The forgotten prisoners of Rabaul
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The Japanese began bombing Rabaul in early January, by which time the town itself had been mostly evacuated of civilians. All women and children had been taken off the island of New Britain in early December with the exception of those women who would be taken Prisoner-of-War and shipped back to spend over 3 years in Japan.

"We would have to pump anything from 200 to 300 buckets of water a day. And we couldn't begin to use the pump in winter till about 2 o'clock in the afternoon because it was iced over. Lorna 1940So we would pump and pump and pump, and the village people would just pick up their buckets and away they'd go.
Oh, the hunger and the cold...
never be hungry, never be cold..."

Lorna "Whytie" Johnston,
pictured here in 1940,
said those words in May 1998,
still traumatized by her experiences.

 
 

On 25 April 1940 part of the 2nd 10th Army General Hospital (2/10 AGH) landed in Rabaul on the island of New Britain. It was Australia's national day - Anzac Day. They were 6 nurses: Kathleen "Kay" Parker who was the former Matron of the hospital at Yass, NSW, Lorna "Whytie" Whyte, Jean "Andy" Anderson, Daisy "Tootie" Keast plus two friends whom Matron Parker who had worked with her in Yass: Mavis Cullen and Eileen "Cal" Callahan. They all arrived Rabaul aboard the Wahini along with the 22nd Battalion.

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Lorna said of her enlistment: "I only finished my training a short while before and we were all very enthusiastic to do our bit. It was a different scene in those days. Probably you'd stop and think a little bit more in these days."Mavis CullenMavis Cullen was already a qualified general nurse serving at the Yass Hospital under Matron Kay Parker. She did her training at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for children. Mavis recalled: "We set foot on Rabaul on Anzac Day 1942. I always lived in the Southern districts of Australia and to be in that tropical part was absolutely beautiful. The vegetation, frangipani, hibiscus. I look back now and think how beautiful it was… And then of course everything changed."
 

Mavis Cullen, Rabaul 1942

Arrival in Rabaul:
According to Lorna, during their first months the nurses were not welcomed by the doctors. "When we nurses first arrived we were quite a no-no to the Field Ambulance Corps so we actually didn't do anything for about the first three weeks." Then the troops started to complain, saying they wanted the nurses to be used and after that the AANS was accepted.
 

Kay Parker
Rabaul group
(L) Kay Parker (R) LtoR:  Lorna Whyte, Pte. Hennessy, Mavis Cullen, Cpl. Blake, Kay Parker
In Rabaul before hostilities.
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The hospital was soon established in tents on the beach beside Rabaul Harbour and it remained there until about October 1941 when there was a volcanic eruption. The island's administration was sent elsewhere and the hospital was able to move into the comparative luxury of Government House. The Japanese began bombing Rabaul in early January, by which time the town itself had been mostly evacuated of civilians. All women and children had been taken off the island in early December with the exception of those women who would be taken Prisoner-of-War. These included Methodist missionaries and Catholic Sisters who stayed behind voluntarily along with the AANS women and civilian nurses from the Namanula hospital.. More... 

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The night before the Japanese invasion:
"We'd been on duty about 28 hours by the time John May our padre came up to see us. There were a lot of casualties and we were very busy. John told us that somebody had sent a signal to the military in Australia that said: We who are about to die, salute you. Apparently this huge Japanese convoy had been sighted just off the coast of New Britain.

We evacuated about 9 o'clock that night out to the Mission Station at Kokopo, joining with the Sisters and the Fathers and the Brothers. We had 80 patients and took them in two or three ambulances and some private cars. We were the last to actually leave Rabaul and the troops had already blown up quite a few roads, so we had to go around the back way. We finally arrived at Kokopo about 2 o'clock in the morning. And straight away we set to work digging slit trenches."

It was daylight before the trenches were completed. The nurses looked down at the harbour. "We couldn't believe our eyes," Lorna said, "None of us had ever seen a submarine, because remember we were all just young Australian girls. We hadn't seen anything much of the outside world. There were submarines, aircraft carriers, troop ships. 15000 Japanese soldiers were landed around the beaches. Our troops had no chance, there was nothing they could do. There were only 1400 of them."

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The Australian battalion took to the jungle where it carried out savage guerrilla fighting. Meanwhile the little group of nurses was busy at the native hospital where they had taken their patients.
Friends forever"Whytie", "Andy" and Sr. Berenice, friends forever.
They had still not eaten until the nuns arrived, insisting they must come back to the Mission Station. "So we went up to the convent and had breakfast." Then Lorna added bitterly, "And when we returned to the hospital, we found that our two Medical Officers and all of the Orderlies had gone. They just left us, all excepting two Orderlies who volunteered to stay behind and help." The nurses had no warning that the doctors would desert them. " It has been clarified since that Major Palmer did do a good job in the jungle," says Lorna, "But we thought it was a very cruel thing not to tell us."
 
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"A Woman's War" - biography of Wilma Oram Young under the project banner
"Their Service Our Heritage"
A prisoner under the Japanese
she lived to become one of Australia's great heroes.
Second great edition now available at only $AU20 incl. p&p
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Mass execution:
All of the Orderlies were executed by the Japanese. The men were wearing Red Cross armbands but their captors ignored these. The Orderlies were massacred at Tol Plantation. As is so often the case, the reason history knows of this massacre is because, as with the Bangka Island massacre,  there was at least one survivor who lived to tell of it, "Millie" Cook. 167 men were massacred at Toll and 800 others were taken POW. These 800, who excluded the officers who were later transported to Japan with the nurses and other women aboard the Naruto Maru, were destined to perish at sea aboard the Montevideo Maru when that ship carrying them to Japan was torpedoed.

Surrender was inevitable. There was nothing that could be done to resist the overwhelming power of the Japanese. The six army nurses had now been joined in the Catholic mission compound by seven civilian nurses from Namanula Hospital plus two Methodist mission nurses. There was one elderly civilian doctor with them plus the two volunteer Orderlies. John May, the Padre, stayed behind with the nurses. "He was absolutely marvelous," Lorna recalled, "He was given the option to be evacuated in December but said he'd stay behind." He and Kay Parker were the two who met the Japanese on the beach and surrendered.

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Immediately after surrender:
Lorna's account: "Even though we had Red Cross armbands, they didn't take any notice of that. We had to get all the patients out of the hospital and stand them in a long row. Some were wounded, a lot had terrible tropical ulcers and many were suffering badly with malaria. By this time I suppose it was about 8 or 9 in the morning. The sun in the tropics just blazes down. We stood there for 3 hours with our hands above our heads and the guards running up and down with their bayonets. And the only thing we could think of was "If only they'd do it and be done with it!" In one of the trucks we'd managed to pack some medical supplies and tinned food. The guards got this tinned food and bayoneted the lot. Then they made us dig a hole and throw it in. This was our hospital food, for our patients! But luckily we had the (Catholic) Mission Station behind us so no-one starved while we were there."
 
Cullen and Parker
Mavis Cullen (L) with Matron Kay Parker
Before their posting to Rabaul
Mavis's account: Mavis could remember almost nothing about the bombing, the invasion or the surrender. Her one anecdote concerning those hours immediately after surrender was: " One story, that shows you that all Japanese weren't bad: This little incident happened when we were first captured. I was in the ward. A Japanese sergeant and a couple of other soldiers came in. He looked at me and pointed at my back. He seemed to be amused about something. He gestured to me that I was to walk outside and he led the way. Two little Japs followed and I got a couple of (bayonet) prods to keep me going. In the distance was this huge shed, and he was taking me there. I didn't know what was going to happen so I was lingering a bit and I got a few more prods. We got there and he opened the doors, and that shed was full of bolts of material. All he wanted to do was give me some material because when I left Rabaul (for Kokopo) I was in a uniform that rotted in the fumes from the volcano. It was patched and I had the worst uniform. He felt sorry for me and that's why I got that bolt of material. It was black material that I took to Japan with me. I had it made up into slacks in the early stages when we had a machine. I lived in those and slept in them."
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The AANS nurses were taken POW on 23rd January 1942 and boarded the Naruto Maru on 6th June 1942. They spent those interim months at the Catholic Mission. "We were there during the Coral Sea battle and the Midway battle. We used to see the ships going out and coming back crippled," Lorna said.

The Japanese took allied casualties into Rabaul where they were amassing all their prisoners. The AANS women remained out at Kokopo, the Japanese unaware that they were fully trained nursing sisters. Whytie recalls that they we were fortunate to be under the protection of the Mission because: "In the first week or so the Japanese did try to get into our rooms at night, but we talked to the Rev Mother about it and she reported it to the Bishop." The Bishop was German, so he had some influence with the Japanese. He told the Japanese Commander that no-one was allowed to go near the convent at night. "So we had very good support," Lorna says, "We were closeted and helped quite a lot by the convent. We didn't work for the Japanese either, we worked for the convent. We worked in their plantations, helped to grow food, did the washing and ironing.
"Life as a POW on Rabaul was quite bearable," she said, "We were still in the tropics, so clothing didn't worry us. We only evacuated (from Rabaul to Kokopo) with our uniform, our shoes and stockings and a veil. And one set of underclothing. The nuns gave us a tooth brush and a set of underwear each - nuns' underwear but that didn't matter. And they also gave us a sheet each which we made into clothing. So that was what we left Rabaul with to go to icy Japan.

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"We were 8 days at sea. There were 18 women: the 6 army sisters, the 7 civilian sisters from the government hospital at Namanula, 4 Methodist Missionary sisters and one plantation owner's wife who wouldn't evacuate with the other women.

"When we got to Japan we met up with an American lady (Etta Jones) brought down from the Aleutions, so that made 19 of us."More...
 


 
 

Arrival in Yokohama.
Lorna: "You can imagine after those terrible days down in the hold of a ship - nothing to wash with. We were filthy when we came off. We were taken in a van to the Bund Hotel which was quite nice. The Japanese girl behind the reception desk asked us did we want a single room or a double room. Well you can imagine we nearly exploded! We thought it might be a brothel so we all opted for a double room. "Oh, there were nice clean sheets on the bed and everything was lovely. And there was a bath. There was one continuous movement to the bathroom with 3-4 people in there at a time. Clothes hanging around to be washed, hair washed. Then we were taken to the dining room for a meal. Cutlery and everything. It was a European hotel. We thought this was going to be all right, if we were going to be treated like this forever. But that only happened for the first few days.

"After that, the old girl that owned it, she was really old and hard as nails, she would put all the slops in a bucket at the end of the day and that would be our meal. So our stealing started: we soon learned where the pantry was and would sneak down there."
 
 

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The Yokohama Yacht Club
Soon they were moved to the Yokohama Yacht Club. Pre-war this had been American so it was set up in European style. It had no furniture except for a book case. There was a large center room and one either side with open doors. The house cook lived in one of these (they nicknamed him Fuji). Downstairs were quite clean showers and a Japanese communal bath. "We had only a frock made from the sheet that the nuns gave us, our uniform which we tried to keep because we thought that was what we'd wear when we went home on the White Cross ships." (In the harbour the women could see White Cross ships - these brought home captured Japanese POWs to swap with allied POWs. The women were convinced they would soon be repatriated on one of these.) "We tried as hard as we could to preserve that one uniform," Lorna said, "Our shoes by this time had had plenty of wear before we became POWs so they were getting very bare on the bottom. We also tried to preserve those. We were given Japanese gettas - wooden soled shoes - and we wore those." Next day at the Yacht Club they were each brought a straw mat and there were two futons. And that was what we had for the rest of our 3 years in Japan."Biapak 1992
Jean "Andy" Anderson and Lorna
Rabaul Military Cemetery (Biapak) 1992
Mavis recalled: "To begin with conditions at the Yacht Club were reasonable, but as time went on they got worse. Less food. They kept us occupied by knitting small bags with a fringe on them. We were told they were to protect the Japanese when they went to war. What they put in them I don't know. We made a lot of those, coloured silk for their own use." Lorna remembered: "You can imagine what we girls did with that silk. We all ended up with green singlets, and yellow pants, everything like that." "As well as that," Mavis said, "We made hundreds of envelopes. Then they put a stop to that because we found that when we were hungry we could eat the glue." The women knew that glue was made of rice flour sweepings from factory floors. It contained rat dirt and other contaminants but they ate it anyway.
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Lorna: "By this time we'd collected every little tin, every scrap of paper - nothing did we throw out. We had been issued with one 4 yards (3 metres) of material and Dora Wilson - one of the missionary girls - was very good at cutting things out. There was an old Singer sewing machine and we made these trousers that came out at the bottom, and a sort of track suit top. From then on those suits hardly left our back. Never washed. After the war you could have stood every one of them up at the side of the bed and just stepped straight into them. We worked in them, slept in them.

The Police Station:
"They wanted the Yacht Club for something special, so we went to the Yokohama Police Station and that was an education in itself. It wasn't a place where you could cook anything. No kitchens. No bathroom except a row of urinals at one end. And a couple of little Japanese toilets which were down on the floor - but we'd got used to using those by this time. So when we wanted to go to the toilet we had a line of Japanese policemen there at the urinals, no privacy. And no meals. We were supposed to get meals from the Yacht Club and poor old Fujisan - the cook-san at the club - he used to bring them on his bicycle. We used to look out the window at him wobbling along and keep our fingers crossed that he didn't fall over. Once he did and we saw him scoop the rice, dirt and all, and put it back in the bin. Anyway we were there for three weeks."

Totsuka:
After some 3 years in Yokohama the women were moved to a village called Totsuka, some distance west of Yokohama and in the countryside. "That's when conditions got worse," Mavis Cullen said and Lorna described: "They took us to this tiny place off the main road. It had been the TB hospital. It still had all the urinals and sputums and everything so we had to clean it out. There were rooms, enough for 4 people in each room. The girls roomed with different ones that they'd become friendly with. In our room there was Kay and Mavis and Cal and myself. Now Cal got TB very badly. Night after night in those cold winters we used to cuddle into Cal and she'd have these terrible TB sweats. We'd all be wet and trying to dry out but we had nothing to change into. The futons, you can imagine for 3 solid years living with 2 futons. Never washed. These were wet with the perspiration and sodden with BO and dirt because we could never have baths. We could wash our face but it was too cold to wash any other part. All you had was a bucket of water but you had to break the ice and throw that over you if you wanted to bathe."

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The women were put to work as slave labourers for the Japanese villagers. "To pass our days, we carried water," said Mavis, "There was a big pump. We carried the water in a bucket and kept a barrel filled up in the cookhouse. That water was for cooking."

A cemetery was located behind the hospital, Lorna recalled, "When we first got there we used to wonder what this terrible stench was. It was the most terrible stench you could imagine. Then we found out that the villagers brought people out there to bury them. They would dig shallow graves and never put the bodies in coffins, so this stench was these bodies decomposing. At the end of the cemetery was a shrine where, every time they had the Emperor's birthday or a special day, they'd take this food and put it on. We used to creep through the fence. We had to be careful when it was snowing because we had to cover our tracks. And we'd take whatever was left for the dead. We'd take it back and eat it. And we would watch every time we saw them going down to the shrine, and we'd say: ah, there's something to eat!

"Came a stage when we were getting so desperately hungry, we would do anything. If you had to take a guard's tray, it didn't matter if he had TB or if he was coughing all over it. If it had a crumb of rice on it, you took it. When you had to go and collect it, you'd take whatever was left on that tray and eat it.

"Honestly we were so incredibly hungry in the last six months in Japan - not only were we hungry but we were cold because they told us it was the worst winter they'd had for 30 years. Snow was on the ground and we had no running water, no fires, no warmth of any kind. Only these two deadly futons. Lorna 1999And this track suit. No shoes and socks. We worked outside bare footed.

"We used to go into the forest and dig out stumps. We would drag some wood in for the room that the guards and the cooks had, for the Obasan at the back and for her hibachi too. We supplied all that. Some of the older girls would fall down when they got to this stage so we younger ones did most of the hard work towards the end. By this time Mrs Goss, and Maisie (Dorothy Maye) and some of them were well in their forties, fifties. They had been in the tropics for a long time too. They felt that terrible intense cold much more than we did."

Lorna "Whytie" Johnston in 1997
©Photo by Rod Miller
Came the night of the Atomic Bomb:
Lorna said, "We weren't close enough to see it or know anything about it. Early next morning one of the guards came, yelling and screaming "Parkersan, Parkersan!" (san was put on the end of everything) and Kay Parker ran down and said "Now what do you want?" She was always just that jump ahead of the guards and they never got away with anything with Kay. She had her face slapped and she was kicked around but she would always be there on top. And she said "What now?" and the guard said, "America no good, no good! One bomb, Hiroshima all gone, all gone!" And Kay said "I wouldn't worry about that, they've got plenty more of those up their sleeve." And he went away disgusted.
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"We had no war news but we figured it couldn't be long. Then the Japanese got us to enlarge one of the air raid shelters. They said "For you, for you!" We had a very old guard, we called Poppasan. He was really a kind old Japanese man, very good to us girls, the only kind guard we ever had. He'd been with us for a long time. He came, just after we'd dug this big air raid shelter, and he said in broken Japanese and English: "I have grown very fond of you girls. I am going to be asked to do something that I don't want to do. So I have decided that they will give me a position in Tokyo and I am going there." We didn't know at the time that orders had been issued for all prisoners of war to be executed if the allies landed. This "air raid shelter" was our own grave we'd been digging.

The women were not told that the war was over but they sensed it when things began suddenly to improve after the second atomic bomb was dropped. They remained under guard for their own protection, in case of retaliation from the villagers. Nobody appears to have been aware that the women were in Japan. They were found by accident when General MacArthur's troops were on their march into Tokyo. Rescue followed almost immediately.
 
 

Matchstick arms
Home at last! But look at those matchstick arms.
© Melbourne Sun 

Footnote to 1945:
"A cheerful letter arrived from Cal (Eileen Callahan) who was in a South Australian hospital. The tuberculosis of her lungs was far advanced. She said she was feeling better and though nothing could be done to stop the progress of her illness she was glad she would die at home." (Alice M. Bowman)

The above is only a fraction of the interviews given to Barb Angell by Lorna Whyte Johnston and Mavis Cullen Cation. We aim eventually to edit these and other interviews that we are gathering both on video and audio tape. After clearance they will be released in some form for students.

Bookmark this page for further information.

Condensed from interviews with Lorna (Whyte) Johnston and Mavis (Cullen) Cation
Given to Barb Angell during May 1998

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The Friendship Endures
Probably the best informed researcher into the history of
all the women who were prisoners taken to Japan is
Rod Miller. Rod, pictured below, has been gathering
information on the subject for years and even traced the American
Major (now retired Colonel) Bill Meanley, who found the women by a roadside outside the village of Totsuka and arranged for their rescue.

Reunion2000
Reunion 2000: Rod Miller with
(LtoR) Dora Wilson (Methodist Mission Nurse), Whytie and Sr. Berenice.


Miller has compiled an interesting web site:
Click here to visit

Further reading:
"Darkest Hour - the True Story of Lark Force at Rabaul" - Bruce Gamble (Zenith Press, 2006)
"Not Now Tomorrow" - Alice M. Bowman (Daisy Press 1996)
The story told from the civilian POW nurses' point of view.
"Hostages to Freedom" - Peter Stone (Oceans Enterprises, 1994)

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The Prisoners of War from Rabaul:

Civilian nurses from Namanula Hospital:
Alice Bowman, Mary Goss, Grace Kruger, Joyce McGahan, Jean McLellan, Dorothy Maye, Joyce Olroyd-Harris.
Civilian Methodist Mission nurses:
Dorothy Beale,  Jean Christopher, Mavis Green,  Dora Wilson
Australian Army nurses:
Marjorie Anderson, Eileen Callaghan, Mavis Cullen, Daisy Keast, Kathleen (Kay) Parker, Lorna Whyte,
Other civilians:
Mrs Kathleen Bignall (plantation owner, New Britain)
Mrs Etta Jones (American school teacher, Aleutian islands)
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Other Links on this Site
Vivian Bullwinkel  .  Wilma Oram  .  The Wah Sui Incident  .  Brave Women  .  J.E. Simons  . 
J.J. Blanche  . Betty Jeffrey  .  Margaret Setchell  .  Eileen Callaghan
Civilian nursing teams in Vietnam
The sinking of the Vyner Brooke  . The journey of the Empire Star  . The Wah Sui incident  .Sinking the Centaur

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