Death on the "Dorish Maru"

Bischof Franziskus Wolf

Bishop Francis Wolf SVD,
Vicar Apostolic of Eastern New Guinea

On February 1944, as World War II was coming towards its conclusion in the Pacific arena, sixty men women and children, including Bishop Wolf SVD, Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters and Divine Word Missionaries were killed when the Japanese ship they were traveling on was strafed by an American aircraft. A survivor, Father John Tschauder, SVD, wrote in his diary what happened on that day when the "Dorish Maru" set-out from Hansa Bay on the north coast of New Guinea. Taken from his diary, the following eye-witness account tells a remarkable story:

IT WAS DARK when the "Dorish Maru" put to sea. The ship had scarcely moved out of Hansa Bay, however, when she slowed down and went in close to the shore. The Japanese did not tell us the reason, but we knew. The air was not clear.

It was an hour or more before the ship resumed its course. We noticed with great satisfaction and relief that she was going fast. Tomorrow, about 7 o’clock, we reckoned, we could be in the protection of Kairiru Island.

Down near the bridge it was quiet. I was there with Bishop Wolf and as couple of other confreres. We scarcely said a word.

I watched the moon. It was nearly half-moon and so dangerously clear. In vain I searched for a dark cloud which would mercifully obscure it. I would not have minded another six hours’ tropical downpour. But there was no such hope. Only veils of thin clouds floated peacefully in the sky, with the moon casting a hazy light through them, clearly outlining the bridge and superstructure of the "Dorish Maru". There were no rain clouds in sight. Nothing but these flimsy wisps of clouds! I was very disappointed.

Man is like this. Disappointed in one hope, he casts around for another. So I figured out about what time the peaceful wanderer in the sky would go down yonder behind New Guinea’s mountains. There was no hope there, either.

Nothing could be seen of the promised escort, although they had talked of 30 planes. Once, however, I thought I saw a plane flying with the boat, and I felt greatly relieved. But what I had taken for navigating lights turned out to be two twinkling stars. No help could be expected from those who had promised us every help and to do their utmost to "protect" us. No mercy could be hoped for from a patrolling plane once it had spied its victim. I said the Rosary. Five times the beads glided through my fingers. My ever-recurring prayer was: "Good Lord, please, let there be no attack on the boat; no bombs on her that carries so precious a cargo." I turned to the Little Flower, the patron saint of all missionaries. I remembered how she had once saved a group of China missionaries from certain death in a watery grave. I have never been a fervent devotee of hers, I regret to say, but this did not embarrass me just then when I found myself in so terrible a danger. I knew that Saint Therese would help even those who could not number themselves among her special devotees. Kindness always seems greatest when one least expects it. Moreover, the Little Flower did not make any conditions when she promised her help for the missionaries.

Midnight! The sea and sky were peaceful and quiet. For moments my thoughts were carried away from the present; my anxieties lulled by the rhythmic throbbing of the engine and the soft, soughing sea, as the boat ploughed its way along.

Deep in my heart there dwelled but one hope; that the "Dorish Maru" would make Kairiru before daybreak. From the depth of my heart there rose but one prayer: Lord, save us! Every beat of my heart throbbed out but one winged wish: to make our boat go ever faster.

Then it happened. All of a sudden the siren screamed. Gone were the peace and the calm which had prevailed until a moment ago! A great commotion ensued. "What is it? Is it an air-raid?" Quickly the instruction came: "Lie down!"

The soldiers were ready for action. With rifles pointed skywards, they stood densely packed on the foredeck. Their response to the call of the siren was that of a soldier. They stood by their guns. "Be ready for action!" it meant for them. "Be ready for death!" it mean for us. We lay down. I wished to know what the boat’s chances were. Still we heard and saw nothing of any intruder. A good while passed whilst we lay on the deck in odd and awkward positions, full of apprehensions. I thought I had discovered an ideal place, at least as far as concerned my head, which, with much consideration I had stuck between the buttresses of the bulwarks. If only my head, the most precious part of my body, were safe, I cared not for the other parts which, inwardly, I had already given up!

Then it came! Suddenly the plane was over the boat. I can still hear the order yelled thorough a megaphone from the bridge, harsh and cruel; "Fire!" The ship almost reared out of the water when a bomb crashed down right near the bow. The cannon bellowed, the machine-guns spattered a hail of bullets and the rifles cracked at the monster, which almost flattened us to the deck as it swooped overhead and away.

That was the first round of the duel. I cast a quick glance through the scupper at the plane as it pulled out from its run over the "Dorish Maru". It was a twin-engined craft. For the time being my rosaries were forgotten. It was not all good wishes I sent after the plane. That bomb! Hadn’t it been near enough! Where would we have been had it struck home squarely on the bow?

But the fight wasn’t over yet. The Japanese knew the story. The enemy would come back for another run over the victim, which frantically zig-zagged at full speed through the sea. And the plane did come back!

About ten minutes had elapsed when the same order came again: "Fire!" Again the cannon bellowed, the machine-guns spattered, and the rifles rattled. Again the deafening detonation. This time the bomb exploded in the sea on the portside, amidships. That one was very close, I thought, as fragments of metal crashed against the hull, and a very big one struck the bulwarks precisely where I had stuck my head between the buttresses. The terrific blow against my head made myriads of stars dance before my eyes. The water surged and splashed on board. That was the second round. My thought was: "Wish it would never come back!"

Yet, it did come back. It took longer though. I saw the plane flying back towards the coast and then turning in for the third attack. Over 10 minutes elapsed: then the same command rasped out from the bridge. Again, cannon, machine-gun and rifle went into furious action. Again, a bomb (or was it two?) crashed down and missed the "Dorish Maru". The plane stormed over at almost mast-top height – we sensed the pressure of its wings. But it was the last flight; the cannon fired one single shot after it, and that struck home. There was great excitement and triumphant shouts from the Japanese, "Senso banzai!" (Long live war!)

The American plane had been hit and down it went into the sea, blazing fiercely. I did not see it myself, but others saw it.

The American, of course, did not know, and could not know of our being aboard. But, nevertheless, one of his bombs squarely on the "Dorish Maru" would have sent us all into a watery grave.

The "Dorish Maru" with her extraordinary cargo proceeded on her journey. We all were safe and sound and very much alive; nay, more alive and excited after such an adventure. The atmosphere of tense expectation had vanished. "My word, this teaches one to pray!" someone said.

Our excitement did not prevail; it soon gave way to a mood of disappointment as daybreak came nearer. The "Dorish Maru" was too slow for us. The rising sun should find us in Wewak Harbour or in the shelter of Kairiru Island.

When the plane had attacked, the boat was perhaps off the mouth of the Sepik River. The attack had delayed her and put her off her course. At daybreak we saw Turubu, and then Wewak. Kairiru was a long way off.

Our spirits drooped. We knew what was in store for us. Time dragged, and slowly the boat plodded on. The Japanese soldiers were ready; they were very quiet. I was restless, and changed my place several time.

Towards 8 am Kairiru loomed up closer, and on our left Wirui Mission of the Holy Cross greeted us. The great residence of our Regional still stood there on the mountain’s crest. Holy Cross Mission! Was it to be our Calvary! For a while we wondered where our confreres from Wewak were now. We exchanged our opinions concerning their whereabouts. The last thing I noticed was another ship near Kairiru burning fiercely. Then I saw, with terror gripping me, 12 planes heading for our little "Dorish Maru", their second victim for that day. The order came to lie down. Twelve planes against our little boat! This was the end of her and our end, too.

Again I changed my place. This time I found myself under the mast. On one side I was protected by a strong steel plate, it was as thick as my thumb, in front of me were the winches; a reasonably safe place, I thought. Four of us were huddling there under the mast and bridge.

I do not know how it happened. They say that the first plane flew over the boat without making an attack. But then the real grim thing began. Bombs rained down and shook the ship as plane after plane, in quick succession came over the unfortunate "Dorish Maru", each one releasing a hall of machine-gun bullets and shells. Thousands splashed harmlessly into the say; but all too many struck the boat and passengers. But the ack ack gun worked furiously, and the machine guns and rifles of the soldiers rattled in reply to the fire of each on-coming plane. Several crews of the ack ack gun were wiped out, but there were always others to take over. The air was filled with smoke and dust, while bullets whistled and whined.

I was in terrified. I think all of us were. Right at the beginning I felt a trickle of warm blood running down my face. I had the same feeling on my back and my legs, and something very hot stung me in my right hand. It was only then that I realized that I was hurt. I saw the blood running from a cut in the back of my hand. I prayed. There was nothing I could do but expect death. I remember that I called my mother several time. I thought of her far away. I had not heard of her for five years. Was she with me? Did she know?

Whenever a plane had made its run over the stricken boat, there was a short spell, until the next was ready to follow in. I looked straight in the face of the first ones to come over, terrible and cruel things they were as they roared over the "Dorish Maru", with their wings almost touching the masthead. Instinctively, my head went down. Then came a terrific bang right at my ear, and again I felt the same warm trickle of blood. Only afterwards, when all was over, did I realize how narrow an escape I had. A bullet had grazed the back of my head, torn away a piece of skin, and pierced a neat hole clean through the steel plate against which I had been leaning.

At my side a confrere lay. He prayed and moaned, then he asked for General Absolution. In the face of an almost certain death, I nevertheless could find the words which mean so much to a person in agony. I saw someone else with blood all over his face. "I am hurt!" he muttered from below the winch, under which he had taken shelter.

In the brief respites between the attacks, one could hear the prayers of the survivors, the fain moans of the wounded and dying, and the shrill cries of terrified children filling the air, until the next plane dived on the "Dorish Maru", silencing the prayers of many, drowning the moans of the wounded and the shrill cries of the children. It was horrible. Then it stopped. After, perhaps, a quarter of an hour of hell, the attack was broken off. The last plane came over the boat, the doors of the bomb-bay swung open but it did not release its cargo. This was fortunate, because the ack-ack gun had become hammed and was silent. A cry of immense relief arose from the survivors. We stood up: that is, those of us who could. The American planes roared away, and shortly afterwards a small formation of Japanese fighters flew over.

I was still half deaf, and my sight was dimmed by the blood in my eye. But I was alive! Alive after such an ordeal! To be alive among so many dead. To be able to stand up, to move about, amidst so many who could not, or who never would be able to move again. It looked like a miracle. Apart from the bullet graze, I had only shrapnel wounds. My coat, however, showed well over a dozen holes.

But it appeared worse that it was in reality. I felt no pain, except in the left leg. A piece of shrapnel had struck me on the shin, and so walking was neither easy nor painless. My right hand also soon swelled enormously; but it was nothing compared with what others had suffered, and were still suffering.

A confrere lay in his corner unconscious, and moaning loudly. I gave him General Absolution. I talked to him, gripping his shoulders. But no sign of any response came from him. He was wounded in his chest. There was a steady trickle of blood coming from his lungs.

A doctor, who, almost miraculously or, at least providentially, had escaped serious injury, rushed from person to person. He took a glance at a priest, called him by name, shook him, and then, apparently giving him up already, said in a tearful voice: "May God have mercy on you!"

Another priest emerged. He had suffered only light scratches from the shrapnel. We greeted each other and I said, "I fear that we have at least 50 killed." These words proved to be only too true. There were 60 of the evacuees killed outright.

But we did not stand about numb and dazed. With amazing swiftness, the survivors awoke to the situation. Soon after the attack the boat was reported on fire, both in the hatch and aft. The fire, however, was quelled immediately.

Then another more terrible report came suddenly: "The ship is sinking!" I did not know whether she really was, but preparing for an emergency, I put on my Life-belt.

A Japanese soldier, although wounded himself, with a bullet in his shin, limped towards the Sisters, using his rifle as a crutch. He showed real sympathy for the poor Sisters. Although in pain himself, he gave emergency instructions to the women.

But the stricken "Dorish Maru" was able to crawl into Wewak Harbour, though very slowly. She was still going under her own power, though only at half or quarter speed. The Japanese assured us that help would soon arrive from Wewak.

Then we saw a launch, carrying ambulance personnel, coming out, speeding to our ship’s rescue. There were helping hands everywhere. The Japanese threw bandages over to us. They were quite eager to cut off the bundle of bandages which they wore on their belts. Members of the ambulance went amongst the dying, administering injections of morphine or anti-tetanus serum – I wasn’t sure which it was, but we thought it was Morphine – to soothe the pains of those in agony, but to which some of us protested. The priests went around assisting the dying. There were not many of them, but all the wounded were given the Sacrament of Extreme Unction.

I went and looked around. Never in my life shall I forget that gruesome and ghastly picture of death. Blood was everywhere, rivulets of it running down the deck, the blood of missionaries, sisters, priests and brothers. One had pieces of another ’s brain on his head, which looked as if it had been frightfully smashed up.

But a most terrible sight met my eye on the hatch cover, where the sisters had been. Well, indeed, could one say "had been", for most of the sisters were dead or mortally wounded; 27 out of a total of 48 had been killed outright!

How I wish this ghastly picture to stand for all eternity before the eyes of all those who advocate indiscriminate bombing!

And there were many more maimed, torn and mutilated. Death has so far exacted its heaviest toll from the sisters. Both sisters superior were dead, one with her head literally severed from her body. She was identified only by the number on her stockings. Bullets had smashed her head to pieces. And yet, at the same time, it was cause for sheer wonder that in such carnage some sisters had escaped without receiving even a scratch.

One sister lived for a while, and she was heard saying, "I have had enough!" Yes, she had had enough; a chalice brimful of sufferings, both physical and spiritual.

War rolled over the Mission of New Guinea, destroying everything in its path. She was helplessly adrift, like a frail craft loosened from its moorings

Bishop Wolf also had suffered mortal wounds – a bullet had smashed his collar-bone, and torn into his lungs – but he bore his pain with heroic courage and patience. In the midst of the attack he had given General Absolution to all of us. When it was over, he handed his pectoral cross over, that it might be kissed by those in their last agony. Then, realizing his serious condition, he made arrangements for the future of the mission. Next to the Bishop lay a dead priest, a veteran of 30 years work in the mission. He lay on his face, two bullets, at least, had pierced his breast. Blood came running in rivulets from under his body.

Not far away I found a confrere who used to worry so much that in order to save the property of the mission he would pick up a rusty nail from the road and throw it into the sea, lest the Japanese make use of it. ("Zeal for Thy house hath consumed me!") He was consumed himself by repeated malaria attacks; but still he would carry on, desperately clinging to his school and pupils, in spite of all adversities from the Japanese, among whom he passed as, "Man no good-oh true!" His worries over now, he had found peace at last.

John Tschauder SVD


John Tschauder, a member of PNG Province, was well-known to conferes in Australia during the last years of his life. The naming of our Box Hill Formation House, "Dorish Maru College", was of particular significance to him. It stands as a constant reminder to us of what happened to our confreres, the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters and the other passengers on board the ship on that fateful day, sixty years ago.

More in this category: « Contact Us