16 February 2023

Nurses honour one of their best with unique statue to be installed at War Memorial

| Sally Hopman
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Statue of woman

Design for the Vivian Bullwinkel sculpture, the first of its kind, to be installed at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, later this year. Photo: Australian War Memorial.

For the first time, a sculpture of a woman – and one to commemorate a nurse – will be installed in the grounds of the Australian War Memorial (AWM).

The statue will be that of Lieutenant Colonel Vivian Bullwinkel AO, MBE, ARRC, ED, FNM, FRCNA, the heroic World War II nurse who devoted her life to helping others.

Design details of the statue were unveiled today, 16 February, by the Australian College of Nursing (ACN) to mark the anniversary of the sinking of the Vyner Brooke and the massacre of 21 nurses at Bangka Island.

On this day 81 years ago, 65 Australian Army Nursing Service women were evacuated from Singapore on the SS Vyner Brooke because of the impending Japanese invasion.

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Twelve died at sea when the ship was bombed in the Bangka Strait, shortly after leaving port. But 22 made their way to the Bangka Island shores only to become victims of one of the worst atrocities of World War II. The nurses were ordered to walk into the sea and were machine-gunned from behind in what became known as the Bangka Island massacre.

ACN Chief Executive Officer Adjunct Professor Kylie Ward FACN paid respects today to the nurses who lost their lives 81 years ago, and to the one woman who survived to tell the horrific stories.

“When Japanese soldiers massacred the group, Lieutenant Colonel Bullwinkel was struck by a bullet and pretended to be dead before realising she was the sole survivor,” Adjunct Professor Ward said.

“After hiding with a wounded soldier, whom she also cared for for 12 days, she surrendered and spent three and half years in captivity as prisoner of war.”

Reflecting on the incredible courage the nurses displayed in the most horrific of situations highlighted that their legacy still had a lasting impact on the nursing profession today, she said.


The official studio portrait of staff nurse Vivian Bullwinkel, Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS), in her service dress uniform. Photo: Australian War Memorial.

“Eighty-one years ago, a group of Australian nurses paid the ultimate sacrifice for their dedication to serve their country and use their expertise to care for those who needed it most,” she said.

“They endured exceptionally trying conditions in the face of death. Even in their final moments, they stayed true in their commitment to care for others, with several supporting their injured nursing colleagues as they walked into the water before their tragic deaths.

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“For those nurses who spent the following years as prisoners of war watching their colleagues suffer, starve and sacrifice, with only a few returning home, I am committed to ensuring they are never forgotten.”

She said the sculpture of Vivian Bullwinkel at the AWM would link the past, present and future for all to remember and be inspired by the sacrifice, service and leadership of Australian nurses.

Portrait of nurse

Matron Vivian Bullwinkel as painted by Shirley Bourne in 1962. The portrait was a finalist in that year’s Archibald Prize. Photo: Australian War Memorial.

Brisbane-based artist Dr Charles Robb, who won the 2020 design competition to create the sculpture, described Lieutenant Colonel Bullwinkel as a person dedicated to the act of caring for others.

“I have aimed to reflect her incredible altruism in the design of my sculpture – Bullwinkel is placed to one side of her bronze pedestal, revealing a rippling surface in which 21 inlaid silver discs reflect the victims of the Bangka Island massacre and the main constellations of the night sky as it would have appeared on 16 February 1942.”

To ensure her legacy lives on, the Australian College of Nursing Foundation has established a scholarship in the name of each of the 21 nurses who died in the Bangka Island massacre.

Donations to the project can be made at the ACN website.

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Long overdue. I would also love to see more Canberra suburb names acknowledge the contribution of women , the gender imbalance is more than a little embarrassing.

Peter Graves6:43 pm 16 Feb 23

A very fitting complement to Vivian Bullwinkel Way, along which I used to drive to the Australian Defence Force Academy.

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