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    Tuesday, February 19, 2019-1:35:19P.M.






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BC’s Tales of the Pacific: Massacre on Bangka Island

IT is one of the more well-known accounts of atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers during the Pacific War.  But how accurate is the version you have heard?

The story follows a group of Australian army nurses.  Originally stationed in Singapore when the war broke out, they were evacuated by ship in February 1942 just before the city fell.  The ship was attacked and sunk by the Japanese, whereby the nurses took to the lifeboats and washed ashore on Bangka Island in modern Indonesia.

Having been through so much already, their ordeal turned into a hideous nightmare.  The island was occupied by the Japanese so the group decided to surrender.  The Japanese separated the men from the women and took the men down the beach and around a point, out of view.  After killing the men, the soldiers returned, cleaned their guns and ordered the women into the sea.  When they reached about waist-high water the Japanese opened fire on them, killing all but one of the nurses, who was severely injured but lived to testify at the war crimes trial at war’s end.

The surviving nurse, Miss Vivian Bullwinkel, went on to a highly successful career as a nurse and is remembered as a great reformer of the health care system in Australia, a giant and role model for Australian women until her recent death.

The stories of both the massacre and Miss Bullwinkel have been told a million times over.  They are known not just in Australia but also in America and around the Pacific.  But there is reason to believe that there is more to the story than just what was revealed at the war crimes trial.   

During interviews of Bullwinkel and others associated with the massacre, details emerged that could not be explained by known facts.  Observers made comments such as, “They’re still hiding something, you know…” and “There’s more to the story but you’ll never get it out of them.” 

When one researcher examined the uniform worn by Bullwinkel during the massacre and found that the location of the bullet holes did not match her story.  Bullwinkel said she was shot in the side of the abdomen and the bullet entered and exited cleanly, wounding her only slightly.  But based on the location of the entry and exit holes in her shirt, the bullet would have entered her back left abdomen and exited from the right front.  In other words, the bullet would have passed through several major organs and caused severe injury.  The scars on Bullwinkel’s body confirm her story: the bullet entered her back left abdomen and exited the front left abdomen, missing important organs and causing only superficial damage.  The conclusion?  She was not fully dressed when she was shot.

Now we are starting to get the picture.  Bullwinkel told a truthful story but left out important facts.  Later, others indicated that there was more to the story than had been revealed.  On the day of the massacre the Japanese separated the men from the women but then killed both groups anyway.  Why?  If you have not put the pieces together yet, I will let Japanese Private Tanemura Kiyoshi, who was there that day, finish the tale.

Kiyoshi said that the officers raped the Australian nurses and that the enlisted men would get their chance afterwards.  When he asked about the men who were taken further down the beach, he was told that they were beheaded and the bodies buried. 

Bullwinkel never revealed the extent of the atrocities, never told anyone that she and the other nurses had been raped repeatedly by Japanese soldiers.  Perhaps she was too ashamed.  Perhaps she considered it an unnecessary detail that stained the memory of those poor victims.  But the next time you hear someone tell of the Massacre at Bangka Island, be sure they get their story straight.  The nurses deserve it.

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20  years. He travels the Pacific but currently resides on the mainland U.S.