World Coins

Tragic sinking of SS Vyner Brooke marked on new coin

The Royal Australian Mint has issued a collectible 20-cent coin honoring the sacrifice of 180 people on board the SS Vyner Brooke, which was sunk by the Japanese military on Feb. 14, 1942, during World War II.

Coin images courtesy of the Royal Australian Mint.

The tragic World War II sinking of an Australian warship carrying many noncombatants is the subject of the Royal Australian Mint’s newest commemorative coin.

According to the Australian War Memorial, “Up until the outbreak of war with the Japanese, Vyner Brooke plied the waters between Singapore and Kuching, under the flag of the Sarawak Steamship Company. She was then requisitioned by Britain’s Royal Navy as an armed trader.”

The SS Vyner Brooke was sunk on Feb. 14, 1942, with 181 souls aboard, most of them women and children. The number of passengers was unusually high (the ship usually only carried 12 passengers and 47 crewmembers), but it was among the last ships to leave Singapore with evacuees, including the last 65 Australian nurses in Singapore. Japanese aircraft bombed the ship, sending many of the occupants to their death. 

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Although a number of survivors made it to Radji Beach, the servicemen were bayoneted and nurses were shot, with nurse Vivian Bullwinkel the only Australian to survive. 

The 2017 20-cent coin depicts the SS Vyner Brooke’s torturous journey while the packaging features related images including a group photo of the Australian war nurses and Australia’s most distinguished war nurse, the late Lt. Col. Vivian Statham, also known by her maiden name Vivian Bullwinkel.

The coin recognizes a significant event in Australia’s war history that demonstrates the horrific experience many endured for Australia, according to Royal Australian Mint Chief Executive Officer Ross MacDiarmid.

“The Lieutenant-Colonel’s story of survival reminds us of the compassion and bravery of all Australian war nurses and this coin is being released to honor and remember all of them.” 

Lt. Col. Bullwinkel’s nephew John Bullwinkel said he was proud of his aunt’s achievements both during her struggle for survival, including caring for the sick and dying while being a prisoner of war, and the legacy created afterwards dedicating her life to improving recognition, training and conditions for nurses. 

“Vivian’s story is horrendous and courageous and in sharing this story with the Australian public through this commemorative coin, it reflects the true test of the character of all Australian service nurses, especially under difficult circumstances and deprivations,” Bullwinkel said. 

The mint partnered with the Australian War Memorial in developing this commemorative coin as part of the official Anzac centenary coin program.

On the reverse of the 20-cent coin, latitude and longitude are marked to the left of an image of the ship sinking in a mapped Timor Sea, with China, Sumatra, Australia and New Guinea also identified, the scene framed within a compass-like border. 

The denomination numeral 20 also appears on the reverse, with the date of the sinking and an inscription identifying the theme, THE SINKING OF THE S.S. VYNER BROOKE, on the rim. 

The Ian Rank-Broadley effigy of Queen Elizabeth II appears on the obverse.

The copper-nickel coin weighs 11.3 grams, measures 28.52 millimeters in diameter and has a mintage limit of 20,000 pieces. 

The coin retails for $10 Australian and may be purchased from the RAM online shop

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