.

Survivor … Vivian ''Bully'' Bullwinkel, who came through the executions wounded but alive. Photo: Australian War Memorial

When it comes to last words, Australian mythology has many candidates (''Such is life'' - Ned Kelly. ''Shoot straight, you bastards'' - Breaker Morant).

But none resonates as profoundly on Anzac Day as those spoken by the plump, bespectacled Matron Irene Drummond as she and her 21 nurses limped over the sand and into the surf on a beautiful beach 70 years ago.

''Chin up, girls!'' Drummond called out, suspecting they were going to certain death as the Japanese execution squad on the beach prepared to mow them down. ''I'm proud of you all and I love you all.''

Faced adversity ... Olive "Dashing Dot" Paschke.

Faced adversity ... Olive "Dashing Dot" Paschke. Photo: Australian War Memorial

Drummond was slaughtered by machine gun fire before her toes were even wet.

Others on Radji Beach that day were executed in the waves. Unfortunately for the Japanese, one nurse survived: Vivian ''Bully'' Bullwinkel, shot but alive, who would testify against the war criminals three years later, securing justice for her sister nurses.

On Anzac Day, people generally focus on male troops. But what of the women who nursed them? The Australian War Memorial has an exhibition, Nurses: from Zululand to Afghanistan, until October 17, which records the exploits of so many women who signed up to save lives, not to end them.

.

Strength to the end ... matron Irene Drummond. Photo: Australian War Memorial

There are endless recollections of brave Australian nurses at war. Yet if one has to symbolise the Australian Florence Nightingale, history has selected Vivian Bullwinkel.

Ian Shaw has just updated On Radji Beach, his 2010 account of the 65 Australian Army nurses - including Drummond and Bullwinkel - who left Singapore aboard an ill-equipped coastal freighter, the Vyner Brooke, on February 12, 1942.

His meticulously researched book, using diaries and papers from surviving nurses and witnesses, demonstrates the random nature of heroism, survival and anonymous death in warfare.

''There were 130 army nurses in Singapore in the weeks before the surrender to the Japanese,'' Shaw says. ''They were divided into two groups. The first were evacuated aboard the Empire Star. They had their adventures but made it back to Australia. All 60 survived.

''But of the 65 nurses who went on the Vyner Brooke, two out of every three died. They were typical of all Australian Army nurses, and of Australian women at the time … The only thing they had in common was their profession and that they were over 25 [a qualification to become an army nurse].''

None of the nurses wanted to flee Singapore. They felt their place was with the wounded soldiers. But the order went out: Japanese troops conquering a subcontinent on bicycles had raped and murdered white women. Wounded Australian men wanted the nurses out.

The Vyner Brooke's final voyage through ''Bomb Alley'' is a harrowing tale in itself. Women, children, elderly men and crew died without prejudice in the straits near Sumatra.

''Some nurses were killed by the Japanese bombing,'' Shaw says. ''That included Kit [Sister Kathleen Kinsella], who would have been given an honour [for previous exploits] had she survived. She was never seen again.''

Like the Titanic, the Vyner Brooke had too few lifeboats. Some nurses who chose to swim died. Others floated past Radji Beach on Bangka Island, off the coast of Sumatra. Some made land and survived as prisoners of war. Drummond's fellow matron, ''Dashing Dot'' Paschke, was last seen shepherding a liferaft full of bedraggled victims through to an unknown fate.

''The main lifeboat was washed ashore onto Radji Beach within eight hours,'' Shaw says. ''They would have felt that they were the lucky ones.''

Less than 48 hours later, most had been executed.

The nurses already knew their fate. Japanese troops had divided the human wreckage on Radji Beach into three. The men were executed first, in two groups. When the Japanese soldiers came back and started cleaning their bayonets of blood, the nurses were left in no doubt.

One practical nurse, according to Shaw, suggested they should make a dash for survival, saying: ''Some of us can swim fast, some of us can run fast. If we go in different directions, some of us might survive.''

Matron Drummond, however, was insistent, Shaw says. ''Girls, we have run away from the wounded once. We are not going to do it again.''

This second edition of Shaw's book was prompted by elderly former soldiers who contacted him with anecdotes about being treated by the nurses. But there was one error that simply had to be addressed.

In 2010, Shaw wrote that all the Vyner Brooke nurses were dead. Then he got a letter from Ross McPhee, son of Cecilia ''Del'' Delforce. She was still alive in a Gold Coast nursing home, though fading fast. Shaw sent a card of apology saying, ''You are one of the people I most admire''. He phoned a couple of days later to see if she had received it.

''A Filipina nurse answered. She said, 'Yes, we read your card to her. She seemed to understand.'''

''Del'' died a few weeks later. Again McPhee sent Shaw a message. Del's son wrote: ''She always said she buried her friends with no flowers and that would be good enough for her.''

On Radji Beach is published by Pan Macmillan, $34.99.