Lost Women of Rabaul by Rod Miller – Book Review

Lost Women of Rabaul is author Rod Miller’s first publication, and comes after 11 years of research into this subject, plus the associated tragic story of the Montevideo Maru in 1942 (for context, this Japanese transport ship was sunk that year carrying Australian POWs from Rabaul to Japan, though none of the women in his book were on board).

Rod, Miller, Lost Women of Rabaul, 2022, Big Sky Publishing, Newport, NSW, PB 350pp, RRP $32.99

Miller’s book chronicles the story of 18 Australian women (nurses and civilians) who had been captured in Rabaul in January 1942, following the Japanese invasion of the island of New Britain following their stunning and swift advance through south-east Asia following the December attacks on Pearl Harbor and other locations that month. Rabaul was not only the location of a strategic deep sea port, but since 1922 had been the administrative capital of the Australian Territory of New Guinea. Therefore, it was Australian territory, albeit far removed (both physically and psychologically) from the Australian mainland.

The ‘lost’ women Miller refers to were a mixed group, comprising seven civilian nurses from the government hospital, four Methodist mission nurses, six Australian Army nurses and a lone civilian plantation owner. Their story is unique in that they were the only females captured within Australian territory during the war and then, to add to their woes, they were transported to Japan.
The story of the disastrous defence of Rabaul by Australian forces, whilst not central to this story, is relevant since the women were based in Rabaul or had been evacuated there for safety, first as the threat of war loomed and then following the declaration of war in December 1941 prior to the Japanese invasion. The capture of these women on ‘home soil’, and their transportation to Japan where they languished for three years and nine months, seemingly unknown to the Australian authorities forms the basis of the book. The inaction of the Australian government, plus that of the International Red Cross, forms a central theme to Lost Women, but this fails to hit home with the reader with any clear reasoning, which I’ll cover later in this review.

Miller provides some background details on how he first became aware of this story. He was an auctioneer, and in 1991 he purchased the diary of one of the women (Grace Kruger, one of the civilian nurses) while clearing a deceased estate. The diary was an odd one, written in an old school exercise book and used cryptic prose, nicknames, Pidgin English, shorthand and (as Miller notes) ‘language of the day’ (viewed now, it would be deemed racist but it certainly reflects the thinking and attitudes on the 1940s).

It seems that Grace used these methods to conceal the true meanings from her Japanese captors − she even titled it ‘GK’s Nonsense’ to add to the deception that, if discovered, it was the fanciful and fictional musings of a middle-aged white woman attempting to pass the time of day with little else to do (as Miller points out, had the diary − and the others − been discovered the Japanese would probably have dealt with this in a serious manner).

The original book’s pages had been added to with other paper, sewn into the centre of the book once the original pages had been filled (while in Japan, one of their tasks was to make envelopes for a meagre wage, and the extra paper probably came from this source).

Miller was initially stumped, but was eventually successful following some hard work, luck and good fortune. During his research and efforts, he spoke with some of the surviving captives (in the late 1990s and early 2000s, before their deaths), as well as chancing across a diary written by another of the captives. This diary copied that of Kruger’s but also explained some of the terms and words used.

Subsequent contact with the surviving women and family members, plus further research allowed Miller to locate another six of the women’s diaries − these plus memorabilia and photographs finally provided him with a nearly complete picture of their time in Japanese hands.

As an aside, Miller’s research on the women provided the impetus for the ABC 90 minute drama, ‘Sisters of War’, produced in 2010. Miller had been researching this topic (and the circumstances surrounding the Montevideo Maru) for some time, and the subject matter allowed it to be translated into a movie that received wide acclaim.

Miller’s story of the women and their captivity naturally proceeds in chronological order, and throughout the book he relies heavily on the diary entries to carry the narrative. In July 1942, the women were all transported to Japan (together with Australian military officers, who had also been captured following the fall of Rabaul), landing in Yokohama. Their treatment seemed more as that of ‘tourists than internees’, since they had to clear customs upon arrival! Their lodgings were first at a hotel, then at the former Yokohama Amateur Rowing Club (it is interesting to note that this group, once in Japan, was joined by an elderly American civilian female, who had been captured on the small American island of Attu, in the Aleutian chain, which was American territory between Alaska and Russia which had also been invaded by the Japanese in 1942). As the bombing of Yokohama and Tokyo increased later in the war, they were transferred to the countryside.
Miller correctly points out that this situation with this group of Australians was in stark contrast to how others (both military and civilian) often fared when captured by the Japanese, such as the infamous Bangka Island massacre of Australian nurses who had been captured fleeing Singapore. But for this group, their time in captivity over the next three years was different, although threats of violence and assault were always present from their military and police guards. Infractions such as questioning orders or failing to bow correctly and the like were met with slaps and other physical abuse, but overall the group escaped at least some of the harsher physical punishments (and capital punishment) that many others endured while in Japanese hands.

However, as the months and years progressed, their conditions deteriorated, especially their physical and mental health, together with the rations, clothing and medical situation. Changes with guards and their accommodation, the worsening scarcity of food supplies, the increased bombing of Japanese cities, the rumoured Allied victories and advance on Japan (countered by the news they gleaned from Japanese sources which focused on Japanese victories) plus the vanished likelihood of being exchanged all eventually took their toll on the group. Apart from being allowed to write letters to loved ones when first captured, for the remainder of their time they had no contact at all (even through the very protracted and limited means through Red Cross avenues) with loved ones. They were put to work, but while this allowed them to earn a very meagre amount of money (which they pooled to secure some supplies), life for the group seemed to drag on day in, day out.

Their pitiful conditions do strike home to the reader, evoking some powerful images. As noted, one task was to make envelopes, and later in their captivity they reverted to eating the glue from these to supplement their diet. However, one chilling sentence sat with me long after I finished the book, where Grace Kruger noted they were “… eating weeds and boiling rusty nails and drinking the water in an effort to stave off the pangs of hunger.” Throughout their ordeal, the women did receive some relief packages, but these were mainly through the American or Japanese Red Cross services. However, these parcel deliveries were few and far between, and often occurred before a scheduled visit by a high-ranking Japanese official.

The story concludes with their eventual liberation, but even here there is a twist − they had to find the closest American forces since it was obvious that no one was immediately coming to rescue them. Once rested and beginning to recover from their ordeal, they were close to the first captives of the Japanese to be repatriated back to Australia but here again, even this was questioned (‘but why?’ it asks on the back cover), as if wrongs were being corrected by a shamed government. This was never explained, but could it not indicate anything other than good fortune?

Miller extensively uses the diaries as his main source of information, and as such they cannot be discounted. As noted, much of the story is detailed in prose, which is unusual for a primary source on this subject matter. This method may deter as many as it pleases. If the individual is averse to prose (and I admit at times I skipped some sections which were very lengthy) then parts of the book may be a hard slog. However, Miller intersperses this with other diary entries, but these are often very short in length. At other times one diary entry is followed by another re-stating the same or similar information which was not ideal. Where the book does succeed is where Miller adds other material, or paraphrases the diary entries, to provide a compelling story of the group, and their survival in the midst of an enemy nation.

As the story progresses the tone reflects the increasingly dire situation faced by the women, and this is where its strength lies. The story correctly concentrates on the individuals, their feelings and their attitudes towards their situation and the military and civilian Japanese they encountered. The promise that the reader will ‘witness the intrigues of international diplomacy’ and ‘confidences betrayed’ and ‘what were the international secrets that determined their fate?’ are, in my opinion, lofty statements and questions that I never believed were fully explained in any great detail. But in Miller’s defence (which he notes as well), there is a lack of detailed documentation on the women and their time as captives across the usual archival sources. This is simply because they ‘disappeared’ into Japan, where they were either neglected by Australian authorities and their actual prisoner status seemed to be too difficult (or possibly as a result of apathy) for the Japanese to accept and then action accordingly. A post-war enquiry into the fall of Rabaul and the surrender of the Australian forces and the fate of the military and civilians captured failed to properly account for the lack of information known or sought by Australian authorities about the Army force and the civilians captured in 1942.

Once in Yokohoma (and even later as the months went on), the group was led to believe through contact with high-ranking Japanese officials who visited them, that they would be eligible to be sent back to Australia via a neutral nation. Their status as non-combatants (as military and civilian nurses, plus civilians) raised their hopes that an exchange between Japan and the British Government (who represented Australia at the time with external foreign affairs) was possible. However, as Miller explains, only two such exchanges took place, and this group was never put forward, raising the question as to why. Miller concludes that ‘we will probably never officially know why the women were not exchanged’, although he speculates that embarrassment by the government in failing to secure their exchange saw Australian files following the war being ‘heavily culled’ before being archived.

This hint of a plot of sorts, or willful neglect by Australian officials, clouds Miller’s reasoning when he states: ‘It is also possible, but unlikely, that the women were simply casualties of an overly bureaucratic exchange system, which had promised much but delivered very little.’

I would argue otherwise. The group was unfortunately part of a cataclysmic conflict, which had engulfed huge tracts of the Asia Pacific, often at lightening pace with the initial Japanese advances, followed by their dogged defence and then hard-fought victories by the Allied forces as they clawed back invaded territories from 1942 onwards. A relatively small group of women, once transported to Japan, were at the mercy of their captors like so many other Allied troops and civilians. Much has been written about those who became prisoners of the Japanese and their mindset towards their prisoners, yet the true extent of many incidents (such as timelines, the major characters involved and other factors that influenced decision making and the like) only became clearer following the Japanese surrender, and the years following 1945.

During the war rumours and speculation about the fate of Allied captives of the Japanese abounded, fed by a lack of specifics or corroborated evidence. For example, the true extent of the fate of Australians on the Burma-Thai railway and those on the Sandakan death marches remained clouded for some time. To speculate that the fate of 18 women was any different is ignoring the reasoning that ‘the simplest answer is most often correct’. There are some ‘ifs’ and unknowns in this story, which is not to say that a deeper explanation may exist, but I believe the group’s fate was sealed once the war progressed, and military matters were at the forefront of the combatants’ thinking.

The result of Miller’s research (culminating in this publication) is mixed, if I must be honest. The book’s strength is where the courage, resilience and determination of the women is evident, even as their imprisonment entered the fourth year. The post-war accounts of the women does provide an element of closure on their lives following liberation, but even here (possibly out of respect for their individual circumstances, since Miller became close friends with the survivors and family members) I feel the story could have been expanded to ‘complete’ their lives. Yes, the focus was their wartime capture and imprisonment, but I personally am curious about how ordinary people cope, react and survive following their experiences which others find hard to relate to. How individuals ‘survive’ the peace is just as compelling as how they survived a war. In this case, the Army nurses received government benefits and ongoing medical treatment, while the civilians were omitted from this process.

Lost Women of Rabaul certainly does add to the historical record and Miller should be congratulated for pursuing this over the years. While the nature of the book relies heavily on the diary entries, perhaps too much so in places, it certainly highlights a story that is worthy of attention, focusing on an episode that few would be aware of, reflecting that even some 80 plus years after the war commenced there are still fascinating (if not at times harrowing) stories to tell. His book complements the other elements of his research and it would be worthwhile seeking these out (by viewing the ABC movie and visiting his website) to gain a better understanding of this resilient and resourceful group of women and their years of captivity.

Review by John Hall for The Military History Society of NSW, RECONNAISSANCE | SUMMER 2022

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