Shoulder to shoulder, their Red Crosses worn like armour, the women waded through the water toward the horizon off a remote Indonesian beach.
“Chin up, girls,” said matron Irene Drummond as the sea lapped at their waists. “I’m proud of you and I love you all.”
There were no tears. No screams.
Another among them quipped, “There are two things I hate in life: the Japs and the sea, and today I’ve got both.”
Then came the spray of bullets.
These 22 Australian nurses and sole, elderly civilians were the victims of the WW2 Bangka beach massacre; an atrocity on a small Indonesian island that alone fuelled much of our nation’s anti-Japanese sentiment after the guns fell silent in 1945.
Their lives were taken by machine-gun wielding Japanese troops on the 16 February 1942 – just over 78 years ago – but it took the end of the war for their story to be told, and the miraculous survival of one of them to tell it.
That woman was Vivian Bullwinkel.
The then 26-year-old from Kapunda, South Australia, was one of 124 members of Australian Army Nursing Service forced to flee their station in Malaya as Singapore teetered on the edge of capitulation, the Australian War Memorial notes.
Along with 300 other evacuees, 65 of the women were shoved aboard the SS Vyner Brooke, a small freighter bound for the Indonesian islands of Sumatra or Java. But they never made it.
Japanese bombers struck the ship then another aircraft raked the water with bullets, hoping to claim those who had survived the sinking of the vessel.
Dozens of patients and 12 ANS women perished, while the others - Bullwinkle among them - propelled life-rafts ashore at the Japanese-controlled Bangka Island.
They had escaped death the previous night, but knew salvation didn't await them on the sand. Some headed inland to surrender, while the 22 nurses and a cohort of British soldiers waited on the beach for the troops to come to them.
And come they did. The women's Red Crosses proved no protection. The bullets slayed her colleagues but struck Bullwinkel high on the right hip, knocking her onto the surface of the water. There she floated for some time, feigning death, until the tide carried her back to the shallows.