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Catholic Weekly News
Ex-POW Sister: call on Diggers’ deaths
By Brian Davies
QUESTIONS: Sr Berenice Twohill in the chapel of her convent at Kensington ... "There needs to be closure for surviving families and relatives”.         Photo: Kerry Myers
THE sole survivor of the missionary Sisters who were captives of the Japanese in New Britain during World War II has called on the Australian Government to settle questions about the fate of more than 1000 Australian POWs who were believed to have died on a Japanese cargo ship in 1942.

On July 1, 1942, the Montevideo Maru, en route to Japan, was sunk off the northern coast of Luzon by an American submarine. A handful of Japanese crewmen were the only survivors.

It was the greatest single maritime tragedy in Australia's history.

The anniversary this month sharpens anew the memories for Sr Berenice Twohill OLSH (Our Lady of the Sacred Heart missionary congregation) who, with the other Christian missionaries, predominantly Catholics, had already been a captive of the Japanese in Rabaul for six months before the Montevideo Maru steamed out of the harbour to its fateful encounter.

A small group of Australians – the families of soldiers who died as a result of the World War II Japanese occupation of Rabaul – unveiled a plaque to honour them in Luzon in the Philippines this month, near where they may have lost their lives. It is the sadder for the families and friends because this tragic episode is still shrouded in uncertainties and painful doubts.

Sr Berenice, a child of Murwillumbah and the Tweed River and now an active 92-year old, is the sole survivor of the Australian OLSH Sisters then on Rabaul, and probably that of the mixed congregation of Sisters of other nationalities who together spent three terrible years behind barbed wire and were later dumped into an inaccessible valley in the jungle to survive as best they could.

Like many Australian families directly connected with the fall of Rabaul and the loss of loved ones and the mystery of who of them were on the Montevideo Maru, Sr Berenice believes the Australian government should do more to settle questions still unanswered after nearly 70 years.

“Perhaps they never will be,” she says. “But it would be fitting for the Montevideo Maru to be found, as HMAS Sydney was, and the site could then be declared a war grave.”

Sister Berenice does not believe all the prisoners, as Japan claims, were on board the Montevideo Maru and says that, like the massacre at Tol Tol when 160 Australian soldiers were executed, other killings took place

“For instance the civilians taken to Rabaul from Kavieng on the neighbouring island of New Ireland were told they would be interned, but the next day another Japanese officer had them killed. In all the time we were in captivity, we could never work out the Japanese mind,” Sr Berenice said.

“There needs to be closure for surviving families and relatives, for people like Cynthia Schmidt, a nine- month-old baby evacuated with her mother from Rabaul in 1941; but Cynthia’s father re-mained. His fate and whereabouts are unknown and Cynthia, who runs the Montevideo Maru Association, has spent her life trying to find out what happened and where he lies.”

The association has been petitioning the Government for years to fund a search for the ship and to “arrive at the truth of the events … for all relatives no matter how distant who believe their family members were on the Montevideo Maru or who may have died on New Britain, New Ireland and the islands surrounding them” and what is today PNG.

Sr Berenice also wants a fitting memorial erected “not only the men who died on Rabaul but for all the young men who lost their lives in the Pacific some of whose graves are unknown or are deep at sea. They should be fittingly remembered”.

(There is an impressive catafalque with unit names engraved on it overlooking Rabaul harbour and a memorial walk of stone pylons engraved with individual names in Bita Paka cemetery leading from the entrance to a Cross of Sacrifice, and a memorial in Ballarat erected by the family of one of the men whose fate, like so many in Rabaul, is uncertain.)

Sr Berenice asks: “Why isn’t there a special, noble memorial in Canberra for them? It’s also why it’s important for the Australian Government to try to settle all the mysteries that surround the events relating to Rabaul, why Australian governments have always been so quiet about it all.”

Before the war, as a teacher in Rabaul and living on its outskirts in the convent at Vunapope, Sr Berenice saw soldiers of the 2/22 Battalion in the township, as drivers travelling between depots or those who went to Mass on Sundays at Vunapope Melanesian for “the Pope’s place”).

Fewer than 1400 soldiers – designated as Lark Force – tried to resist an invasion force of 17,000 Japanese soldiers until the Australian commander, conceding the hopelessness of the situation, gave his famous order: “Every man for himself.” There was no question of surrender.

In the brief action that took place, the Japanese casualties were about 3000 dead or wounded. The retreating Australian soldiers split into groups, going into the wild jungle behind Rabaul and striking for the coast in a bid to escape to mainland New Guinea. Lark Force was actually 950 men supported by the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles unit, an anti-tank battery and an anti-aircraft battery. Its equipment was antiquated: no Bren guns, only Lewis guns and three-inch anti-aircraft guns from World War I.

Sr Berenice says: “The Australian force was short of guns, no spare ammunition, no air force. It was very small and and had very little of anything. They fought, but the Japanese swarmed out of the bays, the harbour, and overcame our small army.”

The war began for Sr Berenice, in Rabaul, on December 8, 1941, the day (New Britain time) of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour.

“I was teaching in a mixed-race primary school in Rabaul,” she recalls. “I’d been there about two years from when the schooI was opened; there were just two of us in the school although the congregation was about 45, mostly Dutch sisters, but some Australians like me, also Irish and French ... anyway, things were going nicely at our little school until that day in December 1941 when two police called in and said: ‘We are at war with Japan’.”

Sr Berenice asked to go out to a mission station so Bishop Leo Sharmach sent her to Tapo, about half a day’s walk from Vunapope.

After reports from locals, the Tapo priest directed St Berenice and another nun to take a stretcher and fetch a wounded Australian soldier from the beach, which they did. The priest said he would look after him and that they should return to Vunapope to report his presence at Tapo.

The trip was like a bad dream. It was late afternoon. Japanese planes were bombing, and the way back was just a track in the jungle. Twice they became lost. Several times they dived to the ground to lie flat because of the bombing. They stumbled into Vunapope in the dark.

From that time on Sr Berenice remained in the company of the congregation, as did all the other members, until the last day of the war.

They became prisoners, enclosed – except for the last 18 months, when they were ‘tossed’ into the jungle – by barbed wire and engaged in a war of cunning with their captors over hidden supplies and anti-malaria quinine.

First they were imprisoned in the convent, then in grass huts flanked by ‘hospitals’ for Japanese wounded, particularly after the Coral Sea Battle.

Next, the sisters retreated into tunnels in the mountainside because of renewed bombing – by the US and Australian air forces. But then the tunnels were claimed by the Japanese; and the whole missionary company – 360 priests, brothers and nuns – was dumped into a gorge in the Ramale Valley and told to do the best they could.

They did.

As the war drew to a close, the senior Japanese officers conferred with Bishop Sharmach.

Confused and somewhat mystified by the Christians and their behaviour, they said to him: "Well, this crowd beats us all …”

And that was the title Bishop Sharmach chose to give the book he wrote about his missions’ experiences as prisoners of the Japanese, in Rabaul, during World War II: This crowd beats us all …
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