As more than 20 Australian nurses marched into the sea at Bangka Island with machine guns aimed at their backs, matron Irene Drummond stoically told her colleagues she was proud of and loved them all.
Seconds later all but one of the cohort were dead, murdered by Japanese soldiers in February 1942 during World War II.
“Irene’s story is just one of many examples of the nurses’ selflessness and courage in the face of extreme danger,” Australian College of Nursing chief executive Kylie Ward said of Australian nurses’ service during the conflict.
Their sacrifices will be remembered on Tuesday at a ceremony in the Northern Territory honouring nurses who lost their lives serving their nation.
The event also commemorates the 80th anniversary of the sinking of the Vyner Brooke cargo vessel, the Bangka Island massacre in Indonesia and the bombing of Darwin.
“Australia lost a remarkable cohort of highly-skilled nurses during three tragic events in February 1942,” Professor Ward said.
“The bravery, compassion and expertise these nurses displayed continues to leave a lasting legacy on the profession today.”
Vyner Brooke was one of the last ships to flee Singapore carrying evacuees as the island city-state fell to the invading Japanese force.
It sailed south carrying 181 passengers, including the last 65 Australian nurses in Singapore but it was sunk by Japanese aircraft two days into its voyage.
About 150 survivors spent up to 65 hours in the water before wading ashore at Bangka Island, which had already fallen to the enemy.
Many were taken prisoner, but 22 Australian nurses, among a group of more than 60 survivors at Radji Beach, were gunned down by Japanese soldiers.
Major Drummond was among them but one nurse, Vivian Bullwinkel, survived to tell the story.
She hid in the jungle for several days before surrendering to the enemy and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner.
Of the 65 Australian nurses aboard Vyner Brooke, 12 were killed during the air attack or drowned when the vessel sank and 21 were murdered.
The remainder became prisoners and eight nurses from that cohort died before the end of the war from the deprivations they suffered.
The bombing of Darwin in the same month remains the largest single attack by a foreign power on Australia, killing more than 200 people and injuring hundreds more, including nurses.
“Every Australian should know the stories of the nurses who perished and survived the sinking of the Vyner Brooke, Bangka Island massacre and bombing of Darwin,” Prof Ward said.
“Their legacy must be at the forefront of not just nursing history, but that of our nation.”
The ceremony at Darwin Military Museum will raise funds for two projects aimed at ensuring the history of the Bangka Island massacre is not forgotten.
Hundreds of nurses from across Australia are set to come together in the NT on Wednesday for the National Nursing Forum.
The two-day event will discuss leadership, nurse-led solutions to the nation’s most pressing health challenges, violence against nurses and the impact of climate change on health.
(Australian Associated Press)