'What Vivian Bullwinkel wanted': Calls to change official WWII Bangka massacre account

Mary Napier, niece of murdered Australian nurse, Sister Elaine Balfour Ogilvy, during WWII's Bangka Massacre. Picture: Elesa Kurtz
Mary Napier, niece of murdered Australian nurse, Sister Elaine Balfour Ogilvy, during WWII's Bangka Massacre. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

For nearly 80 years, Canberra resident Mary Napier was told her aunt had been tragically shot by Japanese soldiers in a massacre on an Indonesian island during World War Two.

The story of the 21 Australian Army nurses who were murdered in 1942 while attending to injured British and Australian soldiers on Bangka Island has long been told this way.

The massacre on the island's Radji Beach was recounted by the sole surviving nurse, Vivian Bullwinkel, years after the war and following her re-capture and detainment as a prisoner of war.

But a few years ago, new evidence came to light shifting the narrative into something even more horrific than first expected.

Ms Napier said the story had been repeated by family and official sources for decades but distressing new details emerged suggesting the nurses had been raped first prior to being murdered by Japanese soldiers with a machine gun.

Ms Napier remembered the day she realised the story she'd been told about her aunt, Sister Elaine Balfour Ogilvy, for eight decades might have been sanitised.

"I had a phone call from my sister who said the story had drastically changed and she said, some [relatives of the murdered nurses] didn't want to hear the story," Ms Napier said.

Sister Elaine Balfour Ogilvy. Picture: Australian War Memorial

Sister Elaine Balfour Ogilvy. Picture: Australian War Memorial

"I couldn't work out why and then it came up - it was out of respect for the people who didn't want to know their [relative] had been raped."

'A truth too awful to speak'

In February 1942, 65 Australian Army nurses boarded a ship to escape from Singapore, three days before the Japanese army would take over the city.

The ship was later attacked by the Japanese off the Sumatran coast and around 100 survivors landed ashore on Bangka Island's Radji Beach. According to the official account, the 22 Australian nurses, with Ms Bullwinkel and Sister Balfour Ogilvy among them, tended to the wounded Australian and British soldiers when they were confronted by a group of 20 Japanese soldiers.

The Japanese soldiers killed the wounded men and allegedly ordered the nurses to wade into the sea before shooting them down with a machine gun.

Ms Bullwinkel was the only nurse to survive.

[She was] such a beautiful, young person, who died at the hands of monsters.

Mary Napier, niece of murdered nurse Sister Balfour Ogilvy

But the account is now being partially disputed, with suggestions a government cover up hid details to protect the families from the pain and stigma of rape during the era.

The revelations suggesting the nurses had been sexually assaulted first came to light in 2017, following a report by Tess Lawrence who had interviewed Ms Bullwinkel before her death in 2000.

In the interview, Ms Bullwinkel admitted to her the nurses had been "violated" prior to the massacre - a fact she was allegedly told to suppress by senior government and military officials, which she said tortured her for decades.

War historian Lynette Silver and biographer Barbara Angell also collected accounts of witnesses to documents, many since destroyed over the years, which has contributed to the growing collection of evidence pointing to the horrific details.

The additional details of the massacre took a toll on Ms Napier, who at 80, felt she had been lied to for decades.

"I didn't understand the horror of it until recently," Ms Napier said.

"They thought that [because] it had happened so long ago, we should have been used to the story.

"It was horrendous to hear [what happened], especially as the nurses weren't that much older than my grandchildren."

Ms Napier doesn't have any recollections of her aunt, Sister Balfour Ogilvy, but stories shared through the family celebrate a woman who tragically died caring for allied soldiers.

"She was just always a hero," Ms Napier said.

"Such a beautiful, young person, who died at the hands of monsters."

Ms Silver, whose 2019 book Angels of Mercy details the sexual assault evidence, said the decision to suppress the alleged gruesome details was a choice informed by the times.

It's taken a long while for enough bits of evidence to come together to enable us to say now, 'yes, they were raped. This actually did happen'.

War historian Lynette Silver

During the 1940s and 50s, the stigma and shame surrounding sexual assault greatly impacted the affected women and their families.

Ms Silver remembered she had heard sexual assault being referred to as a "fate worse than death" during the era.

She said men in the government would have thought they were doing the honourable thing by suppressing the grim reality of what actually happened to those 22 Australian nurses.

"I think that they suppressed that side of the story and wouldn't let it come out to protect the feelings and the sensibilities of the next of kin," Ms Silver said.

"I think it was done with a paternalistic attitude.

"Although you can understand why they did it in hindsight, given what we know now, it was a very poor decision.

"It's taken a long while for enough bits of evidence to come together to enable us to say now, 'yes, they were raped. This actually did happen.'"

Changing the ugly story of war

The decades of being told a story withheld of all the details made Ms Napier angry after the initial distress.

Now, she wants the official account changed to reflect the brutality her aunt and the 21 other nurses, including Ms Bullwinkel, had endured in defence of the country.

That first starts with the Australian War Memorial.

"I had a terrible mistrust of the Australian War Memorial," Ms Napier said.

"I asked if the story was true and [the memorial] said they didn't know, and they'd get back to me and they didn't.

"They've got all these kids coming in each year to learn history and they're learning the wrong history."

Aside from Ms Bullwinkel's confession, other circumstantial evidence exists to back up the claims.

Some of that includes analysis of the surviving uniform Ms Bullwinkel was wearing when shot, which had missing buttons and bullet holes misaligned. The analysis suggested her uniform had been forcefully removed and hanging off her when she was later shot.

Secondary accounts others on the island at the time say they had witnessed the "half-naked" bodies of nurses on the beach after their murder.

It's not been enough to change the way the Australian War Memorial documents the event on its website or in its gallery.

Its director Matt Anderson concedes the official account alone was "horrific" but has welcomed the evidence of sexual assault to be brought to the memorial for consideration.

"There is no doubt that the treatment of [Bullwinkel] and her colleagues at the hands of the Japanese was a horrific war crime, beyond our modern comprehension," Mr Anderson said in a statement.

"We do not currently have records that provide a clear picture of what took place.

"The memorial would welcome engagement with the owners of these records and for them to speak with our historians. Further, we would encourage them to donate these records or interviews so that they may be freely available to all researchers and the Australian public.

"Given the nature of the discussion it is extremely important any new information is appropriately reviewed and researched with due sensitivity."

A history told by men, withheld by men

Part of the tension with the events of the massacre relates to who holds the pen - the story of women curated and told by men. Men who may have, given the evidence, withheld information from the annals of history to protect others during the era.

Ms Silver contended things could have been different had women held a place in recording history then.

"Women write war differently from men," Ms Silver said.

"Generally, men are more interested in the units and the platoons and how many guns there were, the tactics and the strategy but women, when they write about war, write about the people.

"With a female perspective, the people are more important than the actual event."

The past can't be changed but how we decide to reflect it can. That's why Ms Silver said it's crucial this story is given the careful consideration it deserves in order to tell the true story of what happened to the nurses.

"It happened," Ms Silver said.

"The people that it happened to suffered and by refusing to speak about it, or to highlight it and bring the story out, you're actually denying them the right to have the extent of their suffering known.

"What we owe these nurses is for the truth to come out. We really do need for the world to know that it was a terrible crime."

For Ms Napier and her family, there's a simple resolution - grant Vivian Bullwinkel's dying wish and let the truth be finally known.

"[The war memorial is] meant to be the place that holds the truth but if they don't tell the truth, they're altering history," Ms Napier said.

"It's what Vivian Bullwinkel wanted."

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