Singapore slings more than cocktails

RUARI REID finds island’s links to the past are close to home

A casual visit to the Raffles Hotel, a conversation struck up with the Raffles historian near the cast-iron fountain, and a mention of Perth, Australia, to a bartender making a Singapore Sling can combine to lead to a chance discovery that’s close to home.

In 1939, young Australian nurses, who had been posted overseas to work for the Australian Army Nursing Service, found themselves arriving in Singapore, a jewel in the crown of the British Empire.

Looking for adventure, the nurses were keen to do their bit for the war effort to help the wounded and the safe, secure location that Singapore provided was ideal for some on-the-job training.

Of the five nurses from WA who travelled together, one was St Mary’s West Perth graduate Lt Peggy Farmaner, from Claremont, who enlisted in 1940.

Of course, Singapore provided numerous entertainments for off-duty nurses. One such was dancing into the night at the Raffles Hotel. Possibly during one evening’s dance, Peggy met a fellow Australian nurse from a Casualty Clearing Station — Vivian Bullwinkel, whose uniform now hangs in the Australian War Memorial.

Singapore has a striking monument to its civilians killed during the occupation of the island, but today it is surrounded by skyscrapers. The Civilian War Memorial on Beach Road is close to the “Durians”, the two big, rounded domes that make up the Esplanade performing arts centre.

The nurses were evacuated — ordered to leave their patients — on the SS Vyner Brooke just three days before Malaya fell to the invading forces.

However, the ship was bombed and sunk by hostile aircraft and of the 65 nursing staff on board, 22 were washed ashore on Radji beach on Banka Island.

What followed was a massacre…

This is an edited version of the original, full-length story, which you can read here.

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