial.

The sculpture includes 22 inlaid stainless steel discs, representing the 22 victims of the Banka Island massacre. The discs are arranged at the base of the sculpture as a reflection of the stars that would have been visible in the night sky on 16 February 1942.

Director of the Australian War Memorial Matt Anderson said the memorial was grateful for the opportunity to commemorate Vivian Bullwinkel.

“Vivian’s name should be renowned in every Australian household, as should the story of her inspirational life as a courageous leader, a proud nurse and the first woman to serve on the Council of the Australian War Memorial,” he said.

Nominations for the Bullwinkel Scholarships open in September 2023. Recipients will be announced on 16 February 2024, on the anniversary of the day of the massacre 82 years ago.

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Peter Graves4:52 pm 02 Aug 23

My mother was a general nurse before World War 2 and I always like to think she would have been undertaking her initial training in Sydney at roughly the same time as Vivian Bullwinkel was doing hers in Broken Hill (mid-1930s or so). My mother never forgot the courage of Nurse Bullwinkel.

For me, this statue complements that of Sir Edward Dunlop – another medical POW who treated the sick wherever they were and survived to return to peace in Australia.

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