The Rabaul Nurses were a group of Australian New Guinea nurses, prisoners-of-war for over three and a half years during the Second World War (WW2 1939 - 1945). The story of their plight for survival in Japan is told for the first time in Not Now Tomorrow — published in 1997. The author, Alice M Bowman, was a civilian nurse with this group. She was captured with her civilian and Australian army nursing colleagues following the Japanese invasion of Rabaul on 23rd January 1942. Six months later they were sent to imprisonment in Japan.
In telling the story of the Rabaul Nurses, Alice M Bowman also presents awareness of the disastrous fall of Rabaul and insight into the fate of those of the Sacred Heart Catholic Mission where refuge was initially sought. This mission was to become an internment camp for all present including ten Australian nuns among the mission's nuns of many nationalities. The appalling aftermath of Rabaul's fall to the Japanese and capture of the Australian battalion, and Rabaul's civilian men, evokes controversy to this day. There are many in the New Guinea islands who have "no known grave" and the question of those who might lie at the bottom of the South China Sea with the sinking of the Montevideo Maru — the Japanese merchant ship said to be transporting 1053 prisoners-of-war to Japan — has never been resolved.
Alice M Bowman
A true story of courage in adversity
The story of this group of seventeen Australian nurses, six from the Australian Army Nursing Service, seven from the Australian Government Hospital in Rabaul, New Guinea and four from the Methodist Mission together with Mrs Bignell (a New Guinea plantation owner), is related by Alice M Bowman, their civilian colleague from the Government Hospital, pictured in the group below, waving, second from the left.
Rabaul is seen at the northern tip of the island of New Britain.
This small group of nurses from Rabaul was imprisoned with those who could not escape: the greater part of the Australian Battalion, Lark Force and its many, valuable support units including the 2/10th Field Ambulance detachment, of which the six AANS nurses were a part, men of the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, the Royal Australian Navy and Royal Australian Air Force together with some 200 civilian men of Rabaul and the crew of the Norwegian Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship Herstein.
The small Australian garrison at Rabaul was overwhelmed by a vastly outnumbered invasion force and an impossible task was valiantly faced in defence of Australia's centre of Administration in New Guinea. Many lives are unaccounted for and the names have not been established beyond doubt — and may never be — of all the unsung heroes presumed to have met their fate on 1st July 1942 in the hold of their unmarked prison ship, the Montevideo Maru.
In the hold of another unmarked prison ship, the Naruto Maru, the Rabaul Nurses of New Guinea and the officers of Lark Force, who had been separated from the other ranks, were transported safely to Japan just twelve days after the departure of the Montevideo Maru unaware of its fate. On arrival in Japan the group's number increased to nineteen when Mrs. Etta Jones who was captured in the Aleutian Islands was placed with them.