As the sun rose over Bangka Island in 1942 – an Inverell war nurse was unaware that later that day she would fall victim to a massacre that ranks among the bloodiest and most infamous war crimes carried out by the Japanese during World War II.
Seventy-five years later on Thursday February 16, around 80 officials, nurses and family members descended on Radji beach, on Bangka Island near Sumatra, to erect the first-ever plaque recognising the fallen.
Kathleen Nuess, a former Inverell High School student and nurse at the Inverell Hospital, was serving with the Australian Army Nursing Service as part of the 8th Division Australian Imperial Force.
Sister Neuss was among 22 nurses shot on Radji beach after their ship, SS Vyner Brooke, was sunk in Banka Strait by Japanese aircraft off the coast of what is now Indonesia.
The nurses were ordered to march into the sea where they were shot – and only a Victorian nurse, Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, survived the massacre.
She was shot in the hip but feigned dead in the surf until the Japanese executioners walked away.
Ten years ago Sister Neuss’ nephew, Michael Noyce, discovered a leather box in his late mother’s study.
Mr Noyce said he was clearing up some belongings when he discovered his mother had kept letters Sister Neuss had sent during the war.
“This treasure trove of history … to read and transcribe them was chilling,” Mr Noyce told Fairfax Media.
Mr Noyce first visited Bangka Island with his cousin Ian Neuss in January last year and said he was still struck by the remoteness.
“We got to the beach and it was absolutely incredible,” he said.
“We put a wreath on the rock and dropped some soil from my parents’ grave into the beach.”
But then Mr Noyce emailed the Australian War Memorial pointing out that the 75 year anniversary could be the last opportunity for many of the first generation relatives of the murdered nurses to pay their respects.
The email was referred to the Australian Embassy in Jakarta and an official ceremony and service was organised on Bangka Island.
Mr Noyce took the 20 kilogram bronze plaque dedicated to those killed on Radji beach to the service on Thursday.
“This beach is hallowed ground,” it reads.
“There is a developing closeness between the people of Muntok and Australia and elsewhere connected with what happened 75 years ago,” Mr Noyce said.
At the ceremony Mr Noyce read the final words spoken to the women by a Sister Esther Sarah Jean Stewart – before they were slaughtered, according to Sister Vivian Bullwinkel.
“Girls, take it, don't squeal,” said Sister Esther Sarah Jean Stewart.
“Sends shivers down you, doesn't it?” Mr Noyce told Fairfax Media.
Australian War Memorial records state another Inverell nurse, Marjorie Schuman, was one of 65 Australian nurses and over 250 civilian men, women and children who were evacuated on the SS Vyner Brooke from Singapore three days before the fall of Malaya.
While it has never been confirmed, official records presume 31-year-old Sister Schuman drowned following the sinking on February 14.
The Inverell RSM Club dedicated a framed memorial for the women some years ago.
Inverell RSM assistant manager Kellee Anderson said the community were welcome to come and pay their respects to the women in light of the 75th anniversary.
“The community is welcome to come and pay their respects to the two nurses,” she said.