PRO HUMANITATE, ‘in the service of humanity’, is the motto of the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps. Lieut. Col. Vivian Bullwinkel (pictured left) exemplified this principle to become one of the best-loved and respected nurses of her time.
Rejected by the RAAF because of her flat feet, she enlisted as an army staff nurse in 1941, aged 26, and served in Singapore until February 1942 when nurses were evacuated as Singapore fell to the Japanese. Vivian’s ship was bombed, but 22 nurses reached Banka Island – only to be ordered back into the sea and gunned down by a Japanese patrol.
Vivian, a non-swimmer, was wounded but played dead, floating among the nurses’ bodies until dark. After two weeks in the jungle nursing a lone British soldier, Vivian gave herself up. Her indomitable spirit shines from the one postcard she could send during three years as a POW: “My roving spirit has been somewhat checked.”
As an army matron after the war, Vivian Bullwinkel built a warm rapport with the young nurses she trained. Librarian Phyllis Wilson recalls Vivian’s encouragement and ‘wonderful sense of humour, vivid blue eyes and most beautiful smile’. Later, as Director of Nursing at Fairfield Hospital, Vivian led the famous rescue of Vietnamese war orphans from Saigon and supervised their adoptions.
Vivian was the first female trustee of the Australian War Memorial which now holds her personal papers and wartime diaries, and displays her white nurse’s uniform with a bullet hole above the hip.
In the 1970s, as president of the now Royal College of Nursing Australia, she helped to establish the system that moved nursing tuition from hospital to university, using her influence on the Nurses’ Wage Board to improve their conditions. She worked tirelessly with the Red Cross and other humanitarian groups, and instigated a scholarship fund for Malaysian nurses to study in Australia. In 1977, she retired from Fairfield Hospital to marry. Vivian was one of 200 featured in a National Heritage publication, The People Who Made Australia, for Australia’s bicentenary in 1988.
Vivian Bullwinkel dedicated her every award or honour to the memory of the nurses massacred on Banka island. ‘…the lives, opportunities, sports and freedom for our young were bought at a price,’ she said, shortly before her death on 3 July 2000, aged 84.