Monday, 13 February 2012

The Vyner Brooke

Tuesday, February 14 2012 is the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the steam ship Vyner Brooke. Sixty five Australian nurses and over 100 civilians were evacuated from Singapore three days before the fall of Malaya on the Vyner Brooke. The boat was bombed by the Japanese and sank in the Banka Strait on February 14 1942. Twelve nurses drowned, thirty two nurses survived the sinking and became prisoners of war, with eight dying in captivity. Another twenty two also survived and were washed ashore on Radji Beach on Banka Island where they joined a number of civilians and service men from other sunken vessels. Japanese troops bayoneted the men to death and marched the women into the water where they were machine gunned to death. The only survivor was Sister Vivian Bullwinkel and a British soldier. Sister Bullwinkel was later taken prisoner and survived the War.

There are two Casey Cardinia connections to this tragedy. One of the nurses who did not survive the sinking of the Vyner Brooke was Sister Kathleen Kinsella. Sister Kinsella was the daughter of Michael Kinsella and Susan Lockens of Cora Lynn. Michael Kinsella had selected 60 acres of land on the north side of the Main Drain at Cora Lynn in1900 and the family moved there in 1905. Kathleen was born on March 18, 1904 at South Yarra and she started school at Koo-Wee-Rup North (or Five Mile) and then in 1912 Kathleen, her sister Nancie (born 1900) and brother Arthur (born 1898) switched to Cora Lynn State School, where she stayed until 1918. There were also two other brothers Daniel (born 1894) and Norman (1895).

Sister Kathleen Kinsella's enlistment photograph. Australian War Memorial collection P02783.024

After leaving school, Kathleen trained as a nurse and was working at the Heidelberg Military Hospital when she joined the Army on August 4 in 1941. She was assigned to the 2/13th Australian General Hospital, the 2/4th Casualty Clearing Station unit. The 13th Australian General Hospital left Melbourne on September 2, 1941 and arrived in Singapore on September 15. In November it relocated to Malaya. As the fighting in the area increased the casualties grew and by December the hospital had 945 beds in operation and was acting as a Casualty Clearing Station and was the most forward surgical unit in the army’s medical organisation. As the Japanese advanced the Hospital had to withdraw to Singapore where by the end of January 1942 it had established a 700 bed hospital. The medical staff had to cope with bombings and blackouts but eventually it was too dangerous to operate and the nurses were evacuated on three ships, the last to leave being the Vyner Brooke on February 12. Sister Kinsella is commemorated on the Cora Lynn War Memorial.

One of the twenty four nurses who survived the war and the many years in captivity was Sister Wilma Oram who was born in Glenorchy in 1916. In 1947 she married Alan Young who had also been a Prisoner of War and they lived on a dairy farm at Cardinia. They had four children together and as well as running the farm, Mrs Young was very active in Veteran affairs. You can read her inspirational story in her biography A woman’s War: the exceptional life of Wilma Oram Young, AM by Barbara Angell. Another account of the women’s ordeal as Prisoners of War can be found in White Coolies by Betty Jeffrey, which was published in 1954, and is based on the diary she kept whilst in captivity.

This post is to commemorate the bravery, the sense of adventure and sense of duty of the Australian Service personnel, including Kathleen Kinsella and Wilma Oram Young, and their brave nursing colleagues on the Vyner Brooke.

Credits: the photographs of Sister Kinsella are from the Australian War memorial site, The information about the Vyner Brooke and the 2/13th Australian General Hospital is also from the Australian War Memorial site. An account of the Radji Beach massacre and its aftermath can be found in On Radji Beach by Ian Shaw and there is a very interesting ABC DVD on Sister Bullwinkel, Vivian Bullwinkel: an Australian heroine. Finally, a thank you to Lynne Bradley of the Narre Warren & District Family History Group for telling me about the Vyner Brooke anniversary and the connection to Kathleen Kinsella.

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