Sr. M. BERENICE TWOHILL
From an interview
Friday October 13th, 2000
at the Convent of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Sydney
Photo by Rod Miller
Taken in Sydney 1997
Sister M. Berenice of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Convent was the eighth of 11 children. She had eight brothers and two sisters and was born at Tumbulgum, just out of Murwillimbah. She attended boarding school at Uki on the Tweed River, under Mount Warning. She was posted to New Britain as a teacher and was one of the group of about 350 missionary Fathers, Brothers and Sisters who were interned there by the Japanese for the duration of the war. This is a short summary of their experiences, told from her point of view in an interview with Barb Angell dated Friday October 13th, 2000.
Sr Berenice 13/11/2000
I promised the Sister that I would make a point of the battle for Rabaul on this web page. Sr Berenice quite rightly stresses the amazing ferocity with which the tiny defense contingent met the huge Japanese invasion. She maintains that this prompted the enemy to believe that the men were only a small vanguard of a much larger defense force. She observed the Japanese "dig in" at Rabaul and wait some three months, not moving, expecting a second wave of attack from the now non-existent defense force. This delay enabled the Americans to prepare their counter-attack and the Coral Sea battle was fought. Let us not forget those brave young Australians at Rabaul (average age between 18-19).
The Sister was far keener to talk about her gallant colleagues than about herself, but during the two and a half pleasant hours I spent in the company of this brave women, many personal facts and eye-witness incidents emerged. This is only a selection from the interview, but a fuller account will become available. Bookmark this page, and meanwhile read the books listed below to familiarize yourself with background information..
|The sister was out at this remote station of Tapo when the invasion of Rabaul took place. The first she knew about it was when she was told to go over to a plantation house to make a phone call to the people at Vunapope, the main mission centre. Before he left to hide in the jungle, the plantation owner had sent a message to the station to let them know that the phone still worked. When the Sr Berenice telephoned Vunapope she was told that the Japanese invasion was about to take place. They were instructed to remain at the station overnight and that she and one of the other Sisters should hurry to Vunapope on foot next day and report that a shell shocked Australian soldier was in their dug-out and would not move - the third Sister was to remain at her station.||
Sr. Berenice 1945
The two Sisters set out to walk alone through the jungle and got lost. They wandered all day, finally locating the track, and found themselves to be almost at Vunapope. When they came to a fork in the road, a truckload of armed Japanese suddenly appeared. "We didn't even know they had landed. They stood up and they yelled and screamed and waved their bayonets about. And we thought, This is it. And then just as suddenly the truck turned around and went off. We ran for our lives up to the convent. And when we got there the Bishop was there with his council, with our Mother Martha (the Mother Superior). He said, Where have you come from? We're prisoners. We said we were from Tapo and he told us: You can't go back, we're prisoners. So that other poor sister was stuck out there for three months not knowing what happened to us or anything else."
"At first the Japanese were menacing," Sr Berenice recalled, "At night they would come knocking on our door. Of course we never opened it but they would go around and around outside. We were in a two-story building and the Japanese would go around and around and around. It was terrible until the Bishop really got control. Every day we were searched, we were called to order and counted. And we were warned: Never let a Japanese soldier find you alone – so we always went around in groups. But after a while we knew there was no danger like that - they wouldn't dare."
Just prior to the invasion, and with permission from the head of the Burns Philp and Carters, who had taken refuge at the mission, the Bishop and his flock managed to salvage plenty of the company's stores. These were hidden in various caches in and around the mission. "The Bishop had told us to take anything of value, any clothing, anything else, and to put it away. We had a room where we stored supplies. Our Superior, Mother Martha, was a Dutch woman (we were 17 or more nationalities altogether) and she spoke very broken English. Every time the Japanese came they poked into everything we had. Every day we were lined up and counted and searched. They were looking for radios. Of course we didn't possess radios. When they'd get near this room where the supplies were, Mother would say: Oh no, malaria in there. Malaria! We knew the Japanese were terrified of malaria and of TB. So those supplies lasted us for at least six months."
Then quite suddenly the Japanese declared that they wanted the mission buildings and that their prisoners were to move back into some native huts. This compound was promptly surrounded by barbed wire.
Australian wounded soldiers were nursed in the mission hospital and the Sisters were permitted to cook a meal for them. "I was in a little native hut with the Australian Sisters. And we had a whole lot of supplies up top. It was a round hut, and all the supplies were up in the ceiling. We had a guard all the time, going around and around and around. We used to cook everything in a great big bowl. We had a ladder. And while the guard was away we would run quickly up and get our supplies, then quickly put the ladder back out of sight. That happened for a couple of weeks and the guards never suspected where we were getting supplies. The Japanese are strange. We used to say they had a one-track mind. They only thought of one thing at a time. It never struck them where we were getting this food from. One day one of the sisters forgot to pull the ladder down in time. Up the guard went and found everything, so then we were banished. We couldn't go back there any more."
During this period the AANS and civilian nurses who had taken refuge at the mission were told by their captors that they must be shipped out. The original plan was to transport all of the women to Japan, including the convent Sisters, but the Bishop fought against removal of the Sisters, only regretting that he had no authority to do the same for the rest of the women.
"We studied, we sewed. We had the Fathers to sew for, all their washing to do. We kept busy. We studied languages. As time went on they would bring in the missionaries. A lot of the missionaries were further out on stations and they would be brought in to us. A lot of them were tortured. Some of them you'd think were going to die within five minutes. Germans, they'd been dragged in for helping Australian soldiers. But they got better. A lot of the Germans wanted to learn more English, so we had English lessons. And German lessons. Then some sisters from the Solomon Islands were brought in. They were French. So we had French lessons. Then we had our mission doctor and he taught us everything he could - First Aid. We tried to write everything down, we had nothing to write on but the Japanese had biscuit tins. Dog biscuits, we used to call them. The Japanese would throw the tins over to us and we used to scribble on that, it was all we had to write on. We really had the lessons to keep us going."
Allied bombing began to intensify and the mission members found themselves in very real danger. The Brothers started to dig tunnels right in under the hills for storing the supplies, then as it became necessary, they were used also to shelter the mission members. Within a short time, the missionaries found themselves spending more time underground than out in the open. The mission buildings were soon razed to the ground.
The tunnels were so crowded that no-one could breathe properly, so the men started digging an air shaft from the tunnel to the surface. A number of their people died during this period and illness increased alarmingly.
The entrances to the tunnels were camouflaged. They had very small openings. When the bombings began, everyone would make a dash for the entrance. The Sisters were likely to get a boot in the face from some fleeing local boy (the mixed race boys and girls were still being cared for by the mission). Emerging from the tunnels after a raid they would be confronted by all the horrors of war: Japanese victims of the bombing, strewn everywhere, had to be cleared away because the Japanese would just leave them where they lay, the cemetery's uprooted contents had to be re-interred. Such is war and the missionaries set about these ghastly duties, accepting them as part of their current plight.
After a while, just as the air shaft was completed, the Japanese decided to requisition the tunnels for their own use and the missionaries had to move again.
In June 1944 everyone was marched to the Ramale Valley, a sheer chasm in which nobody had ever lived before. "Descend!" Everyone slipped and slid down the sheer cliff face. At the bottom no sunlight penetrated. It was unhealthy, damp. There was a stream running through it but the prisoners were forbidden to use it because it was for the use of the Japanese further downstream. For water the Fathers and Brothers made a pump and dug a well. The water had to be boiled before use. The group of more than 300 people lived on local weeds and jungle plants. "Pig weed" was a staple food. (Scharmach reports that they were glad to supplement their diet with such protein as grubs, larvae and snake. They were, in effect, starving. At one stage, although they were needed to help keep the rats in check, they ate feral cats.)
By this time, the gathering of missionaries and their charges consisted of the following nationalities: Australian, American, British, German, Austrian, Polish, Czechoslovak, Dutch, Luxemburg, French, Italian, Canadian, Half-caste, Guinantuna, Manus, Sulka and Baining. (Scharmach, p.211)
Eventually they were permitted to establish gardens. Each day 20 of them were allowed to go out to tend the gardens. If they went out they had to stay out all day regardless of illness or injury. They were permitted to bring in food from these gardens. The guards would often steal this hard-won food and eat it themselves. The missionaries were 18 months at Ramale and managed to establish a self sufficient, if poorly supplied, community. In this they were clandestinely helped by the Indigenous Sisters.
The Japs built a platform high above and all around them in the gorge. Sometimes they would bring locals there and torture them in front of the Sisters and Brothers, to remind them what would happen if they did the wrong thing.
At Ramale on 16th September 1945 they heard a "Cooee" they replied with a "Cooee" and were found and brought out by Australian soldiers led by a Redemptist missionary with Majors Bates and Roberts.
If any one human being was responsible for saving the lives of nearly every member of the Catholic mission on the island of New Britain it was its Bishop. The Bishop himself of course entrusted everything he did to the will of God and his faith empowered him to take enormous risks. His name was Leo Scharmach. Polish by birth, Scharmach was resourceful, devious and ironic in his dealings with his captors. At huge risk to his own life he goaded and teased them, often appealing to their sense of humour - sometimes when even he least expected it - and always manipulating the Japanese for the benefit of his own people. He cajoled, he bartered, he challenged them recklessly. I hope he will forgive this writer the opinion that in another life the Most Reverend Leo Scharmach, Vicar Apostolic of Rabaul, might have made an extremely successful con man!
Bishop Scharmach gave them permission to swap their habits for secular clothes and told them to go home if they wanted to. None did. They insisted on remaining together as a group and, to the fury of the Japanese, they continued to wear the habit. They made for the village of Takabur, 8 miles away from the mission at Vunapope. Here was the novitiate of their convent where their Mother Superior and an elderly Father Zwinge, their Spiritual Director, also resided. This was all right for a few days until the Japs arrived to transport the Father and two European Sisters to the prison compound at Vunapope, again leaving the local Sisters stranded.
Before leaving, Father Zwinge appointed Sister Cecilia their Superioress. The Japs sneered at the nuns' distress then ordered them to evacuate the buildings immediately, the church included. They had nowhere to go now, so they took shelter in banana groves. There were 45 indigenous Sisters in all.
Some local boys, students of a disbanded teacher training college had built themselves houses and gardens about 20 miles away. They heard about the Sisters' plight and came to their rescue, building them houses and air raid shelters. The Japanese had not given the Sisters any rations but they soon established gardens and became self supporting under the guidance of Sister Cecilia. They met regularly for prayer and on Sundays they walked 8 miles each way to Vunapope. They continued to do this for 2 years and would bring food to the starving missionaries imprisoned in the compound. Two of the Sisters were killed by bombs and two more died of illness.
Throughout the missionaries' internment the indigenous Sisters kept them supplied with extra food: bananas, tapioca roots, sweet potatoes and other vegetables. Regardless of the risk of cruel reprisals, they would carry these foods down the sheer side of the canyon to deliver it to their starving colleagues. They were forbidden by the Japanese to talk to any of the missionaries at any time, and they were not allowed by them to take part in a Mass though they continued their daily prayers. By sign language the Bishop would give them his blessing and General Absolution and the group of Sisters continued to come every Sunday and stand within sight, but not sound, of their colleagues.
These devout women deserve their place amongst the Brave Women of Oceania.
for its grant to enable the writing of
a biography of Wilma Oram Young under the project banner
"Their Service Our Heritage"
A prisoner under the Japanese
she devoted the rest of her life to helping War Veterans.
Click here to order this book
"A Woman's War"
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By New Holland Publishers
The Rabaul Nurses . Brave Women .
Ages of soldiers, source: "Hostages to Freedom" (Chapter 3)
The Indigenous Sisters, source: "This Crowd Beats Us All" (page 244 onwards)
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