Trapped in Paradise: Catholic Nuns in the South Pacific,1940-1943,Eileen McNerney and Maureen Habel
During World War II, four Catholic nuns from California were caught behind enemy lines in the South Pacific. Having arrived in the Solomon Islands in December 1940, they were new to missionary life, new to a culture not their own, new to the languages spoken on their island and new to navigating in the geography that surrounded them.
On December 7, 1941, a year and a day after the nuns, Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, had first arrived in the Solomon Islands, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. After that devastating air-strike, the Japanese quickly and strategically occupied many of the islands of the South Pacific. What the nuns didn’t know was that the Japanese wanted to occupy their island, Buka, and they wanted it fast! Buka, a small island just north of the large island of Bougainville, offered the Japanese a strategic site for an airfield from which to invade the rest of the South Pacific, including Australia.
When the nuns had left Wilmington, California in 1940, one of them, Sister Hedda Jaeger, a nurse, was tasked with keeping a journal that was sent back periodically to their religious community in Orange, California. In good times and bad, Sister Hedda was faithful to recording their story.
This first person account documents their journey—from their eager anticipation about their new mission, to adapting to the realities of native culture, to sheer terror as they run from the invading Japanese. Once in hiding on the larger island of Bougainville, they learn that other missionaries in the Solomons had been tortured and executed. Throughout their adventures and later ordeals, they are protected by the Marist priests, experienced missionaries who knew the lay of the land and feared for the sisters’ fate should they be captured. After many months of hiding in the jungle and with no communication with the larger world, the sisters were ultimately rescued by a United States submarine in a high risk mission on New Year’s Day, 1943. That was not the end of the story. After two days on the sub, in mid-ocean they transferred to a fast patrol craft that took them to Guadalcanal, where the fighting was still going on. From there they boarded a navy transport that took them to Auckland, New Zealand after a hair-raising cruise dodging Japanese submarines and aircraft in the Coral Sea. From New Zealand they returned to California on a troop ship.
The book tells the story of these four courageous and devoted women, the many natives they taught and nursed, and the incredible physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges they faced. After the end of the war, the four Sisters of St. Joseph returned again to serve the people of the Solomon Islands. An epilogue describes the fate of the principal missionaries, both those who survived and those who were imprisoned or died at the hands of the Japanese. The sisters’ journal, related writings, maps, and original photographs form the basis for this book, which has been transcribed and documented by co-editors Sister Eileen McNerney, CSJ and Maureen Habel.