Grantlee Kieza’s inspiring story of war hero Vivian Bullwinkel

When award-winning author Grantlee Kieza started researching the background for a book about war-time nursing hero Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, he was fortunate to have the help of her closest relative, her nephew John.

“John gave me access to her personal memorabilia and belongings; he inherited it all,” Grantlee tells Have a Go News from his home in Brisbane. “He gave me a lot of recorded television interviews which was terrific. I also did a lot of stuff with the Australian War Memorial which was very helpful.”

Just released, Sister Viv tells the inspiring story of Vivian Bullwinkel, the lone survivor of the Bangka Island massacre of 1942. She was just 26 when Japanese soldiers marched her and her fellow nurses into the shallow waters of a remote beach to be executed.

Miraculously, Vivian was the only survivor. She took on that mantle graciously and dedicated the rest of her life to an exceptional career caring for others.

Well known author Grantlee Kieza OAM was approached by publisher HarperCollins, with whom he has a long-term contract, to write the book. 

“I wanted to write about Vivian at some stage and it was fortunate she was the one HarperCollins wanted me to write about.

“I had known her story for a long time. Back when I was young, I watched a small television documentary by Mike Willesee. One of the items John Bullwinkel gave me was Vivian’s appearance on Roger Climpson’s This Is Your Life which was fascinating.

“A lot of the nurses who were in the camps with her appeared on the show which was wonderful. The way I approached the book is that although there are a lot of experiences in there, I wanted it to be uplifting, a story of survival, of tomorrow being a better day than the one that went before.

“I think that is how Vivian lived her life, despite all the horrible things that happened to her and the awful experiences she went through, she was a bright, shining person. Her photo on the book cover reflects that.

“Once she returned home, she lived the best life she could in memory of the girls who didn’t come back. I think she honoured their memory in the way she lived her life.”

Grantlee says Vivian’s attributes were her physical and mental strength, her ability to look on the positive side of life focusing on progress rather than sinking into despair.

“That’s a lesson for anybody. Not all the women in the prison camps survived. Those who did had a positive mental attitude. The human spirit is a powerful thing given the chance; these women probably didn’t realise what they were capable of until they were tested and came through.”

Grantlee says his book has been well received. 

“I was in Sydney and Melbourne, went to Mansfield in country Victoria and Barwon Heads on the coast. I met many people who worked with Vivian in Fairfield Hospital and I’ve had many people contact me, the response has been terrific and really uplifting.

“John Bullwinkel has been very close to the story. I also met Michael Noyce, whose great aunt Kathleen was one of those killed on the beach and he was happy with the way I had covered some of the controversial aspects which I didn’t want to sugar coat.”

Sister Viv was launched at the Maritime Museum in Sydney on April 3 but the author also went to the RSL ANZAC Village at Narrabeen in northern Sydney to visit the Vivian Bullwinkel café-lounge.

“A lady who worked with Vivian at Fairfield told me some great stories about her, some of which is in the book, such as dispensing with the formality of being a matron and going around and sitting on people’s beds and talking as if she was a friend which matrons didn’t do.

“She said at one time a man came into the hospital who had been shot and badly wounded. Vivian sat on the bed with him and was talking about her bullet wound and how they compared.”

Grantlee said he had hoped to visit Radji Beach with Michael Noyce who organises a commemorative visit each year but he was involved in something else.

“I hope to go next year but I spoke to people who had previously been there and Michael was very helpful with an idea of what it was like and gave me a lot of help with the map at the front of the book.”

Grantlee reflects that Vivian didn’t receive any counselling and just returned to hospital work after years in a prison camp. 

“They were a magnificent generation and equal to the task. They suffered so much, not just in war but at home.

“Viv’s mother Eva didn’t know what was happening with both of her children in the war (John Bullwinkel served and survived as a pilot in Britain). She was a widow but her letters reveal her hope and not sinking into despair. 

“There was always a positive attitude.”

Sister Viv by Grantlee Kieza (HarperCollins, $35.99), is available at all good bookshops.