By the time World War II ended, more than 60 million people had been killed and vast swaths of Europe and Asia were in ruins. After the victors had brief moments of celebration, the world was eager to move on.
So the remarkable story of the four American nuns who were caught up in the swirl of the war on a tiny South Pacific island and later rescued by a U.S. Navy submarine was left to gather dust on a shelf in Southern California.
“It just was sort of buried and nobody was paying much attention to it for many years,” said Sister Eileen McNerney, who brought the story to light about three years ago.
When McNerney asked an older nun why she thought the story was buried for decades, the nun responded, “I think that everyone was just tired of the war when it was over. People just wanted to move forward at that time and put the past behind.”
In 2016, a journal kept by one of the nuns, Sister Hedda Jeager, was published in the book “Trapped in Paradise,” and filmmakers are at work on a documentary of the harrowing experience.
Buka Island in the South Pacific remains remote to this day, but it takes a dose of imagination to conjure up how far it was from anywhere 78 years ago. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange set out from Los Angeles in September 1940 on a 704-passenger ship that took them to New Zealand and on to Australia. Next came a 48-passenger ship that carried them to the Solomon Islands — which sticks in memory because two years after sisters’ passage, U.S. Marines stormed ashore on Guadalcanal.
They boarded a 23-ton sailing boat just off Guadalcanal that made several stops as it moved northwest to their final destination.
Their journey had taken three months.
“They were young, they were zealous, they were educated and they felt called to do this,” McNerney said. “I don’t think they had a clue about the war.”
A year and one day after their arrival, Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor.
During that year, as detailed in journal kept by Sister Hedda Jaeger, the four nuns — two teachers and two nurses — became deeply enmeshed in the village of Hanahan on Buka, where they helped to set up schools and give medical care.
After Pearl Harbor, Japanese attacks spread quickly across the South Pacific, and the Australian government ordered evacuation of everyone other than “female missionaries and nurses” on Dec. 17. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange politely replied “we will remain at our station.”
Within weeks, Japanese bombers were flying overhead and Sister Hedda wrote: “The natives are all very much concerned about our welfare, and some have even expressed the wish that they could give us their black skin so we could pass unseen. We do not know what the future holds for us.”
The war took hold in earnest in March when Japanese warships appeared off Buka. Father James Hennessey, a Boston-born priest who was also on a mission, was taken away — never to be seen again by the nuns. And then Buka plantation owner Percy Good was found, as Sister Hedda recorded, “His throat was cut, and they buried him in a grave about a foot deep. Such treachery! It makes us just sick, as we think the same fate might have befallen Father Hennessey.”
The time had come to flee to Bougainville, a larger neighboring island with more jungle cover. They had no idea their ordeal on the island would last for more than nine months as they played cat-and-mouse with Japanese soldiers bent on capturing them.
Despite such entries in Sister Hedda’s journal, the sheer terror felt by the nuns rarely surfaces in her accounting, but the journal made clear that they knew that in time they were bound to fall into Japanese hands.
By December 1942, an escape plan was underway for the sisters and several foreign planters, including other nuns, but it required yet another 8-mile hike on jungle trails and wading rivers where, Sister Hedda wrote, “It was a sight to watch eight white figures with our skirts pinned up, moving slowly toward the opposite bank.”
They waited from a jungle perch for rescue. Three days before their planned departure, about 500 Japanese soldiers came ashore nearby.
On New Year’s Eve 1942, the nuns and 25 others who would eventually be rescued from the island made their way in darkness to the beach in Teop harbor.
As they neared the beach, Father Albert Lebel, an American priest from Maine, told them: “’A submarine is going to pick you up.’” Sister Hedda wrote. “Our hearts must have stopped beating for a moment. We hadn’t anticipated this means of deliverance.”
By then, the USS Nautilus already had nosed up to within to about 100 yards of the beach, actually touching sand with her bow, according to Hank Kudzik, who was a petty officer on the 371-foot submarine.
“To find this spot was tricky. We had to be sure that the ladies knew where this spot was,” said Kudzik, 93, who recently was in Washington to commemorate the pivotal Battle of Midway. “They didn’t want the enemy to see what they were doing, so they had to be very careful.”
The Nautilus sent in three crew and the 29 people were ferried out to the sub in local launches.
“All our guns were manned in case we had to fight our way out,” Kudzik said. “The locals helped quite a lot. The brought their boats. They were paddled, and some of the natives were swimming behind. Then they had to get up the side of the submarine.”
As Sister Hedda’s journal put it: “You cannot put into words the feeling that one has for those of one’s own country, especially when one is miles from home and running away from the Japanese.”
Kudzik offers a moderately different take on that enthusiasm.
“I think it was quite a shock to them when they saw the inside of a submarine,” he recalled this month.
About three days later the nuns and other passengers were transferred to a Navy patrol craft.
“They actually prayed for us. They bid us good hunting and goodbye,” Kudzik said.
A rather fanciful portrayal of the nuns and the Nautilus was broadcast in 1958 on the TV show “The Silent Service,” with one of the nuns — Sister Mary Irene — making a guest appearance at the tail end of the show.
Following the war, all four of the nuns returned to Buka Island. The last of them died in 1999.
“I do think that they all suffered from what we now call [post-traumatic stress disorder],” said Sister Eileen, who has been a nun for 60 years and knew the Buka nuns. “When they came back, maybe people let them talk about it for a little bit, but again, nuns don’t make fusses over each other very long. People would hear it, and then okay, that’s enough.”
Read more on Retropolis: