It took the hospital ship Llandovery Castle three days to discharge 644 military patients, replenish supplies, and refuel for a return dash across the Atlantic for another load of survivors from the battlefields of France.
The former Union Castle Line steamship had docked in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on June 17, 1918. On the 20th she was back at sea, reprovisioned, carrying her regular crew plus a team of doctors and nurses … in all seven officers, 14 nursing sisters and 72 other ranks.
The weather was fine for the crossing; the voyage uneventful for the first seven days. On June 27 Llandovery Castle was 116 miles (186 km) off the coast of Ireland. It was 9:30 p.m. with the ship observing war time rules ablaze with light, its giant red cross clearly marking it as a hospital ship when First Lieut. Helmut Patzig, commanding officer of the German submarine U-86, ordered torpedoes fired.
Patzig waited and watched as lifeboats were launched and then searched among them hoping to find evidence that the ship now sinking had been carrying arms. Finding no evidence, he ordered his crew to prepare to dive while he and two other officers attempted to execute all survivors by machine gun fire and sink the life boats to eliminate any evidence of a war crime.
In the growing dark, one lifeboat escaped with 24 survivors who were picked up 36 hours later. All 14 nursing sisters were among the 234 who were executed. Their names are listed on a war memorial in Halifax.
Less than 25 years later, on the other side of the world, more than 40 Australian nurses were executed by machinegun fire as they stood waist deep in the ocean lapping Radjik Beach on Banka Island in the Strait of Sumatra. They had been ordered to walk into the ocean by a Japanese officer. They were all shot in the back. One nurse survived the massacre.
Nursing Sister Vivian Bullwinkle was a relatively new recruit in the Australian Army Nursing Service when in August 1941 she was posted to Singapore. Seven months later she was among 300 people jammed on board an already overloaded coastal tramp freighter Vyner Brook which managed to get out of Singapore harbour just before the Japanese occupied the city.
After two days of slow progress the Vyner Brook was spotted by Japanese aircraft and bombed and sunk off Banka Island. Survivors clung to wreckage to swim or be swept to shore – but not all to the same beach. Nursing Sister Bullwinkle and 21 other nurses made it to Radjik beach along with 25 British soldiers and a merchant navy officer delegated to arrange a formal surrender.
But white flags and surrender meant little. Official histories tell us a platoon of 15 Japanese soldiers arrived, marched the 25 British soldiers around a nearby headland, shot or bayoneted them and left them for dead. When they returned to Radjik beach they ordered the nurses to start their death walk into the surf.
In 1983, lone survivor Nursing Sister Bullwinkle recalled: “When I was hit I remember thinking ‘it’s like the kick of a mule’.” In 1946, testifying before the War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo she said: “I was toward the end of the line and the bullet that hit me struck me at the waist and just went straight through.” She had the presence of mind to “play dead” and when the Japanese troops left she struggled ashore to find one other survivor, Private Patrick Kingsley, a wounded stretcher patient who had been bayoneted and left for dead.
Official records note Nurse Bullwinkle’s first priority was to dress to Private Kingsley’s wounds with whatever materials she could find. For 12 days, with basic food supplied by nearby villagers they survived barely. It was Nurse Bullwinkle who decided to take another chance on surrender.
Both were confined to bare-bones prison camps – one for men, the other for women and children. Private Kingsley died three days later. Nurse Bullwinkle was reunited with 24 nurses who had been swept ashore a few kilometers away and captured by less brutal forces. It would be three-and-a-half-years before the survivors of the original group of 65 nurses got home to Australia.
Nursing Sister Vivian Bullwinkle Statham (she married in 1977) died July 3, 2000 at the age of 84. There are memorial monuments to her and her nursing sisters in her homeland and on Radjik Beach, Banka Island, not unlike those in Halifax for the Llandovery Castle nurses.
I just had the thought that with November 11 only a few days away, the red poppies we wear should remind us of other warriors so soon forgotten, so often unsung.