Project Canterbury

Among the Ruins: New Guinea Epic

By Padre Arthur Bell
Assistant Chaplain General

Sydney: Australian Board of Missions, 1943.

Text contributed by Brother Justus VanHouten, SSF
Newton Theological College, Papua New Guinea, 2006.


This "meditation" by Padre Bell will perhaps be read with greater interest and understanding if introduced by a brief sketch of the background of the events described.

The Japanese decision for war on December 7th, 1941, meant that New Guinea and Australia would soon be in the line of attack. The civilian population of the island territories was evacuated promptly, but contrary to general belief, and some public statements, no order was issued for the evacuation of missionaries. The missionaries were convinced that their voluntary departure would be inconsistent with their duty, and decided to stay.

One of them wrote to his father: "If I don't come out of it, just rest content that 1 tried to do my job faithfully."

The Japanese captured Rabaul on January 23rd, 1942. The danger to Australia increased and speculation arose as to enemy designs on Port Moresby. On July 22nd the Japanese landed at Gona on the N.E. coast of Papua, where an Anglican Mission Station and Hospital were established. The Mission personnel consisted of the Rev. James Benson, Sister May Hayman and Miss Mavis Parkinson, and when the invaders approached they sought safety inland. The two women were captured and killed by the Japanese about September 1st; the bodies were exhumed and given Christian burial in February, 1943. The Rev. James Benson was taken prisoner and may still be alive.

[4] At Sangara, thirty miles inland from Gona, the Rev. Vivian Redlich was stationed; with him were a mission nurse, Sister Margery Brenchley, and a teacher, Miss Lilla Lashmar. About eight miles further on at Isivita were the Rev. Henry Holland and Mr. John Duffill. Late in July, heathen and unfriendly natives, led by a notorious criminal, who believed the white man's day was over, made known to the Japanese the whereabouts of the missionaries. All five were captured, taken to Buna, and were beheaded on the beach. The facts were gathered first from entries in Japanese diaries found on dead soldiers and verified later by an official investigation. The natives responsible for the betrayal were apprehended and five were sentenced to death. They confessed to the Rev. R. L. Newman, who attended them at their execution, that the sentence was a just one and that they deserved to die.

There will always be a body of opinion which contends that the military authorities or the Bishop of New Guinea should have removed the women earlier to a place of safety. But whatever the point of view there can be little doubt that the Church is the richer for their example and their sacrifice.


Upon his return from a brief visit to Australia, the Bishop of New Guinea expressed the desire that he might be accompanied by a Priest at present serving as a Chaplain, on a visit to the scarred and torn Mission areas at Gona, Buna, Sanananda, Sangara, Isivita, and other places in Northern Papua. As this was the first opportunity that the Bishop had had to enter upon this pilgrimage, it was with some trepidation that the offer was accepted. Subsequent events showed that a refusal would have been a sin against the Holy Ghost. Without a doubt God required an eye-witness, that the things seen should be made known to those not granted a like privilege, and that one being himself inspired, might inspire others.

Many years ago the writer learned a great truth. He had visited an art gallery and was entranced with the beauty of a great picture. Later, when an attempt was made to describe the beauty, it was apparent that his hearers were not moved by the description. After the first disappointment had passed, it was realised that the picture was still beautiful and what was really wrong was that the description of it was wholly inadequate. In writing this account of the Bishop's pilgrimage the writer is conscious of the same possibility. He writes, however, with a prayer on his lips, that the written word may not fail, and that this may be read more as a meditation than as a missionary article, or propaganda, or as something to tickle the ears of the sentimental who have accepted the angelic description of the Fuzzy-Wuzzy inhabitants of this region, and may not realise that they, too, are human and that their humanity is as ours with [5/6] mixed elements that make for glory and for shame. To err is human and to forgive divine; so, too, is there divinity in seeking to be forgiven, applying as it does to white and to brown.

Glory and Shame.

Our journey by air, sea and land transport and on foot took us first to Eroro, where we saw the Church of St. Chad, one of the few remaining mission churches left standing on the island. For nine years the Rev. R. L. Newman had worked in this area uninterruptedly, until the invader compelled a temporary retirement. This enforced absence was a time of testing to those befriended by the Mission staff. As is to be expected, some willingly received gifts from the invader of the household effects, and it is to be admitted that some even took to themselves things not theirs, but the mixture of human elements showed up many good qualities. One man took Mr. Newman and his wife and hid them in the hills, feeding them by night and watching for the approach of the enemy by day. Villagers took it in turns to watch and to serve. Another rescued money and a case of much-coveted trade tobacco and faithfully returned them at an opportune time. It was thus that Jeremiah by name showed his devotion in a remarkable way. We found Austin in his village busily engaged in the building of a new house. When asked why he built another house, having a perfectly good one near by, we were amazed to find that he did this to house the few remaining material possessions that he was keeping in trust for Mr. Newman when he would return to be able to set up his centre once again. In the next village, Pongani, we met a man, who shall be nameless, who took the brass off the Church Altar and gave it with his own hands to the invaders that he might ingratiate himself with them. This man's sin was not to [6/7] be found in his son, for the son came day by day to the cave where the missionary and his wife had taken up their quarters, and acted as cook-boy, guide, friend and scout even when the enemy were near at hand. In another village we met Terence and his wife Zoe, faithful teachers, and we noted the outward signs of character which told of the vision of Christ that had been vouchsafed them.

In the evenings we held services for the men in native labour camps, and it was amazing how they responded and sang without books and without prompting, it being evident that their training had been well done and well received. In the mornings we gave the Sacrament wherever we were, and many times this was the first opportunity the natives had had of partaking thereof since the invasion. Standing one morning on a hilltop with the Altar framed with trees and the hills beyond forming a natural reredos, one was struck by the solemnity of the service and the devotion of the server, Adelbert by name. Never had the modern Luke witnessed such devotional precision, though he had formerly taken great pride in training servers in his former parishes.

Here we met Vincent and his wife, Clarissa (Ambasi teachers), who had faithfully lived in the heart of the enemy country during the invasion, coming for fresh instructions from their Bishop and going forth with his blessing. There were 250 present at the service and 140 knelt with bowed heads and crossed hands to cradle again the Body of their Lord in order that, receiving comfort and strength, they might go and labour with those same hands in constructional works, not only for their king but also for their God in the great cause they had entered upon in their campaign against the evil one.

[8] Genuine joy.

When evening was come we entered into a boat and passed on to a place where a touching scene was enacted. Anchoring some 400 yards from the shore, we experienced difficulty in getting to the land, due to the heavy seas that interfered with our plans. A native canoe was seen passing some 150 or so yards out to sea. The Bishop stood on the rails of the boat and called to the natives to come closer. They asked and stated at one and the same time: "What you want?" "We go!" His Lordship called to them in their own language, and all that the eye-witness could catch was, "The Bishop is here!" Such a transformation as took place was beyond the understanding of all aboard. At once the canoe seemed to stop in its path and the natives stood as one man, and then came what seemed like a plaintive cry of mingled joy and holy amazement, which was taken up by the waves of the sea, making as it were a mystic song having as its theme, "Bishop! Bishop!" Quickly the tiny canoe came nearer and the former fear was turned into rapid action so that before the proverbial Jack Robinson could be uttered these people were holding the hands of the Bishop and giving their salutation as they kissed the tips of his fingers. We did not need shore help to complete our landing, for had it been permitted to them we would have been carried ashore. Their words and their actions seemed to bring life to a crowd of other natives on the shore, and we were greeted with such a joyful shout that all the soldiers within half-a-mile came to see who it was that could strike such a note of joy, and who it was that deserved such a welcome.

Setting out to walk to a nearby village where a native priest, John Livingstone, had held the fort, we were impeded by marshy lands, and once again a native canoe came to our assistance. We waited till the canoe went [8/9] to the village and came again with the sick man lying on a mat laid upon the miniature deck. He had his wife by his side and she held an old sunshade to shield him from the sun. This was the native priest who had carried on the work of the Church when no white man could have possibly stayed to direct his labours. He laboriously climbed down into the water and immediately knelt at the feet of the Bishop, and after the usual salutation, gave an account of his labours while his wife, Veronica, lovingly gazed upon the Bishop and drank to the full the joy of his return. At the water's edge we engaged in prayer, and all departed with the blessing of the Bishop whose hands laid upon individual heads including all, amongst whom was Harry, an old South Sea Islander, who, though his body had carried him for many years, had also been the constant support of the frail priest in his ministrations.

The Station Cross.

We walked along the beach to Gona, where the station Cross pointed up to the heavens as a witness to the sacrifice not only of the missionaries, but also of the Australians and the Americans who gave their lives near and around that spot that the invaders might be thrust out into the sea. Amongst the charred remains of the Church of God and the attendant mission building this Cross could be seen a mile away, and had inspired our men to go on and drink as our Lord had done the cup of suffering, and of sacrifice, being faithful even unto death. What seemed like bullet wounds in the Cross now seemed to effuse a blood-like substance, a corrosion of metal no doubt, but yet so realistic and so full of symbolism. Nearby was growing a beautiful orange hibiscus bush, and upon it the large flowers which told of life in place of death, and this graveyard gave way to a vision of the Resurrected Christ, and ears attuned formerly to earthly things seemed now to hear [9/10] an old song given a new meaning. It was as though the stones and the wood and the twisted iron re-echoed the Easter hymns that had so often been sung in the church which had stood nearby. Here the Rev. James Benson had laboured with Sister May Hayman and Miss Mavis Parkinson. Surely God was in this place and these three, along with many others, had reflected His love into the hearts of these responsive people.

A Holy Place.

Evidence of this being a holy place was found very soon. At four o'clock that afternoon we met two boys one going to villages to the south and the other to villages to the north. From a distance of some fifty yards they recognised their spiritual father after an absence of twelve months. The haste with which they drew near showed the reality of their welcome and something of the result of the labours of those who had willingly laid down their lives. To those two boys a commission was given: "Go and tell the people your Bishop is here, and he will celebrate the Sacrament at 6.30 to-morrow morning near the Station Cross."

When they had gone, the eye-witness asked, "Is that enough?"

The satisfied smile that came from the Bishop spoke of hidden powers of attraction. Next morning 250 natives were gathered round the Cross, and over 200 knelt on the spot where once the Communion rails had stood; but first a party of them cleared away the grass that had encroached. Such a service would have been impossible in Australia, and was only possible here because of the vast amount of preparatory work that had been done in, and around this holy place.

Once again the stones and the wood and the twisted iron cried out in unison with native voices, and the result was a triumphant cry to Heaven, and once again a vision of things to come obscured the ruins that lay [10/11] around. Horace and Godfrey (teachers) with Hannah and Josephine, their respective wives, were taking the part of leaders serving at the Altar and showing above all things the link which joined the Native Church to the Church Universal While such men and women are permitted to labour, the hiatus will be bridged and the missionaries who follow on in this place will be able to start their re-building, truly with difficulty, but with difficulties made less by the teachings of the past and the faithfulness of native workers.

We heard here of the Station Log that had been mutilated in the battle, parts of which were said to be in the possession of soldiers nearby. Through the kindness of an Australian captain, two of these parts were recovered, and though sadly depleted, we were able to take possession of a document that alone remained of the records of the work of God in this area. We again took ship to another centre. Our ship was a barge with an outboard motor, which broke down away out to sea, and we had perforce to apply two small oars to propel a fairly large craft. It is enough to say that we arrived safely.

At the Martyrs' Graves.

Reaching land, we set out again for Sangara. This took almost a whole day. The first thing we saw here was the new graveyard in which were buried the last remains of two faithful and much-loved missionaries, Sister May Hayman and Miss Mavis Parkinson. It belongs to another to recite an account of their work in the name of the Lord--it is for me to attempt only to portray the immediate happenings. No sooner had the Bishop set his feet upon the ground than, with hat removed and the sorrow of his heart fully revealed in his face and posture, he made his way to the graves and there prostrated as before an Altar, his inmost soul laid [11/12] bare before his God. Such a moment is not to be told in words of earthly origin, but all present found themselves soon upon their knees, even the driver of the American vehicle whose background in spiritual matters is not known. The silence was barely broken till Even-song was said, joined in by natives who had gathered at the approach of their Bishop. Three Australian signallers and a native, named Christian, who were present at the burial, took part in these and following services. Once more the Prophet was in evidence, for the Cross, standing within the graveyard, taken as it was from living trees, had also budded and betokened the certainty of the Rising again. Christian had played an important part in the recovery of the missionaries' bodies, and his faithfulness cannot be over-emphasized.

Next morning, many villages had sent their whole remaining populations to attend the Requiem. Here again was evident the thoroughness of the training of these people. From the improvised church the procession of the Bishop and the people wended its way to the graveside, and the graves were blessed and the Anglican Burial Service read. There were no tears in the eyes of the natives but many lips were quivering.


The service was over and the Bishop had disrobed. A small boy had attached himself to the eye-witness, and in conversation that was somewhat limited, one word kept repeating itself, and that word was "Lucian." The little chappie was trying to convey something which to his mind was important, and then the name "Lucian" came again. As in a sudden burst of inspiration it all came out. Lucian was buried here also. Now Lucian was the teacher who had given his life in the defence of two of the sisters; he had actually used his frail body as an instrument of defence, and, unbeknown to the [12/13] pilgrims, was buried here also. One week before, his body had been found, and the faithful man whose name was Christian had seen to it that he should find a resting place in the mission grounds. Upon investigation, it was discovered that his body lay just outside the other graveyard, separated by a small railing and only a few feet away. Such an one could not he outside the fence. And what of his ground as yet unblessed? Another service was held, and soon the railings were taken down, and now that area which is fenced comprises the resting place of three martyrs where before it only contained two. Such is the Church in these lands. It produces its own martyrs, and these he side by side with martyrs from other shores. White and brown are gathered into God's Kingdom, for in each was sown the seeds of love and willing service. Therefore white and brown will be together in Paradise. No doubt from that moment there were fresh strains of rejoicing amongst the Angels of God, and Lucian himself must be comforted by the simple gesture of the enlargement of the enclosure.

A Modern Via Dolorosa.

On the morrow we walked for three hours along a road that had never seen any other means of transport. If any other means are there used it will be to the destruction of one of God's quiet places, one of the places that have become holy, and which it would be desecration to alter. As we walked along fern gullies and crossed over streams, gently pushing aside the leaves that kissed our shoulders, and listened to the birds in the trees, there was a certain indefinable something that held one spellbound. Slowly but surely the truth made itself evident.

This was a martyr's way. In some real sense a Via Dolorosa. It was the way between two mission stations. Many times in the night Sister Brenchley, of Sangara, [13/14] had travelled this way on an errand of mercy. She had answered the call of the sick. Now, even from her last resting-place, a resting-place not yet located, it would appear that her spirit pervaded the place and her works of mercy had sanctified it into a way of peace. Asked if there had been much sickness there during the time of loss, this man had answered: "Many had died of dysentery," and then added without embarrassment "If Miss Brenchley had been there they would not have died." That is why the road had become a place of beauty. This is not all, for it was later learned that the two who lay beside Lucian had walked that road in the time of their forced march. What we have learned of their high morale, their philosophical acceptance of the dangers in their way, their readiness to remain with those whom they loved, their devotion and sacrifice, their sacrificial obedience to their Christ-formed ideals even unto death, soon convinced us that there was no need to look elsewhere for the reason of the song that was in the way and the joy of the journey. There could be no weariness with such companions walking along the modern Via Dolorosa, for it was in perfect harmony with the walk in Jerusalem entered upon by the writer only a few short months before.

An Account of a Stewardship.

Now such a road must lead somewhere and to something worthwhile. It was to the village of Isivita, where the Rev. Henry Holland had laboured so lovingly for 42 years. That in itself was a goal, but it led also to the knowledge of his sacrifice, for he, too, had been called upon to lay down his life, and on the morrow we were to have evidence of it. The first was the account of the stewardship of one whom Mr. Holland had left in charge when he had gone away, not for his own safety, but so that his capture might not involve his children in [14/15] Christ. Amongst his last injunctions to Andrew, a teacher, Mr. Holland had said: "The mission storeroom is fairly full; I place it in your charge I make no reservations, do what you think best with it. If need be, give it away; but, above all, it must not fall into the hands of the evil one." After he had died, Andrew found it necessary to give some of those stores to assist hungry people. This he did. But many things were sold to the villagers. On this the day of the Bishop's return, we witnessed a very solemn rendering of an account. No time was so fitting for the handing over as in the Eucharist itself. It was indeed a grand sight to see Andrew standing before the improvised Altar of God, backed up by the whole village, with a notebook of his accounts in one hand and a not-too-clean white calico bag in the other hand, in which was found the money from his sale of mission goods which but for his faithfulness would have gone the way of all other things, in loot. His handing-over speech was to the effect that here was a little at least to start again the work of God in that area. As it was accepted and blessed before the Altar, it was surely a reminder of the barley loaves and few small fishes which, being blessed, fed so many. Then this road of the martyrs leads to something more. Here we pause in our meditation to realise once again that humanity is of glory and of shame. Alongside this faithfulness we learned of some who had forgotten the things they had been taught. It is not for us to blame them or to cast the first stone, for many things that had happened had led them to believe that the white man would not come again into their midst. Then, like the children they are, some had taken that which was not their own, others had destroyed what were to them valueless things, but to the Mission things of tremendous value. It was a case of sheer wilfulness.

[16] A Solemn Moment.

And here another side of the work of missionaries became evident. These people were to be told of their wrong-doings, and some indication of their future intentions was to be sought. To this end a Council was held near the ruined mission house. For fifteen minutes the Bishop patiently told them of the labours of Mr. Holland, of Sister Brenchley and Miss Lashmar, and of others, how they had given their all for them. They were asked if their conduct was in keeping with the love and service rendered. Did they realise that they had destroyed manuscripts of the Bible and Prayer Book in their native tongue which Mr. Holland had worked upon for so many years, and which now, when almost completed, were lost for ever? There was silence in the camp and the sober faces of the nine Village Councillors, representing as they did the various villages, showed that this was a solemn moment, needing much thought and not to be lightly disposed of. After at least ten minutes of silence one man rose and, in a way only to be described as a ceremonial act, stepped forward and said, "I speak." Certainly the silence was broken, and though his tongue was foreign there was no mistaking his intention and the meaning of his words. Soon a pile of coconuts had been thrown to the winds of heaven, and by some mysterious agency, later found to be his hands, had returned again to their original pile. The repetition of this gave a graphic description of the destruction that had taken place. "Very good talk," said the Bishop, "but not enough." After another silence a second speaker arose, and his speech was short but to the point. His very attitude showed what he was about to say, and even if he had not spoken his meaning would have been clear. His whole form seemed to have shrunk, his head hung low, and his face was a picture of dejection. The words came out slowly but full of meaning, for it was indeed a confession. [16/17] "We are ashamed," he said. Then, his talk being finished, he sat down. Here was a baring of the soul not often seen elsewhere where man is inclined to hide his true feeling. The Council was over, for the Bishop had gained his point. There was no need to press the lesson home and tell these people it was not enough to be sorry, for they were more than sorry, they were re-pentant, and, without asking for it, there had come the assurance that they would do better. Those mistakes would not be repeated.

And what of us White Christians?

But we cannot stop at this point. Although it was not necessary to press that point home to the natives, can we say the same for ourselves? That morning we made a search of that war-stricken area. As we entered the mission house the sun shone through the bullet-holes in the roof, and one had to walk into piles of torn-up papers and step over ruins on the floor. One can never forget the picture of the Bishop sitting down on the floor amongst all this torn-up treasure, looking hungrily for some bits of papers that would be worth saving, so that the whole of Mr. Holland's work might not be lost Some few things were retrieved, including one paper that draws us all into this confession made by a simple native that day. This paper was a letter dated April 14th, 1934, and signed by Bishop Newton who was then Bishop of New Guinea. The letter must be read in full.

Samarai, Papua.

My dear Holland,

A.B.M. has not increased our grant. It remains at £8,400 for the year. I asked for £9,100. So we have to cut our expenses by the difference. I am hoping the money from England will be more than I allowed for, namely, £300. The hope rests on the work Mr. Rodger is doing in the way of deputations. We have to remember that we have spent more [17/18] than our income for the last two years, and the only things we have to square that are our Launch Reserve Fund and the value of the "Maclaren-King." By reducing station expenses by the amount I have to suggest we shall save about £430 of the £700 increase which the A.B.M. did not give us. Our economies and perhaps more money from England may make it possible to balance our budget this year. I am sorry to have to ask you to be specially economical, but we must do that or find some more drastic way--give up the "Maclaren-King" or close stations. Either would be too dreadful to contemplate. Allowance for Isivita I have put down at £216 for 1943.


The reading of this letter caused shudders to run round and up and down one's spine. It was a most uncomfortable feeling. Like a flash its true meaning was evident. A former conversation with the Bishop elicited this information. For years the Mission had desired to expand. The area of intended expansion was one through which ue had passed a few days before. This was the area where unfriendly natives had betrayed our brothers and sisters-the Rev. Henry Holland, the Rev. Vivian Redlich, Mr. John Duffill, Sister Brenchley, and Miss Lashmar. This had been the cause of their being handed over to the Japs. It was then realised that had this area been opened up these servants of God might not have died. The reading of this letter drove it further towards home. The only reason that the A.B.M. had not given the full amount of grant asked for was that they themselves had not received it from us, who in the homeland had not fulfilled our obligations to those working in the field. By the lack of financial support we had thrust a cheese-paring policy upon the Mission and they had not been able to expand. Now, had the financial support been given the areas mentioned would have been opened and perhaps those missionaries would not have died. Then let us also gather together in a Council. What have we to say for ourselves? Are we prepared to speak in three words [18/19] words that are soul-revealing, words that speak of contrition, words that set forth the desire to amend, words spoken by that simple native man, "We are ashamed"? Here is the challenge. What is our answer? "Deeds alone," said the Bishop to these people when they were gathered together, "deeds alone will tell in the future just what your shame means." No other words can be spoken to us. It is in the future that we will answer this question, and the future alone will show how to wipe out our shame.

Only one other incident is to be here recorded. A few days later we stopped at a Native Labour Camp and the Bishop celebrated the Sacred Mysteries, this being the first opportunity these people had had of partaking thereof for nearly twelve months. It so happened that amongst those standing nearby, not Christians, were some boys from the villages that have been described as the areas of intended missionary expansion.

These boys were very curious, but were somewhat shy in their approach. The Bishop told them their village would be hard put to in wiping out this blot upon their family tree. As is to be expected, they were inclined to be sullen. Just then, as the Bishop raised his arm to emphasize a point, a snake dropped from the tree above and coiled itself around the arm of the Bishop. The native boys ran quickly away from what must have appeared to them as the wrath of God, for as the snake tightened its coils the arm of the Bishop flexed and his hand came round almost to the head of the snake. The snake, however, must have got a fright, for it loosened its coils and sprang away from the Bishop and into the midst of the group of villagers mentioned. As in the days of St. Paul, they looked for him to fall down dead, but they themselves had to flee.

[20] Let us, in closing our meditation, remember that humanity is indeed made up of elements that make for glory and for shame, and though much glory has been added to our God in the work already done, it behoves us all to do what we can to continue to blot out things that make for shame.

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