The forgotten story of the civilian prisoners of war who survived in the Pacific

Brisbane-based Hanale Griffith and Lenny Enkera are among the few living survivors of Ramale - the only civilian prison camp for Europeans run by the Japanese in the South Pacific during World War Two.

Hanale Griffith was just nine years old when she was interned in a Japanese prison camp. 

At her home north of Brisbane, the 85-year-old names all the girls in an old photograph in her German-accented English. 

It was taken in New Guinea just days after the Second World War ended. Like her, the girls had been held prisoner with nuns and priests from a Catholic mission they called home.

Mixed-race children descended from German colonists at the Ramale prisoner-of-war camp after liberation in 1945. Hanale Griffith second row, fifth from left.
Source: Australian War Memorial

“When the Japanese first came it was so scary; they came with bayonets and guns,” she tells SBS News.

“You don’t know what we went through, it’s something I don’t like to think about, I never wish my children or grandchildren to go through that.” 

Hanale Griffith with bishop Leo Scharmach's book about the prison camp.
Source: Stefan Armbruster SBS

This month marks 75 years since the Japanese military set-up their only civilian prisoner-of-war camp in the South Pacific to hold Europeans, Australians and mixed-race children.

Three-hundred people of 17 different nationalities, including mixed heritage descendants from the German colonial time in New Guinea, were held in the dense jungle valley of Ramale, and their story is largely forgotten.

Ramale was liberated by Australian troops in 1945 but the internees were lucky to survive the Second World War at all.

Ramale civilian prisoner-of-war camp in New Guinea in 1945.
Source: Australian War Memorial

Lenny Enkera was just seven years old when the Japanese landed in Rabaul in 1942.

“I was there at the landing and it was everybody for themselves. The Australians were running away, we went to the beach and there were lots of Japanese ships - luckily they didn’t fire a shot,” said the 84-year-old, who now lives in Brisbane. 

“They landed and asked where the Australians were and then hung up a Japanese flag.” 

They landed and asked where the Australians were and then hung up a Japanese flag.

- Lenny Enkera, Survivor

One-hundred-thousand Japanese soldiers occupied the township of Rabaul.

With the Allied counter-offensive in June 1944, the aerial bombing began and the Vunapope Catholic mission where the Japanese had allowed the children, priests and nuns to remain was destroyed.

“We cried. At night we would run into the trenches, it was a constant fear, and the fighter planes would come very low and their machine guns, and then you’d hear the bombers coming,” Ms Griffith said. 

Former Ramale internee Lenny Enkera now lives in Brisbane.
Source: Stefan Armbruster SBS

Captured civilians from across New Guinea and the Solomon Islands were then imprisoned by the Japanese away from Rabaul, in Ramale. 

The 158 internees came from Germany, Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, France, Italy, Ireland, Poland, Czech, Sweden, America, Canada, Britain and Australia.

By this stage of the war, Rabaul was cut off and no ships could get in or out. 

Life was hard. With little food, the prisoners survived on a local plant called "pigweed" and what they could grow in the gardens, but they had no meat.

For 16 months they were guarded by Japanese soldiers, the children largely shielded from witnessing abuses committed by the guards.

“We were so young, I don’t know,” Ms Griffith said. 

War criminals Sgt Torazo Tagai and Sgt-Major Yoshihiko Titada who were convicted of torturing nuns at Ramale including sister Mektil and sister Cecilia.
Source: Australian War Memorial

Christine Winter, a Flinders University historian specialising in the German history of the Pacific, said for the Japanese “it was a unique camp because they tried to ship out the prisoners of war and civilians to free up the armed forces”. 

“When it comes to Papua New Guinea, Kokoda or other military campaigns are considered far higher, and the stories of civilians have been pushed into the background.

“Just before the Japanese occupied New Guinea, there was a desperate scramble to get out white women and children, it was an epic evacuation but people of colour were left behind, that means the Chinese, Malay and the children of mixed heritage. 

“It is an important part of Australian history to understand, the legacies of colonialism reached into the war, this was war on Australian territory, occupation of Australian territory, and Australia abandoned its own people.”

'This was war on Australian territory, occupation of Australian territory, and Australia abandoned its own people.'

- Christine Winter, Historian

Leader of the prisoners in Ramale was Polish-born bishop Leo Scharmach, who fought with the Germans in the First World War. 

“He was a very brave man, that's all I can say. At one stage they were going to take all the Australian nuns and he said ‘before you take them, you cut my neck off first’,” Mr Enkera said. 

“[The Japanese] respected him, the nuns and priests were German, if Australian then maybe … ” he said, making a sign of his throat being cut.

“But all of us were German.”

Another legendary story of bishop Scharmach claims he told the Japanese he was German Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s representative in New Guinea and they had to respect his status and those under his care.

Polish bishop Leo Scharmach at the Ramale PoW camp in New Guinea.
Source: Australian War Memorial

After the war, four Japanese soldiers guarding Ramale were tried by Australia for war crimes.

One was sentenced to death, reduced to 30 years in prison, for torturing an Australian priest. Two were jailed for 10 years for torturing two New Guinea-born nuns and the other was acquitted. 

“We hear a lot about atrocities by the Japanese, and they surely happened, but at the same time the Japanese occupied New Guinea and wanted to stay there for good,” historian Ms Winter said. 

“So they were actually trying to win a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign and be kind to New Guineans, but sometimes not, it is a very difficult history.”

The Japanese had planned to kill all potential witnesses at Ramale but they left it too late.

“We found out the day they dropped the [atomic] bomb they’d planned to put us all in a trench and blow us all up, but we were lucky, the war was over,” Mr Enkera said.

They were freed just in time by Australian forces. 

“Spies told us the Australians were coming, then we heard whistling, guns were going, we all ran, and people were screaming ‘the war is over'," Ms Griffith said. 

“We were all so happy and the Japanese were all running away.” 

“And if it wasn’t for the bishop and the nuns, we wouldn’t be alive today, and I thank them and love them for that.”

Published 16 June 2019 at 8:44am, updated 18 June 2019 at 5:12pm
By Stefan Armbruster