Honouring our heroes: Lieutenant Betty Jeffrey and Captain Vivian Bullwinkel


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Singapore was ablaze as Japanese bombing raids continued day and night in February 1942. Australian nurses were ordered to evacuate. Amid the noise and chaos, 72 nurses embarked with hundreds of patients and civilians aboard the Empire Star and the Wah Sui. They finally made it back to Australia, after suffering heavy bombardment on the way.

Two women standing together in their nurses uniformsNot so fortunate were the last group of 65 nurses who, with many civilian women and children, were evacuated on the small and overcrowded ship SS Vyner Brooke. Twelve lost their lives when the ship was sunk two days after leaving Singapore. Sisters Vivian Bullwinkel and Betty Jeffrey survived the sinking, but their journey to safety took quite different paths.

Vivian was one of 22 nurses who eventually washed ashore on Radji Beach, Banka Island. Lacking food or shelter, they surrendered to a party of Japanese soldiers, believing they would be given protection and assistance. Instead the soldiers ordered them into the water and opened fire on them.

Badly wounded, Vivian was the only one to survive.

She later recalled that they "all knew what was going to happen to them, but no-one panicked: they just marched ahead with their chins up".

Left for dead and without food or protection, Vivian surrendered again to Japanese soldiers 12 days later. In a prison camp in Palembang, Sumatra, she was reunited with other survivors from the Vyner Brooke, including Sister Betty Jeffrey. As the nurses exchanged stories of survival, Vivian learned of Betty’s 16-hour ordeal, clinging to a life raft drifting in the sea.

She swam to shore, and spent the night up a tree, in a mosquito-infested swamp. The next day, after continuing downstream and sharing the water with sharks, Betty was rescued and cared for by some local villagers before surrendering to Japanese soldiers.

The captured women hoped their job as nurses, symbolised by their now tattered uniforms, would protect them. It did not. For the next three and a half years, they were kept as prisoners under appalling conditions. Friends and family back home in Australia had no idea of their whereabouts.

During the early days of their captivity, the women kept busy with educational activities and musical concerts. They helped each other to keep their spirits up. However, conditions worsened with each transfer to a new camp. Food and medical supplies were hopelessly inadequate.

A group of nurses standing together after spending 3.5 years as prisoners of war. They wear their original uniforms, incomplete and stained.

A group of nurses standing together after the war before repatriation after spending three and a half years as POWs of the Japanese.
They wear their original uniforms, incomplete and oil stained. Betty Jeffrey is in the second row, far right, carrying her precious diaries in a bag over her right shoulder (AWM 044480).

Betty’s entry in her diary for 30 April 1944 read:

"We’re still here — and so the years roll on. Today I was so hungry that I could hardly walk — we had literally nothing."

The nurses could no longer care for wounded soldiers, so they now devoted themselves to caring for each other, and the women and children in the camp.

By the time they were set free at the end of the war, eight nurses had died in captivity. After the war, just 24 of the original group of 65 nurses who boarded the Vyner Brooke returned to Australia

After returning home Vivian Bullwinkel and Betty Jeffrey devoted themselves to honouring those killed on Banka Island, raising funds for a memorial which was unveiled there in 1993. Vivian, aged 85, and Betty, aged 92, died within three months of each other in 2000.

In the final year of Anzac Centenary (2014–2018) we are sharing stories of men and women from all wars, peacekeeping operations and conflicts through the Honouring our Heroes series.