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Matron Vivian Bullwinkel AO MBE

Vivian Bullwinkel became the first woman trustee of the Australian War Memorial in 1985, after her work as a war nurse.

Inducted:
2001
Category:
Honour Roll

Vivian Bullwinkel was born on 18 December 1915 at Kapunda, South Australia and educated at Broken Hill High School.

After completing training at Broken Hill Hospital in 1941, she left for Malaya with the Australian Army Nursing Service. Vivian served during the Malayan campaign and was among the final group of nurses evacuated from Singapore on 12 February, 1942, just three days before the island fell to the Japanese. She was on the Vyner Brook, a ship carrying evacuees, troops and civilians when it was attacked by Japanese aircraft and sunk off Bangka Island in the Straits of Sumatra. Vivian was among a party of survivors who swam ashore and surrendered to the awaiting Japanese. The men were shot and then the women, 22 nurses and one civilian, were marched into the sea and machine-gunned.

Vivian was shot through the waist but was the only one who did not die. Thinking they had killed all the women, the Japanese left. Vivian let the waves wash her back to shore then hid in the jungle. There was a male who had survived when the men were bayoneted, Private Kingsley, but he too was badly wounded. They hid together for twelve days and Vivian nursed Kingsley and procured food from the local inhabitants. They eventually surrendered to the Japanese and Vivian was taken to a Prisoner of War (POW) camp where she was reunited with the nurses who had survived the sinking of the Vyner Brooke. She spent the rest of the war in a number of POW camps.

On her return to Australia Vivian was proclaimed a hero and was awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal in 1947. She became an Associate of the Royal Red Cross. The citation said she had "shown outstanding courage, selfless devotion to duty and a magnificent example". She also gave evidence at the International Military Tribunal in Tokyo.

Vivian helped establish the Melbourne Nurses Memorial Centre, which was designed for the welfare and advancement of nurses. She was also prominent in the push to move nursing education into universities and worked with the Victorian Nurses Wages Board to help improve salaries and conditions for nurses. She was matron of Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital. She resigned on her marriage in 1977 to Colonel F.W. Statham.

In 1985, Vivian was appointed to the Council of the Australian War Memorial making her the first woman trustee of this institution. In October 1999, she donated her precious wartime diaries to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, the day before the dedication of the Australian Service Nurses National Memorial. When asked what enabled her and her fellow nurses to survive their terrifying ordeals she replied, "Faith and a sense of humour. We all surprised ourselves."

Vivian passed away in hospital in Perth on 3 July 2000. She was honoured with a State funeral.

Reviewed 26 May 2022

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