Vyner Brooke Memorial – Moving Tribute to Fallen Nurses

Their legacy of bravery, kindness and sacrifice will live on, not only through their families and friends but written in the pages of history.”What does it mean to be Australian? A question which stumps many and raises passionate debate from every person who is asked this simple yet complex question. It was certainly one that had conflicted me for as long as I can remember. However, as I stood at the lectern preparing to deliver my speech, looking out at the crowd of people who had come to pay their respects to our fallen nurses, I finally understood what the core of my Australian identity meant to me. It isn’t the superficial stereotypes that Australia might be known for, but instead the mateship, bravery and sacrifice so many had experienced before me.

The Vyner Brooke was a small ship, which was bombed by the Japanese and sunk off the coast of Banka Island, an island east of Sumatra, on the 14 February 1942, during World War 2. They had been ordered to evacuate from Singapore when they were spotted by a Japanese scout plane, sprayed with machine gun fire and eventually bombed just hours later. On board were 65 Australian Army nurses, as well as 116 wounded and sick. Only 24 nurses made it back to Australia and scores of civilians perished. Some died in the initial bombing, either dying on impact or eventually drowning, while many died on Radji beach, wading into the water and shot from behind by Japanese soldiers. A few also died as prisoners of war.

Every year, near the first weekend of February, the Vyner Brooke Memorial Ceremony occurs at Point Walter, at the Vyner Brooke memorial, and those brave nurses are remembered for their sacrifice. This year, Rebecca Perse, Genevieve Reid, and I were honoured to write and deliver a speech at the memorial about the Vyner Brooke story. Each one of us chose to focus on a particular nurse and write their story as if we were them. This was an incredible privilege as we were able to give a voice to the nurses who gave so much of themselves. I chose to focus on Lieutenant Kathleen Kinsella, a highly regarded nurse who worked and trained at the Heidelberg Military Hospital before being posted to Singapore and Malaya with the 2/13th Australian General Hospital and eventually promoted to senior nurse of the 2/4th Casualty Clearing Station. She, unfortunately, is thought to have drowned the afternoon of the bombing, her body was never recovered.

Being able to represent the nurses who selflessly volunteered their time, talents, and for many their lives was one of the most extraordinary experiences, which brought me, and many to tears. Being able to meet so many incredible people at the ceremony was amazing as well. Commodore Brett Dowsing, a commodore in the Australian Navy, was awe-inspiring and his humour and comforting presence was a joy to be around and converse with. However, meeting the daughter of one of the surviving nurses, Mavis Hannah, was by far one of the most striking moments I’ve ever experienced. Jessica Ward, daughter of Mavis Hannah, who had travelled from England, clearly had so much love and respect for her mother and her insight into the life of a surviving nurse was utterly fascinating. It was an honour and pleasure talking to her. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience participating in the ceremony and will continue to attend for many years to come.

As I said in the conclusion of my speech “Every one of the nurses aboard this fateful ship has a story worth telling, worth hearing. As a young woman myself, it’s devastating to think of the horror those women faced, especially in their last moments. Their legacy of bravery, kindness and sacrifice will live on, not only through their families and friends but written in the pages of history.”

Lest We Forget.

Stephanie Haines, Year 12

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