War comes to our Islands 1942-1943
The Synod in November 1941 gave me the status of a Probationer and appointed me to my home circuit of Pinikidu; I therefore prepared to take up this appointment. In December I went to stay at Malakuna, with my wife and child and with some newly graduated pastor-teachers, to wait for a ship. While we were at the District head station at Malakuna, we were told that Japan had entered the war on Germany's side, and the situation of everyone at Malakuna and in Rabaul was very uncertain. Japanese reconnaissance planes began flying over Rabaul.
The Rev. L.A. McArthur was our Chairman, the leader of the work of the Church in the New Guinea District. He thought of sending the New Ireland girls, who were in the Girls' School at Vunairima, back to New Ireland, and he asked what I thought about it. I agreed with him, because we did not know what the war might bring. So he sent a message to Vunairima and the single girls came to Malakuna to get on the ship with us. The ship took us to Kalili on the West Coast of New Ireland, where we landed on 17th December.
We climbed up to the Lelet Plateau, following the bush tracks, and down to the coast on the other side, arriving at Pinikidu on 21st December. The minister there, the Rev. D. Oakes, told me to stay at Pinikidu for the time being, and he went away to Kavieng; we never saw each other again, so there was no opportunity to discuss our work, and I could not ask him for the help that I needed.
The war came to Kavieng on 21st January 1942, but we who were in Central New Ireland did not know it. I was having a meeting that day with the pastor-teachers, local preachers, class leaders, church stewards, congregation representatives and the government appointed headmen of the six villages of a catechist's section; I used to have meetings like this in each catechist's section. The people went back to their villages after the meeting, and the next day a message came that Kavieng had been attacked and partly destroyed, and that the minister's house at Liga, outside the town, had been burned down.
The people passed on all kinds of messages to each other, saying that the Japanese would destroy all our villages completely, and everyone was terribly confused and very frightened. Some Australians warned us to hide our belongings in the bush, making little shelters for them, and we did so. The catechist and I sent our wives and children to the village of Konobin, back in the bush, where they stayed for a week.
During the following weeks word kept coming to us from Kavieng and spreading through the villages, that Kavieng was full of Japanese soldiers. It was said that the villages near Kavieng were in confusion because the Japanese were taking the people's belongings and their fowls and pigs. But we had not seen any Japanese yet. The managers of the nearby plantations had left their comfortable homes and all their nice belongings and were living in little huts in the bush, the poor fellows.
In February I walked up to the Libin section on Lelet Plateau and worked there for a week. Then I went on to Kono section for another week, then back to Pinatgin section for further work. But when I reached the Kadan section I could not do my work because the catechist told me that the people were hiding in the bush. They were frightened because the manager of Lamerika Plantation was angry with them for taking some pigs from his pigyards. I went on back to Pinikidu, and in the first week of March I returned to Kadan and did my work there.
In the third week of March I went out to the Tabar Islands and while I was away the Japanese came to Pinikidu. They took all the minister's fowls and ducks, and went into the mission house and took away some books and the medicines which were there. They also threw out all the small tins containing money from the sale of different books: Bibles, Theology, Homiletics, the New Testament Concordance and Old Testament Stories, which the pastors and teachers used to buy. But later the teacher and the schoolboys picked these things up again and put them back in the cupboard.
I spent the third and fourth weeks of March working in the Tabar Islands, and we held the Quarterly Meeting there on the 26th March, at Metlik village. It was a good meeting, but we were sad that the Rev. D. Oakes, the superintendent of the circuit, was not with us. While I was still at Metlik, the manager of a plantation on Tabar Island sent me a note asking me to go to him. I went to him after the meeting, and he told me that he had received a wireless message from Papua, from the Chairman, telling me to work in the Pinikidu, Kavieng and Lavongai (New Hanover) Circuits.
After this I went back to Pinikidu, and in the first week of April I worked in the Kontu section. In the second week we all came together at Mesi to hold the Quarterly Meeting, keeping to the arrangement which had been made at the previous Quarterly Meeting when Mr Oakes was present. This too was a good meeting, but we were sad because we could not see our superintendent. The Japanese had not come yet to the West Coast in this part of New Ireland.
In the third week in April I went to the Kavieng Circuit to lead their Quarterly Meeting, because they had sent me a message telling me of the date which they had arranged at their previous meeting. We met at Pangefua, on the West Coast, on the 24th April.
Then I went on to Kavieng itself, to tell the Japanese officer in charge of that district that I was a Church worker and I wished to travel around in the Kavieng and New Hanover Circuits. But he said that he could not allow me to travel around freely, because there was a war on, and perhaps the pilot of an aeroplane might see the people gathering at a church building and drop a bomb on them, and they would be killed.
While I was in Kavieng the Japanese held a big celebration there; many of the local people came to it, and they had dances and a tug-of-war. I saw Kavieng just full of Japanese soldiers, and the town and the buildings looked so different from before.
After I returned to Pinikidu I took the teacher and some of the schoolboys to the Liba section, where we held a revival service. This service, in the third week of May, was intended to strengthen the faith in the hearts of the Church members and adherents, and it was a good service. On returning to Pinikidu we found that the Japanese were holding a European, the former manager of the Burns Philp store in Kavieng, as a prisoner in the mission house. We were very sorry for this good man, who was kept a prisoner in that house for two months and then taken away to Kavieng. Then they imprisoned Mr Williams, the manager of Kimadan Plantation, in the mission house for two months, and then he too was taken to Kavieng. When Mr Williams was in prison in Kavieng he wrote to me that he needed food, so I sent him a bag of sweet potato, a pumpkin and a pineapple. On this occasion the Japanese officer who received the food gave it to him. But when he wrote to me again, and I sent him food a second time, it did not reach him, poor fellow.
We held the next Quarterly meeting at Pinikidu on the 16th June; the pastors and teachers and the congregational leaders and representatives all came, and it was a good meeting. Afterwards I went to Kavieng Circuit to lead their Quarterly Meeting at Kaut on the 30th June. I was very pleased to see the pastors and teachers and the leaders and representatives of the village congregations, and also the Church people of that section. It was just like the good times before the war, and we had a very good meeting.
I then went on by canoe to New Hanover and conducted the Quarterly Meeting for that circuit at Lungatan on 4th July. The Japanese were gradually occupying the islands near New Hanover. After the meeting I returned to Pinikidu.
I went out to the Tabar Islands by canoe for their Quarterly Meeting, which we held at Tatau on 30th July. It was a very difficult sea journey because of the currents, and we came ashore at Lamasong.
Two weeks later I received a letter from the Rev. Isimel To Puipui, the senior local minister (who was in New Britain). He advised me not to collect money at the annual Thankoffering services because of the confusion caused by the war, and because the Japanese could not be trusted. I followed his instructions, for the rest of the war time.
When I conducted the Quarterly Meeting for the Pinikidu Circuit at Konakoko on the 16th September, we could not do all the business of the meeting properly because some pastor-teachers, and many of the leaders and representatives from the congregations were absent. The Japanese had gone through all the villages and had destroyed some of the people's belongings, and they had sent many of our men away to work as labourers for the Japanese. This was the last Quarterly Meeting in these three circuits during the war, because conditions got worse and worse until the war was over. But we still preached, and held school for the young children, because the Japanese had not destroyed much of the school equipment as yet. A few pastor-teachers left the villages to which they had been appointed and went to their home villages, and others were absent from their appointments some of the time.
In the third week of January 1943 one hundred Japanese soldiers and their officer came to Pinikidu and stayed in the mission house. The day before their arrival, their officer and some soldiers came to inspect the house and the things in it. The officer demanded the key of the house from me, which I gave to him, and he then went inside the house. He unlocked a cupboard and saw the things in it, including the small tins containing the money from the sale of various books; then he closed it again, and they went away, saying that the whole company would come the next day.
That afternoon the teacher of the primary school, a pastor and the schoolboys told me about the tins of money in the house; when the Japanese had first come to Pinikidu they had thrown away the books and money, and the teachers and schoolboys had picked them up again and put them back in the cupboard. I told them to bring the money to me, which they did. The following day the whole company of a hundred soldiers arrived, and their officer looked for the money in the little tins, and he called for me and asked me about it. I told him that it was in my care. Man, how he stormed at me! He was furiously angry with me, saying that I was a thief. I did not speak, I just stood quietly before him with my body, and in my spirit I leaned upon the God of Hosts in prayer. Later I spoke a little to him, and he showed me his sword and told me to bow respectfully to him in the Japanese way, which they call kere. Then he told me that that was all. They stayed at Pinikidu for a week and then went away again. The Pinikidu people commented: 'They will not govern this country, because America and Australia will defeat them'.
I have written that we did not hold any more Quarterly Meetings, which is true; but I did not give up travelling around to all the villages to see how the work of the Church was going among the people. As I went around I preached to the people, and I baptised babies and adults; at this time the Japanese had not forbidden us to worship. I continually urged the people to stand firm in their faith in Jesus Christ, and to keep on worshipping him. I always pleaded with the pastor-teachers too, in these words: 'During these years when we have no European ministers, and we the local people are left alone to carry on the work of the Church, let us give all our strength to our work in the Church in the name of Jesus Christ. If the Japanese persecute any of us because we are faithful in our work, and because we are true in our love for Jesus, that suffering will be for the name of Jesus'. I also urged all the pastor-teachers and the members of the Church to pray earnestly and continually to God for the war and its confusion to end quickly.
Japanese soldiers steadily occupied all the villages and took the men away from their homes for all kinds of work, so that many men were absent from their villages. The Japanese took the food from the people's gardens without paying for it, and they also took the pigs and fowls without payment. As they gave the people more and more work to do, they made them work on Sundays, and the word went around more and more, 'The Japanese don't want the Church, and soon they will destroy it'. To some of us who heard it, this word was like a fire burning our bones, and it gave pain and sorrow to our minds. But we prayed without ceasing to God, and he gave our troubled minds rest, and peace replaced the trouble in our hearts, so that we found relief. Some people kept repeating that the Japanese would destroy the Church, and spreading this talk; but during 1943 things were not really bad yet.
In March of that year I took my wife Rodi Mangin to stay at Konakoko with her parents and to await the birth of our child there. Then I preached in the Kono, Mesi and Kontu sections on the West Coast, and crossed the mountains back to the East Coast and returned to Pinikidu. In May I visited the Kadan section and preached in the villages, and I baptised children and adults. This made both me and the people very happy. There was a good catechist in this section, Salatiel Masunen, the most outstanding catechist in the circuit, but an old man by then. He helped me with some good advice about the wartime confusion and about the ways of the Japanese. He told me not to remove anything from the mission house; if the Japanese wanted to take the things, let them take them. He was from Kavieng Circuit but had come to serve in the Pinikidu Circuit. He had always worked in the Kadan section, and had been there twenty-one years when he died in November 1944, when the people were living in hardship in the bush.
After my work in the Kadan section I went straight away to Kavieng Circuit to see the work of the Church in the villages and to visit the pastor-teachers. I was sick on the way, and after I climbed over the mountains to the West Coast I was very sick when I got to Namasalang village in Kavieng Circuit. I stayed there for a week and when I felt better I went back to Pinikidu, as I was not able to travel on to Kavieng town itself.
About the third week of June I received a letter from the head of the Japanese Military Police in Namatanai. I was not the only one to receive this letter, as some of the Church workers in the Namatanai Circuit also received copies. The letter asked us questions such as: Where are the Australians? Who gives you your instructions now? How many days do you teach school each week? How many Church workers are there between Karu and Kavieng? and many more such questions. Some questions seemed meant to cause trouble for us. Because I could not understand the English in which it was written, I took it to a Malay man. When he saw it he told me very strongly that I must take the letter to Namatanai, because if I did not take it to them, they would cut my throat. To tell the truth, I was rather troubled, but I was not afraid.
Well, I went to Namatanai, together with one pastor- teacher. A Chinese man who knew English acted as interpreter for the Japanese officer, translating what we said in the local language. When I came before the Officer, I spoke just one word and I handed him the letter. He read it and said, 'It is finished', and he sent us home again. Man! God is the Lord of Hosts and rules all things!
During those days, fear was growing in the hearts of the people, for they were often beaten, and they could not escape punishment if they disobeyed the Japanese. So they obeyed out of fear, and went wherever the Japanese ordered them to go and work. Their obedience was not based on true willingness, only on fear. By this time I had sent the schoolboys away from Pinikidu and back to their home villages, where they could be with their relatives.
In September I went over to Konakoko, as Rodi was due to have her baby that month, and our son Joshua Merebo was born on the 27th September 1943. I was very happy about this, and I stayed for three weeks with Rodi and our two children. Then I went back to Pinikidu, leaving them still at Konakoko. I planted up a good patch of yams to provide food for my family and myself, but after I had only been tending it for three months the Japanese claimed it, and we suffered from hunger.
In November I went back to Konakoko to fetch my wife and children, and we went to Pinikidu together. While I was in the Kono section I baptised some children there. And when Rodi and the two children were back at Pinikidu, I went around the villages of the Pinikidu Circuit baptising children and adults.
Extracts from An Offering Fit for a King with permission from Neville Threlfall