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 civilian 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 76 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.
For the next 12 days she and a surviving British soldier survived on the charity of women in a nearby village, before eventually succumbing to the inevitable and turning themselves in.
Her next three-and-a-half years were spent inside Indonesian prison camps, where she was reunited with other ANS women to have survived the Vyner Brooke, several of whom ultimately perished from disease and malnutrition.
Still, their spirit and resolve survived. According to the Australian War Memorial, in the only postcard Bullwinkel was able to send to her mother during her time as a prisoner she winked, "My roving spirit has been somewhat checked."
But for the 24 who were ultimately liberated, what they witnessed became a tool of justice, as much as can be had from war. Some told their tales through song and books, but most notably, Bullwinkel went on to testify to war crimes at the Tokyo Tribunal 1946.
Home safe and free in Australia, she retired from the military in 1947, and rose to become Matron of the Queen's Memorial Infectious Diseases Hospital, Melbourne.
She devoted the decades after the war to nursing and to honouring those who did not survive Bangka Island. She served on the Council of the Australian War Memorial and also as president of the Australian College of Nursing, earning honours including the Florence Nightingale Medal, an MBE and the AM along the way.
She married in 1977 and died July 3, 2000, in Perth.
According to Fairfax Media, when she returned home after the war, Bulwinkel telephoned the families of the other Bangka Beach victims to share their loved ones' bravery and their final words.
"Girls, take it, don't squeal," Sister Esther Sarah Jean Stewart reportedly said.
Her words and those of the others were read at a memorial on that very beach in February last year, as relatives of the victims gathered to acknowledge the sacrifice these women made 76 years ago.
There a plaque will be erected in their memory, so that neither they nor the events of that February 16, 1942, will ever be forgotten.