Sisters of War (2010)





Directors:     Brendan Maher.

Starring:      Claire van der Boom (Sister Berenice Twohill),  Sarah Snook (Lorna Whyte),  Khan Chittenden (Len),  Anna Volska (Sister Cordula),  Gerald Lepkowski (Bishop Leo Scharmach),  Susie Porter (Kay Parker),  Kuni Hashimoto (Japanese Captain),  Kentaro Hara (Sugal),  Helen Christinson (Cal),  Helen Cassidy (Tootie),  Catherine Miller (Sister Martha ),  Ben Taylor (Dave )  Paulini Curuenavuli (Sister Marie ),  Ken Makio (Suzuki ),  Andrew Buchanan (Army Major).

Made for TV film. 

Australian nurses becomes POWs when Japan attacks Rabaul


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

The story is inspired by real people and real events.

Australian troops are headed to the capital of New Britain, Rabaul.  On Rabaul the troops go swimming.  They also attend dances with pretty women. 

January 23, 1942.  The Japanese attack Rabaul.  The nurses and the wounded are evacuated to Vunapope (in the region of East New Britain Province in Papua New Guinea). Thet come inland on pick-up trucks. Nurse Lorna Whyte asks a man she is fond of, Len, where will they be evacuated to?  Len doesn't answer her, which is a bad omen. 

Two sisters in the forest see two Japanese planes fly over their heads.  They run back to their encampment/hospital.  Sister Berenice is not used to seeing lots of men terribly mangled and she doesn't like what she sees.  Lorna tells her to get busy and help out.  Sister Berenice asks one of the doctors since when have they been taking boys to fight?  He tells her ever since they ran out of men.  The doc is now short with Lorna.  Lorna tells Berenice not to criticize the doctors, because the doctors then take it out on the nurses.  Len has to tell Lorna goodbye as his unit is moving out. 

The nurses start asking what will the Japanese do to them?  One nurse says she's heard that the Japanese were raping the women in Hong Kong.  The head nurse comes to her nurses and says:  "The most infectious disease in this place is panic and I won't allow it here.  So get back to work all of you." 

Berenice can't sleep at night, so she goes outside.  There she sees Lorna.  Lorna talks to Berenice about how few supplies they have available  And they have no pain-killers or anesthetics at all.  Berenice says the Yanks will soon be here to help them.  Lorna says no, because they were hit hard at Pearl Harbor and it's going to take awhile until they are ready to move against the Japanese.  Lorna calls her sister, but the sister tells her to please call her Berenice.  The sister says that she's not afraid of the Japanese, because God will protect them.  Lorna is very skeptical about God even caring about what's going on here.  She apologizes to Berenice for her cynicism.  Berenice goes inside and combs back out with "medicinal" brandy.  The sister now apologizes for not being of much help to the nurses.  She starts to cry and Lorna tells her that her concern doesn't really matter that much since they are going to be raped and shot before the week is out.  Berenice laughs. 

A sister sees ships coming in to dock.  She calls out for the sisters and they all come running.  She says the Yanks have come and adds:  "God bless America!"   The hopes of the sisters, however, are devastated when they see a Japanese flag on one of the ships.  Lorna asks several doctor/officers what they should do?  One of the doctors says this is a situation of every man for himself.  They get into a pick-up truck and start moving out, while Lorna runs after the truck screaming:  "Don't just leave us!"  They have to take the wounded, she screams.  But the doctors are soon out of earshot.  The other nurses are shocked when they hear that the doctors have just left them behind to fend for themselves.

The nurses and patients can hear gun shots and the sound of Japanese soldiers yelling.  The sisters line up in anticipation of the arrival of the Japanese.  The Japanese yell and scream as they come into the wards and the living quarters of the sisters.  The soldiers seem surprised that they meet only sisters and women and wounded men.  Everyone is forced outside, including the wounded.  The Japanese start setting up a machine gun to mow down the Australians.  All of a sudden a German reverend comes out, shouting:  "Heil, Hitler!".  He says his name is Bishop Leo Scharmach, a personal envoy to Hitler, and the mission is under the protection of the fuehrer, who has declared the natives honorary Nazis.  If the Japanese open fire on him and these people, they will have to explain why the Japanese have declared war on Germany. 

The Japanese back down and the bishop says he will be sending them a bill for the damage they cause to the mission. The staff now returns to their usual places. 

A soldier has to have a leg removed and that means surgery.  Lorna says they can do it without the doctors, but they have no anesthetic and no more brandy.  So the head nurse decides to go see the Japanese commander and ask him for sake (rice wine).  The commander will give her a bottle of sake for the operation, but she must have a drink of sake with the captain.  Everyone leaves but the captain and the head nurse.  He drinks down his and then tells the head nurse to drink hers down.  She says no, she only drinks milk.  She turns to leave, but the captain stops her.  Again he tells her to drink, she refuses again and he slaps her hard across the face.   

A nurse gives the diary of a patient to Lorna and she reads various parts of it.  Lorna starts keeping her own dairy.  She writes that one of the worst parts of being a prisoner of war is that you don't know how long your sentence will be.  Lorna notes that the nuns never seem to complain.  They share all they have with the patients. She also notes that all the nuns seem to adore Bishop Leo Scharmach.  There are some Christian Japanese soldiers and the bishop tends to their religious needs also. 

The Japanese sometimes tolerated the women talking to the Australian soldiers. Lorna goes to a gate and Len speaks to her from the other side.  She tries to throw a care package over the gate to him, but it gets entangled in the wire.  Len retrieves the package and retreats back into the jungle.

Lorna sees Berenice looking at a photo shown to her by a Japanese soldier known as Suzuki.  He quickly leaves.  Lorna doesn't like Berenice fraternizing with the enemy and tells her so. She says Berenice is only making him stronger so he can kill Australians. 

Lorna sees Len being carried somewhere by two Japanese soldiers.  She tries to run over to him, but the nuns stop her saying that if they realize that Lorna knows Len, she will be tortured too.  At night the women can hear Len being tortured.  In the morning Len is brought out for his public execution.  The commander insists that everyone watch the execution.  His head is chopped off his shoulders.

Lorna insists on being alone now.  Berenice tries to talk to her, but Lorna shoos her away.  She only walks around the corner of the building.  Berenice says she is sorry about what happened to Len.  Lorna wants to know if Berenice confessed her sins to Sharmach?  She says that Len told her that Sharmach is a collaborator with the Japanese.  Berenice insists that the bishop is not a collaborator and that if it wasn't for this man, they would all be dead now.  Lorna crouches down and sobs.

Lorna writes in her diary that she must get at Sharmach before any more of Len's men are betrayed. 

The sister and nuns rejoice that they see American planes overhead.  The bishop shouts for everyone to get inside, but already a number of the women are hit by strafing bullets.  The mother superior is hit and dies.  And now the nurses have a lot more patients to treat.  Lorna removes a piece of shrapnel from the bishop's throat.  She tells him that it was very near his carotid artery and the shrapnel could have cut it at any time.  He would then have bled to death in seconds. 

The bishop has an air-raid shelter constructed near the hospital.  He tells Lorna that he will not have his mission turned into a slaughter yard. 

Lorna learns that the Japs are shutting the hospital down.  They are moving the wounded to Rabaul "for their own safety".  She sees men being moved out on the back of Japanese trucks.  Lorna writes in her diary that there are few men left in the jungle to fight the Japanese and the ones being brought in now look like hell.  Now the wounded are put on the back of a truck. 

Lorna hears Suzuki crying.  She goes over to comfort him and finds that he and his sword are covered in Australian blood.  She runs to tell the Australians on the back of a truck that it's all just a trap, but she is chased away by the Japanese guards.

The head nurse, Berenice, and Lorna go to see the bishop, telling him that the Japanese are killing Australian prisoners.  They add that it's not too late to save the remaining Australian males.  They tell him he must contact the Red Cross at once.  The bishop says the Australians were butchered.  More than a hundred Australian soldiers were butchered.  He says, however, that he got the commander to give him his word of honor that the nurses' patients won't be harmed.  Word gets back to Lorna that her patients are still alive.  Lorna learns that one particular soldier said to tell Lorna that she is a lousy cricket player. 

Geisha girls are brought in as entertainment for the troops. 

The women put on a play for the staff.  They sing a song from Gilbert and Sullivan about three little maids from school.  The Japanese commander stops to watch.  They stop singing when they see him and everyone come to attention.   They now start singing a song about the lord high executioner.  The translator tells the commander what the women are singing and he becomes very angry.  He and the translator leave the performance.  Berenice feels guilty for starting up with the lord high executioner song.  Lorna says she liked it. 

Lorna and the head nurse are brought to the commander's office.  They have some news for them.  The note reads that a Japanese ship transporting 1,100 Australian POWs was last night torpedoed by an American submarine. There are no survivors. Included among the dead were the nurses' patients.

The nurses fix all the beds up very nicely and then leave.  Suzuki is going home.  He leaves a photo of himself for Berenice. 

The women look out the windows and figure a big battle must be going on.  Early the next morning the nurses are forced out of bed and told that they have only one hour to get ready to leave this place.  All nurses must go, but all nuns must stay.  Lorna tells Berenice that her bishop is a collaborator and she will make sure he hangs for his war crimes.  Berenice slaps her hard across the face.  When she tells the bishop about this he makes her write an apology to Lorna, but who knows if the letter will ever get to her.  They get wounded Japanese soldiers into their wards.  Lorna sees a Japanese doctor shoot four of his Japanese patients.  "And soon the thought occurred to me:  if the Japanese would kill their own men, what must they have done to you, to you and all the nurses."

Lorna writes a letter to Berenice.  She thinks they are in Yokohama.  The Japanese feed them a lot of food at nice tables with chairs.  The women don't start eating right away.  When the head nurse starts, everybody starts eating. 

Berenice writes that this is their second Easter spent as captives.  American planes drop bombs on the camp.  The women get very afraid and scream.  Some of the bombs really  shake the shelter and more screams go up.  After the bombing, Berenice and the others come out.  Everything has been destroyed.  And there are lots of dead Japanese soldiers around the area.  Berenice has to go around picking up body parts of Japanese soldiers.  When the tub is full, the nuns turn it over to the Japanese.  Berenice cries about the horrible experience. 

Lorna sweeps a hall while whistling a tune.  All of a sudden she hears someone else whistling the same tune.  She goes over to the blocked off area and through the slats she sees an Aussie soldier sitting there.  He tells her that it is wonderful to see another Aussie.  The fellow says his name is Jeff.  He also says the nurses are here because the Japanese are exchanging prisoners.  The nurses are going to be sent home.  He says eight American nurses left last month and the Aussies are next. 

The nurses sing and dance around.  Lorna writes a letter to Berenice telling her of the good news.  They are going home.  " Home.  Is there a lovelier word in the whole English language?"   All of a sudden the Japanese guards rush in with their weapons pointed at the women.  The women stop what they are doing immediately. 

Berenice writes that about every month the American planes bomb the place and they have virtually nothing left.  There is no food, shelter, water to wash in.  Now they are being moved to a valley called Remale, where there are no air raids. "Timber and prayers are no match for bombs . . . "   It's June 6, 1944 and they are in the hands of God.  It takes three days to get to their new residence.  Once they arrive there, they start working on the place immediately. 

Lorna writes that they have been put on hard labor because the Japanese say that the Australian government cancelled the prisoner exchange and have left the nurses to rot in Japan.  Their hair has been cut very short and they have to pull logs along a road in the cold weather.  While they do this, some jerk Japanese fellow beats them with a stick to their backsides.  Lorna sneaks out past the sleeping guard to grab the rice balls the Japanese have left for their dead relatives. 

One of the sisters is beaten for having stole some food from Japanese soldiers.  The bishop says that this beating must stop.  The translator tells the bishop that he has no more power here.  Hitler is dead.  He has no friends to help him now.  The bishop can't say anything.  Later Berenice comes to tell the bishop that Sister Marie may die from the beating.  She also tells the bishop that he is a good person.  He asks:  "Am I?"  He has just received a letter that the Australian nurses are still trapped in Yokohama, Japan.  He says he has hurt too many people and he can't face Sister Marie.  He adds:  "I am tied up inside."  Berenice tells him that he must come with her to the beside of Marie, because she is not leaving this earth without the blessing of the bishop.  Marie dies as the bishop ministers to her. 

Lorna writes that the guards have told them that thousands of American bombs have sent Tokyo up in flames.  The captain's wife and children have beeb killed in the Tokyo bombings and now he comes out beating up the nurses.  The head nurse tells the translator to tell the captain how sorry they are for his loss.  The captain shouts that he will bury the women here in Yokohama.  "You will not leave this country alive."  He calls the nurses murderers and says they have no right to live.  But now the captain puts his pistol up to his own head.  The head nurse comes over to him and bows.  She says:  "We have all seen more than we can bear."  He drops the pistol and falls to his knees moaning about the loss of his family.  He now starts sobbing .  The women walk away from him. 

Lorna tells stories about life in Australia to a woman weakened by abuse and lack of food and warmth. 

Berenice writes to Lorna that there is a death squad coming for them.  She has been told that Lorna is already dead.  If Lorna is dead, Berenice hopes that she may forgive her for her trespasses against Lorna.  She dates the letter July 1945.  She puts the letter in a crevice in the rock and coves it with another rock.  At her lowest, she hears an Australian call.  The Aussies have come for them.  She answers the call.  The Aussies come to see them.  A young lad comes up to her and she slowly touches his face. 

The Japanese force their way into the nurse's section.  Lorna hides herself and her friend in a little cubby hole behind a small drape.  The Japanese find them.  The women come out of hiding, but find that it is not the Japanese that have come for them, but the Americans.  

The nurses put their uniforms back on.  The American troops see them off as they ride in the back of a truck. 

Photos are shown of the real sisters and nurses. 

Sydney, 1952.  Lorna goes to the convent and asks for Sister Berenice.  She walks over to Berenice and starts talking to her.  Berenice is stunned at seeing her.  She says:  "You're dead!"  Lorna says she wrote to the German bishop to find out where Berenice was.  They hug. 

Film is sown of the elderly Mrs. Lorna (Whyte) Johnston and Sister Berenice Twohill. 

"After liberation Lorna married, had a family and is now a proud grandmother.  Sister Berenice resumed teaching and taught music for 40 years. The Australian Army doctors left the nurses and their patients at Vunapope believing their role was to assist the escaping troops.  The non-military nurses, who looked after the Australian troops, were all but forgotten after the war and received little government assistance until 2000.  The Allies' prisoner exchange program wasn't fully revealed to the Australian public until after 1975.  Under British pressure, the Curtin Government released 831 Japanese internees in exchange for 151 internees, 29 of whom were Australian.  After liberation from Ramale Bishop Leo Scharmach returned to Vunapope and rebuilt the mission  Lorna and Sister Berenice have remained close friends since the end of the war.."


Still another confirmation of the brutality of the Japanese to prisoners of war.  They were originally going to massacre the whole crew and their wounded patients left at the hospital.  Only a German missionary, a personal envoy to Adolf Hitler, was able to stop the impending massacre.  As the Allies started definitely defeating the Japanese, the treatment became worse for the POWs.  The nurses were especially badly treated compared to the nuns helping the nurses who were under the protection of the German missionary.  Once Hitler was dead, the Japanese now started treating the sisters terribly. Their torments were ended only by the arrival of Australian and American troops.  One Japanese captain had the nerve to call the nurses murderers and threatened to kill them all after his family was destroyed in the fire bombing of Tokyo.  The Japanese were still in the process of killing some 35 million Chinese men, women and children.  These mass murderers and rapists had no grounds on which to criticize anyone on the Allied side. 

On the brighter side, the film has a tale of true friendship between the Nurse Lorna Whyte and Sister Berenice that lasted a lot longer following the end of their terrible ordeals at the hands of the Japanese.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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