From the Principal – Anzac Day

Dear members of the Whitefriars College family,

As a young boy growing up in Templestowe the 1970s, I would often pass the Templestowe Cenotaph on my way to the shops. Sometimes I would stop and read the names on this granite monument, other times I would just pass on by. I remember one day as I passed the cenotaph I noticed bunches of flowers at it’s base. I wondered what they were doing there and who may have placed them. Then I remembered that we had recently had a day off school for ANZAC Day but there was no ceremony at school and a seeming lack of interest from the broader local community. Fast forward about 50 years and on ANZAC Day 2023, I again stop by the cenotaph in Templestowe, this time surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of people, young and old, men, women and children, returned service personnel, families and friends. Instead of a couple of bunches of flowers, many came forward and bowing respectfully offered up beautiful floral tributes which covered the entire base of the monument. The students from Whitefriars were there in force too with the Whitefriars concert band and chair led by Mr Nick Fitter and Mr Matthew Frampton providing a moving hymn to the fallen and a rousing rendition of Advance Australia Fair. Our Student Leaders offered prayers and relfections also.

The ANZAC Day service held at Whitefriars the day before was no less powerful and poignant, providing all in our community the opportunity to stop, reflect, prayer and remember those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in war, those who were left with lifelong physical and emotional scars, and all who have served their country throughout our history.

As I stood shoulder to shoulder with these two communities of people I asked myself the question: Why has ANZAC Day grown in prominence these past 40 years or so? Why, is it fast becoming a significant national day as it was post World War 1 and 2? I am not sure of the answer but perhaps it lay in the fact that we are all on a search for meaning. Perhaps we all crave an opportunity to come together in unity to give thanks for the life we have which has, in no small measure, been gifted to us by those who sacrificed so much.

These two ceremonies, though different in many ways, shared some common characteristics. Most significantly for us as people of faith, both events had a strong spiritual element to them. At both ceremonies their were reading, prayers and hymns, and there was a solemnity often more associated with a Church setting. There was even a priest at each gathering who played a central role in bringing these diverse communities together. Now, at a school like Whitefriars you would expect a strong emphasis on faith, but not necessarily in broader secular society.

This observation suggested to me that in moments such as these, no matter who we are, where we come from and what we believe, we often naturally turn to faith for comfort, solace and as a way of trying to make some sense of the senseless.

Perhaps the answer comes to us most clearly from  Matthew’s Gospel –

Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Below is an extract from my ANZAC Day address to our Whitefriars community:

Often on these days we focus our attention on those who have served in battle. Who stood a post and faced their foe with courage and resolve, those who demonstrated selflessness and determination.

Picture such a person in your mind. I think most of us would probably be picturing a young man in a uniform, holding a rifle.

There are many others who we should remember at this time who do not fit this mould. Allow me to introduce you to just one such person.

Vivian Bullwinkel was born in Kapunda, South Australia, and trained as a nurse in Broken Hill, New South Wales. In 1941, aged 25, she enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service. She was posted to the 13th Australian General Hospital and sailed for Malaya ending up on Singapore Island in January 1942.

With the fall of Singapore imminent, it was decided to evacuate the nurses. Late on 12 February, Vivian was with the last group of nurses, along with patients and women and children, to leave Singapore. The next night Japanese bombers found the ship in the Banka Strait. It was attacked and sunk. Vivian drifted for hours clinging to a lifeboat before she struggled ashore on Banka Island with other survivors.

When Japanese troops arrived, they gathered the 22 nurses together and ordered them into the sea, and in an action that later became known as the Banka Island Massacre, the nurses were all machine-gunned from behind. “The nurses fell one after the other into the sea.” Sister Bullwinkel, was struck by a bullet which passed completely through her body, missing her internal organs, badly wounded she feigned death until the Japanese soldiers left. Vivian was the only survivor.

After a long while Vivian got back to the now empty beach. There she found a wounded British soldier from another massacre. They hid out for 12 days, and she cared for the man until he died. Eventually, she surrendered again to the Japanese and was interned with other nurses and endured a further three years of hardship and brutality helping 31 other Australian army nurses tend the sick and wounded without medicine or clean supplies.

After the war Vivian was active in military and civilian nursing. She was involved in veterans’ affairs and with philanthropic committees and continued to support the training of Army nurses.

Sister Vivian Bullwinkel may not have fired a weapon or charged the enemy, but her story of courage, selflessness and heroism is no less worthy than those soldiers who fought in the field of battle.

It is important that on days like these we remember people like Vivian whose sole aim in life was the care of others even at the cost of her own safety.

So perhaps next time you picture those who we remember on ANZAC Day you will see the faces of people like Vivian among the many who have answered the call of their country in its hour of need and who sacrificed their own safety, freedom and even their lives for the freedom we enjoy today. 

With kind regards for another week of learning,

Mr Mark Murphy