The plight of the Second World War nurses who fled Singapore and wound up in Japanese prison camps is not unknown. A number of nurses have written accounts of their horrendous experiences in the camps, the most well known being White Coolie by Betty Jeffrey. The film Paradise Road and the BBC series Tenko both cover this aspect of WW2.
Less well known is the story of the 22 nurses who, along with 38 others including civilians and military personnel, all survivors from the shelling of the coastal freighter Vyner Brooke, washed up on a beach on the island of Muntok in Sumatra. They surrendered to the Japanese and were subsequently executed on Radji Beach, Muntok, by rifle fire and bayonets. There were two survivors, one who died of his wounds much later, leaving Vivian Bullwinkle an Australian nurse the sole witness and survivor of the atrocity. Vivian ended up in a Japanese prison camp with other nurses, many whom died. She also survived her experiences there and got to finally tell her story publically upon her release.
Ian Shaw’s On Radji Beach tells the story of the nurses stationed in Singapore: their doomed flight on the Vyner Brooke, fleeing Singapore on the eve of its capitulation; the executions and survival in the horrendous Japanese internment camps; and the eventual release of the survivors.
Although it’s a story that’s been told, primarily in autobiographies written by nurses, Shaw brings an interesting overview to the story and infuses it with fascinating observations, historical context and really brings the nurses to life.
Much of the narrative of On Radji Beach is not unknown. The fall of Singapore has been written about ad infinitum. What makes Shaw’s book different is his focus on the nurses, and more importantly how their actions are constructed.
For a country steeped in the myth of the Anzac – of mateship and larrikinism, of understated heroism and resilience in the face of adversity – heroic attributes are ascribed to men. These myths have become the central tenet of our national identity so it is fascinating to read such attributes being displayed by women. Especially when the role of women in war has often been relegated to keeping the home fires burning via the Land Army or sock knitting, as goddesses men are fighting and dying to protect or hapless victims of the evil enemy. In most cases women’s agency, their historical authenticity during the Second World War has been an infinitesimal shadow blotted out by the glow of male achievement or subjugated to a larger male agency.
On Radji Beach is full of incidents that show women being every bit as brave, loyal and matey as men in the theatre of war.
Shaw begins the story with the nurses leaving Australia for Malaysia on the Queen Mary. He identifies a number of nurses on the ship who’ll be key figures in the subsequent sinking of the Vyner Brooke and the story that follows. His research is impeccable. He’s researched their lives prior to their arrival in Malaysia, thus building a strong sense of character for the main players.
The narrative drive really kicked in for me once the nurses reached Malaysia. There is a beautiful naivety in the way Shaw describes life for the nurses, especially their social lives. Many of the nurses were from small country towns with little life experience (like many men who enlisted) and found themselves in a tropical paradise where they were given the status of honouree officers. This meant the women weren’t allowed to fraternise at all with regular soldiers (which caused problems for siblings based in Malaysia) and were admitted to officers’ clubs and other places that regular soldiers weren’t allowed to enter.
Shaw creates a great picture of the nurses living a life outside of their known world – entertained at luxurious clubs, wined and dined by officers and gentlemen, shopping in Singapore. There is a sense that the nurses are living a life that lacked the cultural constraints that would have been in place in the small towns many of the women came from. A life of freedom and adventure that would have been but a dream never fulfilled had they stayed in Australia.
The innocent pleasures of life soon take on an ominous tone as the Japanese advance into Malaysia and make their way south towards Singapore. Despite the Japanese advance, the steady stream of injured soldiers flooding into the hospital, the hospital being bombed, the daily Japanese bomber sorties painting the sky with the smoke from their bombs, there’s a sense that the Japanese won’t get to southern Malaysia, let alone Singapore. Maybe it was because:
Senior figures from all three arms of the British military followed Churchill’s lead and publicly denigrated the Japanese as soldiers, as people and as a threat to Malaya and Singapore. They told their troops…that the Japanese soldiers were both short and short-sighted and that their rifles were of such a low velocity and small calibre that any wounds they inflicted could literally be treated with a bandaid after the bullet was squeezed out like a blackhead. Their pilots were incapable of…aerobatics and night flying…because their neck muscles never developed…and because they didn’t eat vegetables.
Shaw, like most war historians presents the fall of Singapore as one of history’s greatest wartime blunders, a complete failure from the British military authority to see the writing on the wall and do anything about it.
The result of this failure is that the evacuation of the nurses occurs when they have very little hope of ever reaching Australia. The seas between Malaysia and Australia are primarily in Japanese hands so the Vyner Brooke, crammed with civilians, nurses and military personnel, like most ships fleeing Singapore, was bombed to oblivion.
Once the invasion occurs and the events subsequent to the invasion On Radji Beach comes into its own. It is here that the nurses’ characters shine. Jessie Blanch refusing to stop work even with bombs raining down around her at the hospital; Matron Olive Paschke organising the nurses to attend to the wellbeing of all on the Vyner Brooke and her orders that should the Vyner Brooke sink, no nurses would leave until all civilians and injured were safely off the boat. (An order all nurses obeyed during what must have been a horrendous experience. In fact, many nurses continued attending to the wounded as bombs crashed onto and around the sinking ship.) Irene Drummond calling out, ‘Chins up, girls. I’m proud of you and I love you all,’ as the nurses stood facing the sea knowing they were about to be executed. The nurses scrounging an old piano in the prison camp and having regular Saturday night sing-alongs and shows to keep the up camp spirits.
Shaw also reveals a truth behind an infamous incident that occurred in the internment camp. Commanding Officer Captain Miachi decided to make an officers’ club and let it be known that it was to be staffed by Australian nurses acting as ‘hostesses’ (comfort women). The Japanese identified the six nurses they wanted to work there (the youngest and most attractive nurses): ‘20 nurses turned up at the club’s opening, all dressed as unattractively as possible, with no make-up and with all their hair greased down…they refused alcohol…and refused to dance with their Japanese hosts. One nurse who believed she had been touched inappropriately, smacked her molester across the face.’ The nurses lodged a complaint and the club was closed down four weeks later. This is the popular version of the event although the reaction of the Japanese at the time seems remarkably restrained given the way they had been treating the women.
In fact, Shaw reveals, the Japanese commandant was furious, and demanded two senior nurses report to his office where he explained that no rations would be issued to the Australian nurses or civilians until four hostesses were supplied to the club. After much discussion among the nurses, four volunteered to act as comfort women, their names to remain a sworn (on the Bible) secret. The Japanese got their comfort women and the nurses got their rations. It’s interesting to ponder what would have happened if it had been Australian male POWs in the same position.
My main criticism of On Radji Beach is that it doesn’t explore the issue of gender and culture, though they shadow the narrative like a ghost waiting to get out. Why were the nurses only allowed to associate with officers in Malaysia; was it really about the nurses being exclusively ‘available’ for the officers?
The nurses weren’t evacuated until it was too late (hence their sinking) because the generals believed ‘evacuating the nurses would have a serious negative effect on the morale of the defending troops’. So why was it seen that the nurses safety and wellbeing was less important than the troops? And how many other troops had nurses around to keep their morale up? Admittedly, when the nurses were eventually evacuated most of them didn’t want to desert the troops.
When the nurses were released from the internment camps, weighing on average 30 kilograms, the authorities ‘decided that it would be preferable to keep the nurses where they were until they were fitter, healthier and photogenic enough to present to the Australian people’. (Emphasis mine.) Given that the Australian prisoners of war from Changi had already arrived back in Australia to a euphoric crowd despite their skeletal appearance, was the decision to delay the nurses’ return based on the need for the image of womanhood to be preserved at all costs?
Shaw doesn’t tease out these issues. He states them without interrogating them; given that On Radji Beach is as much a story about women at war as it is about the incident in question, it’s a shame.
On Radji Beach is a great read and an invaluable historical text. Ian Shaw has written a driven, suspenseful and realistic narrative, even for those who know the history and outcome of the period. It’s essential reading for anyone interested in Australia’s war history and the role of women in war. On Radji Beach is an insightful and tragic excursion into an aspect of Australian history that has often been overlooked or forgotten.
This would be a great resource for history teachers and I’d highly recommend it to any teacher helping students enter The Simpson Prize, as it offers a perspective seldom taken up and could form the basis of a unique, standout essay.