GOOD morning returned servicemen, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls.
It is indeed a great honour to be asked to address you in the 100th year of the Toodyay RSL Sub-branch receiving its charter.
I had considered speaking to you about the war service of my grandfather, Earle Joseph Sinclair Wroth, who served in Gallipoli, Egypt and France in World War I and was the first president in 1919 of what was then the Toodyay Sub-branch of the Returned Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen’s Imperial League of Australia, which later became the Returned Services League (RSL).
Or my father, Mac Wroth, and his wartime service in the airforce because he also was a former Toodyay RSL president.
People on Anzac Day generally focus on male servicemen, famous battles or heroic actions.
However, on this meaningful day I decided to talk about a girl that we should all know through name alone.
This girl who was born in Toodyay, raised on the family farm Telmell on Rockdale Road in Culham and was the daughter of Edward and Katherine Beard.
Alma Beard attended the local school and had a great love of horses, always entering the dressage events at our local Show.
At the age of 17, Alma commenced her nursing training.
She had been a qualified nurse for 11 years; training at Perth Hospital and a larger Sydney Hospital before feeling the need in World War II to enlist in the Australian Army in Perth on 19 June 1941 to serve in the 2nd/13th Australian General Hospital.
She eventually found herself in Singapore with 130 other Army nurses treating sick and injured soldiers.
In February 1942, with the inevitable Japanese invasion of Singapore and the situation getting worse by the hour – and against the nurses wishes because they didn’t want to leave the wounded – they were ordered to evacuate to the port where two ships, the SS Vyner Brooke and the Empire Star, were docked to take them to safety.
The nurses were separated into two groups.
The Empire Star left first and made the voyage safely back to Australia.
Alma, along with the remaining 65 nurses, wounded servicemen and civilians, boarded the SS Vyner Brooke.
The next day near Sumatra, the Vyner Brooke came under attack and was repeatedly bombed by Japanese aircraft, causing her to sink quickly within 15 minutes.
The nurses had been ordered not to abandon the ship until all civilians were off.
Many people were killed and wounded during the air attack, and some survivors were strafed by planes while in the sea.
Alma was among the 22 nurses who eventually made it to Radji Beach on Bangka Island off Sumatra after clinging to a lifeboat for eight hours – they would have thought they were the lucky ones after seeing the shelling of another ship during the night.
100 survivors on beach
By morning there were more than 100 survivors on the beach including the 22 Australian nurses, civilian women and children, officers and wounded servicemen from the Vyner Brooke.
It was agreed by all that because they had no supplies, no chance of escape and had injured to care for, that their best option was to surrender to Japanese occupying forces on the island.
A party of men accompanied by all the civilian women and children went off in search of the Japanese.
Alma and the remaining 22 nurses stayed behind to care for the wounded and erected a red cross to indicate that they were non-combatants and wore their Red Cross arm bands to give them protected status by convention in civilised nations.
They were all under the belief that they would be treated humanely as prisoners of war – their expectations were short lived.
A patrol of about 20 Japanese soldiers later arrived from the township of Muntok.
Some guarded the Australian nurses while the remaining soldiers herded the male survivors down the beach and around a headland.
Rapid gunfire was soon heard from this direction and the Japanese soldiers returned alone, sat down in front of the women and cleaned their bayonets and rifles.
The nurses were then ordered to walk into the ocean, with a couple of the soldiers shoving those who were slow to respond.
One nurse was heard to say “ there are two things I hate in life – the Japs and the sea – and today I get both”.
‘Chin up girls’
Another nurse cried out “Girls, take it; don’t squeal” so, even in this horrific situation, there were no tears or screams.
Then matron Irene Drummond called out to Alma and the other nurses “chin up girls, I’m proud of you and I love you all”.
At that point, the Japanese started firing up and down the line with a machine gun until they believed they had killed them all.
So what was the heinous crime that they had committed to deserve this fate?
They were just doing what they had trained to do – caring for the sick and injured.
But by pure miracle, one nurse – Vivienne Bullwinkle – was shot but survived by feigning death and floating in the water until the Japanese soldiers had left the beach.
Vivienne tended to her wounds herself and kept her secret when she surrendered once again to the Japanese, knowing full well that if they ever discovered, during her three years as a prisoner of war, that she was the sole survivor of the massacre at Bangka Island that she would be executed.
It is only through her survival that the horrible details of this massacre can be accurately accounted for.
On her return to WA after the war, Sister Vivienne Bullwinkle wrote to Alma’s parents saying that their daughter’s brave conduct in her hour of crisis had added lustre to the service she so nobly served.
Survivor at 1992 medical centre opening
When Toodyay’s new medical centre was opened in 1992, it was named the Alma Beard Community Health Centre in her honour, and Vivienne Bullwinkle attended the opening.
So next time you go there to see a doctor, remember Alma and maybe we should all be more thoughtful by referring to it by its proper title, the Alma Beard Community Health Centre, named in her memory.
Though this tragic event occurred 77 years ago, more horrific details of the nurses’ fate have come to light in recent months.
Let us hope that countries and world leaders have learnt from the mistakes of the past and that we can forgive one another and live in peace.
I apologise if this story is upsetting for some but it is important for the younger generations and those to come, to understand and appreciate the sacrifice that servicemen and women have made so we can enjoy the freedom we have today.