Australian nun who survived POW camp

Sister Berenice Twohill is one of the few people to have survived a POW camp and become a heroine of a film about her experiences.

Sister Berenice Twohill is one of the few people to have survived a POW camp and become a heroine of a film about her experiences.

With the Japanese army pouring south through Pacific islands, the young Australian nun from northern NSW opted to stay behind in Rabaul​ to look after local children and when the town fell she spent more than three and a half years in captivity.

She hid with fellow missionary and nursing POWs in fetid tunnels to avoid Australian and US fighters and bombers, witnessed Diggers abandoned by Australian authorities and told to fend for themselves as they were massacred en masse at nearby Tol Plantation or put on the death ship SS Montevideo Maru that was torpedoed by a US submarine. She saw Australian nurses taken to Japan, was forced to watch the torture of an Australian major whose heart was cut out while he was alive, ate horses and weeds to survive and for years was denied medicine for her debilitating malaria.

Japanese guards were constantly kept at bay by her Polish-born Catholic Bishop who thought he was German. The guards taunted the nuns, jabbing their bayonets at them saying “Blood of an Australian soldier, blood of an Australian soldier” although the women suspected they used tomato sauce.

A well-received telemovie Sisters of War aired on the ABC in 2010 was based on the friendship between Sister Berenice and an army nurse Lorna Whyte during their period as POWs.

Sister Berenice has died aged 100. The daughter of Alexander and Eliza Twohill, Sister Berenice was born in Murwillumbah during World War I, one of 11 children. The Twohill brothers arrived from Ireland the previous century and were influential in northern NSW public life. Her father was Tweed Shire president but the wealth washed away in the 1921 flood – the family spent the night on the roof – and they moved to a farm at Tumbulgum. She went to board with the “brown Josephs” [Mary McKillop’s Josephite order] at Uki.

She got her vocation there and after completing secondary school joined the order of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Sydney, eventually taking the name Sister Berenice. She taught music at Mascot, and after taking final vows at Bowral, was posted to Bowraville where the order ran segregated schools. She taught at both. It gave her a taste for missionary work and after three years she volunteered to be sent to Rabaul then capital in the Australian-mandated Territory of New Guinea.

With war in Europe, she sailed north to the beautiful tropical town scented with the smell of frangipani and sulphur courtesy of active volcanos on the rim of the bay. Her order had two schools in Rabaul, one for Chinese children, the other for mixed raced children (including Japanese youngsters) and the children lined the wharf in welcome. She only had a year’s peace.

But after the bombing of Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, the Japanese left town and 47 days later Rabaul fell.

There was no contact from the outside world: no newspapers, books or letters. No one in Australia heard from Sister Berenice until 1945.

In the early part of the Pacific war, with northern Australia under air raid attacks, a Redemptorist priest had visited her parents at Tumblegum and after her mother told him they had no idea what had happened to her he said he would become an army chaplain and go to the islands to look for their daughter.

Eliza Twohill never saw her daughter again, dying in early 1944.

On September 16 the following year Sister Berenice and the other surviving missionaries were in a jungle camp of makeshift shelters and tunnels about 20 kilometres outside town. Japanese planes had stopped flying sorties out of Rabaul and there had been sporadic machine gun fire going on for days when the nuns heard a “Cooee” echoing down the valley.

A report in the Herald the next day listed Sister Berenice’s name among 10 Australian Sacred Heart nuns found in a POW camp outside Rabaul.

The Redemptorist priest lived up to his promise and returned to Murwillumbah with a very sick woman. Sister Berenice’s malaria meant the tropics were out. She worked for years among the disadvantaged in Kings Cross.

At 75, she returned to Rabaul for the 50th anniversary of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru. She said she believed God had given her such a long life so she could get the real story of the Rabaul POWs into the history books.

“We are all born with animal instincts in all of us. War brings it out in so many. In war it makes some men, men, but others it just makes them animals,” she told the University of Canberra’s Australians at War Film Archive in 2003. “I saw life at its best and its worst. I saw what human beings could do to each other, what hatred could do and yet what faith could do and what kindness could do. That’s what we are here for, to help one another. I saw how useless all this is, when people go on hating one another and killing one another.”

Sister Berenice’s life was celebrated at a mass held in The Chapel of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Convent in Kensington on Wednesday.
(source: The Age)

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