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LTCOL Vivian Bullwinkel AO MBE, Sculpture Dedication Ceremony, Australian War Memorial, Campbell ACT


I acknowledge the Ngunnawal people as traditional custodians of the land we are meeting on and recognise any other people or families with connection to the lands of the ACT and region. I acknowledge their continuing culture and contribution to this region. I’ve said many times that we are blessed to live and work in such a lovely part of the country — from the Namadgi to the south, the Brindabellas to the west, the Molonglo and Murrumbidgee rivers — and I thank the traditional custodians for looking after it, generation after generation. 

Good morning.

Before I begin my remarks about LTCOL Vivian Bullwinkel, I again want to express my deepest condolences to the loved ones and colleagues of Captain Danniel Lyon, Lieutenant Maxwell Nugent, Warrant Officer Class Two Joseph Laycock and Corporal Alexander Naggs.

It is a tragedy, and Linda’s and my thoughts are with the families, friends and other Defence Force personnel at this difficult time.

I hope that the knowledge of our nation’s gratitude is of some comfort in this moment of intense grief.

Today, we have reached a natural point in a journey.

In May this year, Linda and I visited the island of Lemnos in Greece. We participated in the ground-breaking ceremony for the Lemnos Remembrance Trail, which will be a lasting memorial in honour of the service of the Anzacs who passed through Lemnos during the Gallipoli campaign.

On the shores of the North Aegean Sea at the present time are work parties building a Remembrance Trail that centres on the role of Australian nurses. These were the first women ever to be deployed as nurses by Australia in our history, to treat the wounded from Gallipoli.

To be able to make that connection is like walking on that Remembrance Trail today and ending up with Vivian Bullwinkel.

It is a privilege for Linda and me to be here this morning at this Sculpture Dedication Ceremony in honour of a truly great Australian, LTCOL Vivian Bullwinkel AO MBE.

We also remember her fellow nurses on Bangka Island who made the ultimate sacrifice. Indeed, we honour all Australian women who have served our nation in conflicts and on operations both here and overseas.

How special it is, and how fortunate we are, that some members of Vivian’s family are here today. It is an honour to share this occasion with you.

I also acknowledge the many nurses both here and participating in this ceremony for who today’s dedication means so much. I will try to do justice to Vivian Bullwinkel’s legacy as best I can, but she was a giant.

I’ve been reflecting on this sculpture and what it represents.

A tribute to a remarkable individual — as I say, a great Australian.

More than a tribute, though, this sculpture will be a permanent reminder of the values that Vivian Bullwinkle epitomised. 

Why is that important in 2023?

There are, I think, two reasons.

First, because our nation must never forget the sacrifices made by our service men and women and the contribution they have made to our country.

The events that took place on Bangka Island during World War 2 are difficult to comprehend.

On 16 February 1942, 22 Australian Army Nurses were machine gunned by soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army on Radji Beach in the Indonesian archipelago.

As described by Vivian to ‘The Age’ newspaper in 1945: "As we were thigh deep in the surf, they opened murderous fire, mowing us down like a scene I saw in a film as a child. Women around me shrieked, stiffened and sank."

Vivian was brave, and lucky. By good fortune and with guile, she survived.

But those Australian nurses who didn’t were defiant to the end.

Major Irene Drummond was the most senior of the nurses massacred on the island. Her words to her nurses as they all faced certain death — “Chin up, girls. I’m proud of you and I love you” — speak to not only her own bravery and compassion but the bravery and compassion of all the Australian nurses on that island.

We remember them and will never forget them.

We also take inspiration from them.

Therein lies the second reason this sculpture is so important.

Because in remembering Vivian Bullwinkle we are learning and thinking about who we are as Australians.

Because, through Vivian, part of the fabric of Australia has been woven.

Her thread of our national fabric is represented here, at the Australian War Memorial and in this sculpture.

A thread that tells us who we are, what we stand for, how we go about life and what our values are.

Vivian Bullwinkel’s actions, during service and post-service, reflect values we attribute to the Anzac legacy: courage, sacrifice, endurance, mateship.

Upon returning to Australia after the war, Vivian devoted herself to the nursing profession and to honouring those killed on Bangka Island.

She was an active member of the community, served as a member of the Council of the Australian War Memorial, and later President of the Royal College of Nursing, Australia.

Vivian Bullwinkel touched lives, helped and mentored countless individuals.

Few, if any, could match her impact. But we can all aspire to live by those same values.

To persevere in the face of challenges…

To sacrifice our own interests in favour of others…

To be brave, and compassionate.

She was, as has been described by many, a symbol of strength for nursing.

That’s what I see when I look at this sculpture. A remarkable Australian for sure, but also a reminder of the people we are and the nation we aspire to be.

How fitting that we come together at one of our nation’s most esteemed cultural institutions to honour a nurse of the calibre of Vivian Bullwinkel.

In closing, I want to acknowledge the work of sculptor Dr Charles Robb, as well as the Australian College of Nursing who, in partnership with the Australian War Memorial, commissioned the sculpture.

Today, we remember and honour LTCOL Vivian Bullwinkel.

Hers is the story of a truly great Australian.

It will resonate for many years to come as we see Vivian’s qualities displayed both in our nurses and in our country: compassion, selflessness, loyalty, bravery, honour.

What more could we ask of ourselves, to be taking as a lesson for today.

On behalf of all Australians, I acknowledge LTCOL Vivian Bullwinkel’s remarkable legacy of service to our nation.