Ordered to leave
Fearing for the safety of the nurses after the fall of Singapore, General Bennett ordered their evacuation from the island.
Escape on MV Empire Star
Although reluctant to leave when there was so much work to be done, 59 Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) nurses and physiotherapists left Singapore on MV Empire Star on 11 February 1942. The ship carried more than 2,000 evacuees, including civilians.
Unfortunately, Japanese bombers attacked the Empire Star the next day.
Two nursing sisters who dragged wounded men to safety were decorated for their courage.
Sister Margaret Anderson was awarded the George Medal for her actions. Her portrait and medals are on display in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
Sister Vera Torney was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE).
The nursing sisters on the Empire Star reached safety in Australia despite the Japanese attack.
Bangka Island massacre
The remaining 65 AANS nurses sailed from Singapore on SS Vyner Brooke on 12 February 1942.
Two days later, and within half an hour of Sumatra, the ship was bombed and sunk. Twelve of the nurses were drowned or killed in the water. The survivors struggled ashore on Bangka Island. Some of them had spent over 60 hours in the water.
At the time, the island was occupied by the Japanese and housed prisoner of war camps.
On 16 February, at Radji Beach, Japanese soldiers ordered 22 of the nurses and one civilian woman into the sea where they were machine-gunned.
Only one woman, Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, survived by laying in the water until the troops had left. Unable to survive in the jungle, she later surrendered and was interned with her colleagues on Bangka Island and later on Sumatra for the remainder of the war.
The nurses in captivity experienced shocking living conditions and 8 army nurses died. Only 24 were rescued on 16 September 1945.
Bullwinkel retired from the army in 1947 and became Director of Nursing at Melbourne's Fairfield Hospital. She had a distinguished career as an ambassador for nursing and veterans’ associations.