THE Japanese armed forces did not always act in a brutal manner or have callous disregard for the lives of civilians and prisoners of war during World War II. But, sadly, such acts of humanity were rare.
The following abridged description is taken from the diary of Father John Tschauder SVD who, on 6 February 1944, describes a voyage on the Dorish Maru carrying captured Catholic missionaries to Hollandia in former Dutch New Guinea.
The name Dorish Maru was a pidginized version of the Yorishime Maru because the missionaries didn’t understand the Japanese pronunciation and ‘maru’ meaning merchant ship.
On board were 60 men, women and children accompanied by 100 Japanese soldiers. The bishop of Madang and Ramu River areas, Bishop Wolf, was included in those taken aboard.
As the war progressed, American bombing became more intense. It’s possible that concern for their safety was the reason for the removal of the missionaries and their being placed on deck rather than below deck was in case of submarine attack.
From Father Tschauder’s diary:
It was dark when the Dorish Maru put to sea. The ship had scarcely moved out of Hansa Bay [located on north coast of Papua New Guinea] when she slowed down and went in close to the shore. The Japanese did not tell us the reason, but we knew. The air was not clear [of enemy aircraft].
It was an hour or more before the ship resumed its course. We noticed with great satisfaction and relief that she was going fast. Tomorrow, about 7 o’clock, we reckoned, we could be in the protection of Kairiru Island.
Deep in my heart there dwelled but one hope, that the Dorish Maru would make Kairiru before daybreak. Then it happened. All of a sudden, the siren screamed and quickly the instruction was given to lie down.
The soldiers were ready for action with rifles pointed skywards as they stood densely packed on the foredeck. Their response was that of a soldier standing by their guns. Be ready for action it meant for them, be ready for death it meant to us. We lay down.
Suddenly, the [American] plane was over the boat. I can still hear the order yelled through a megaphone from the bridge, harsh and cruel, to fire. The ship almost reared out of the water when a bomb crashed right down near the bow.
The cannon [anti aircraft gun] bellowed, the machine-guns splattered a hail of bullets and rifles cracked at the monster as it swooped overhead. This was the first round of the duel. I cast a quick glance through scupper at the plane pulled out from its run over the Dorish Maru. It was a twin engine craft. But the fight wasn’t over yet.
The Japanese knew the story. The enemy would come back for another run over the victim which was frantically zigzagging at full speed through the sea. About 10 minutes had elapsed when the same order to fire came again then a deafening detonation.
This time a bomb exploded in the sea on the port side amidships. I thought that was very close as fragments of metal crashed against the hull and water splashed onto the deck. That was the second round.
Back it came but it took longer though. I saw the plane flying towards the coast and then turning in for the third attack. Over ten minutes had elapsed: then the same command rasped out from the bridge.
Again, the guns went into furious action. Again, a bomb (or was it two?) crashed down and missed the Dorish Maru. As the plane flew over almost at mast-top height, we sensed the pressure of its wings, but it was the bombers last flight as the cannon fired one single shot after it and that one hit the American bomber. There was great excitement and triumphant shouts of ‘Senso Banzai’ from the Japanese.
The plane went down into the sea blazing furiously. I didn’t see it myself but others did. The Americans of course, could not have known about our being on board but nevertheless if one of these bombs had landed squarely on the Dorish Maru, it would have sent us all to a watery grave.
Towards 8 am as Kairiru loomed closer, I noticed another ship burning fiercely. Then I saw, with terror gripping me, 12 planes heading in our direction. This was the end of our little boat and of us.
Bombs rained down and shook the ship as plane after plane, in quick succession came over the unfortunate Dorish Maru then each one releasing a hail of machine–gun bullets and shells. Thousands hit the sea but many struck the ship and its passengers.
Although the crew kept up their barrage of fire, several ack-ack crews were wiped out but there was always others to take their place. I was terrified. Right at the beginning, I felt a trickle of warm blood running down my face. I had the same feeling on my back and legs and something very hot stung me in my right hand.
It was only then that I realised that I was hurt. I saw the blood running from a cut in the back of my hand. I prayed. There was nothing else I could do except expect death. I remember that I called for my mother several times. I’ve thought of her very far away and had not heard from her for five years. Was she with me? Did she know?
Then came a terrific bang right at my ear and again I felt the warm trickle of blood. Only afterwards, when it was all over, did I realise how narrow an escape I had. A bullet had grazed the back of my head, torn away a piece of skin, and pierced a neat hole through the steel plate against which I had been leaning.
At my side, an injured confrere lay. He prayed and moaned then asked for General Absolution of which I gave him, the words meaning so much to a person in agony.
In the brief respite between the attacks, one could hear the prayers of survivors, the moans of the wounded and dying and the shrill cries of the terrified children filling the air until the next plane dived on the ship silencing the prayers of many, drowning the moans of the wounded and the cries of the children. It was horrible.
Then it stopped. After, perhaps a quarter of an hour of hell, the attack was broken off. The last plane came over the boat, the bomb bay doors swung open but did not release its cargo. This was fortunate, because the ack-ack-gun had jammed. Just as the American planes departed, a small formation of Japanese fighters did arrived. The Americans would not have known there were prisoners on board.
I was half deaf and partially blinded by blood in my eye from my head wound but I was alive. Apart from the bullet graze to my head and a few shrapnel wounds, it was a miracle I was able to stand up and able to move about among so many dead and wounded.
My coat however, showed well over a dozen holes but it appeared worse than it was in reality. A piece of shrapnel had hit me in the left shin and so walking was neither easy nor painless. My right hand began to swell but it was nothing compared with what the others had suffered, and were still suffering.
A confrere lay in a corner unconscious and moaning loudly. I gripped his shoulders and tried talking to him but as there was no response, I gave him General Absolution. He had been wounded in the chest and there was a steady trickle of blood coming from his lungs.
A doctor who almost miraculously or at least provincially had escaped general injury rushed from person-to-person giving aid. He took a glance at a priest, calling him by name and shook him, and then apparently giving him up already said in tearful voice may ‘God have mercy on you’.
The doctor Father Tschauder mentions was most likely Dr Theodore Braun, who with his wife Hattie, both Lutherans, had been caught up in the initial Japanese collection of the missionaries. Brother Gerhoch SVD ably assisted him in his treatment of the casualties.
Doctor Braun was later to continue his treatment of the wounded on the beach at Wewak. In one case using a hand saw, he removed the shattered leg of Father Lawrence Mey, who was later to become Rector of the Marburg Seminary in Queensland, mainly set up by missionaries who survived the tragedy.
Father Tschauder continues:
Another priest emerged. He had only suffered light scratches from shrapnel. We greeted each other and I said I feared that we have at least 50 killed. Those words proved to be only too true. The boat was reported to be sinking so, as a precaution, I donned my lifejacket.
A Japanese soldier, although wounded himself with a bullet in his shin, limped towards the sisters using his rifle as a crutch. He showed real sympathy for the poor sisters and, although in pain himself, gave emergency instructions to the women as the ship slowly crawled into Wewak.
When attacking under fire, the idea was to get in and out as fast as possible especially if enemy fighters might be on the way. This might be the reason the Americans did not sink the ship.
Then we saw a launch carrying ambulance personnel speeding to the ship’s rescue. There were helping hands everywhere. The Japanese threw bandages over to us which they wore on their belts.
Members of the ambulance went among the dying, administering injections of morphine or anti-tetanus serum. I wasn’t sure which it was. A priest went around assisting the dying and the wounded giving the Sacrament of Extreme Unction.
I went and looked around. Never in my life shall I forget the gruesome and ghastly picture of death. Blood was everywhere. Rivulets of it running down the decks from the missionaries, sisters, priests and brothers. One victim had pieces of another’s brain splattered on his head which looked like his head had been smashed up.
The most terrible sight was the ship’s hatch cover where the sisters had been. Death had extracted its heaviest toll from the sisters. Twenty seven from the total of 48 aboard had been killed outright. How I wish this ghastly picture could stand for all eternity before the eyes of all those who advocate indiscriminate bombing.
There were many more maimed, torn and mutilated. Both sister superiors were dead, one with her head literally severed from the body. She was only identified by the number on her stockings. Bullets had smashed her head to pieces.
And yet at the same time, it was cause for sheer wonder that amongst so much carnage, some sisters had escaped without receiving even scratch. One sister lived for a while and she was heard saying that she had had enough.
Yes, she had enough and chalice brimful of suffering both physical and spiritual. War had rolled over the Mission of New Guinea destroying everything in its path. She was helplessly adrift like a frail craft loosened from its moorings.
In the midst of the attack, he had given General Absolution to all of us. When it was over, he handed his pectoral cross over so that it might be kissed by those in their last agony.
Realising the seriousness of his wound, he made arrangements for the future of the mission. Next to the Bishop lay a dead priest.
A veteran of 30 years work in the mission. As he lay face down on the deck, blood ran from underneath his body from two bullet holes in his chest.
Not far away, I found a confrere who used to worry so much that in order to save the property of the mission, he would pick up a rusty nail from the road and throw it into the sea lest the Japanese made use of it.
He was consumed by repeated attacks of malaria but still carried on, desperately clinging to his school and his pupils in spite of adversities from the Japanese. His worries were over now and he had found peace at last.
The dead were left at Wewak and the Dorish Maru continued her voyage to Hollandia in former Dutch New Guinea where the Japanese had constructed a major logistical base. It was here that Bishop Wolf finally succumbed to his wounds on 23 February.
When Allied forces began their amphibious landing in the area on 21 April 1945, the Japanese withdrew westward. As their prisoners could not keep up, the Japanese released the surviving priests, confreres and nuns and retreated to the hills.
Some of the missionaries managed to contact the advancing American troops thus saving the remaining members of the group. Sadly some of the weaker ones died before being rescued.
John Tschauder survived his ordeal and became well known to colleagues in Australia during the last years of his life. In a suburb of Melbourne, there is a Divine Word college for seminaries pursuing their theological training in preparation for ordination and priests who do post-graduate work.
The college was renamed ‘Dorish Maru’ as a constant reminder of what happened to the confreres, the sisters, priests and the other passengers on board the ship that fateful day in February 1944.
After the war, Australian authorities who had interned the German and Austrian missionaries did not know what to do with these former ‘enemies’ When the international political situation had settled down, many returned to New Guinea to continue their interrupted work.
With regard to the attack on the Dorish Maru, instances of being killed by friendly fire were an all too common occurrence. The loss of life among prisoners being transported by ship in the Pacific war was attributable to the fact that, despite the best efforts of the International Committee of the Red Cross, none of the belligerents agreed to mark their ships as carrying prisoners as required in the rules of war.
They assumed that their enemies could not be trusted and would use prisoner carrying ships as a cover to transport materials of war. Unfortunately, the United States set a high priority on sinking Japanese ships regardless of whether the ship was carrying POWs or not. This policy was to cost thousands of Allied lives.
‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.’ Psalm 23-5. King James Bible.
By the end of the war this scorched-earth policy had wiped out 90% of the Catholic mission plantations. Because almost nothing was known of these crimes until after the war, neither German nor the Vatican authorities made official complaints to Tokyo regarding the behaviour of their forces.
The New Guinea Divine Word Missionary casualities during WW2 were 55 Holy Sisters, two Bishops and 60 priests.
The author gratefully acknowledges the Dorish College, Melbourne, for its kind permission to quote from John Tschauder’s diary and to Mark Felton for his permission to quote from his excellent book ‘Slaughter at Sea.’ Also grateful thanks to Father P.K. Cantwell SVD for his kind assistance of additional information and corrections.