forgotten prisoners of Rabaul
Another "Brave Women" page...
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. So
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..."
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.
Mavis Cullen, Rabaul 1942
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.
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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A prisoner under the Japanese
she lived to become one of Australia's great heroes.
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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.
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."|
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.
got to Japan we met up with an American lady
(Etta Jones) brought down from the Aleutions, so that made 19 of us."More...
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.
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."
"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."
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."
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. And 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."
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.
"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
Top of Page
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.
Click here to visit
"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)
The Prisoners of War from Rabaul:
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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