Nun who survived Japanese POW camp dies at 100

Sr M. Berenice Twohill (Australians at War Film Archive)

Sr M Berenice Twohill died aged 100 on November 3. She is one of the few people to have survived a POW camp and become a heroine of a film about her experiences, writes Damien Murphy in the Sydney Morning Herald.

During World War II, Sr Berenice was working as a missionary in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, when it fell to the Japanase in January 1942.

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  Sr Berenice and an army nurse Lorna Whyte during their period as POWs.

The daughter of Alexander and Eliza Twohill, Sr Berenice was born Dympna Mary Twohill in 1916 in Murwillumbah during World War I, one of 11 children. After completing secondary school, she joined the order of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Sydney, eventually taking the name Sr 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. She only had a year's peace.

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 Sr Berenice until 1945.

On September 16 1945, Sr Berenice and the other surviving missionaries were found in a jungle camp of makeshift shelters and tunnels about 20 kilometres outside town.


Sister of war: The Australian nun who survived a POW camp (Sydney Morning Herald)

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