When the Japanese arrived at Vunapope, the nurses and their patients were saved from massacre by the mission’s leader, Polish-born Bishop Leo Scharmach (Gerald Lepkowski). This astonishing man bluffed the Japanese into believing that he was a personal friend of Hitler and that the mission was Hitler’s property.
In the dark days that followed, Sister Berenice and Lorna found themselves facing starvation, beatings and torture. Their beliefs were constantly tested, as was their friendship. Sister Berenice idolised Bishop Scharmach: Lorna was convinced he was a collaborator. The tiny mission became a setting for betrayal, heroism and death. And all the normal rules of war were broken.
After six months, Lorna and Sister Berenice were separated. The Australian nurses were sent to Yokohama as part of a prisoner exchange. But the exchange program collapsed and the nurses found themselves trapped in war-time Japan, freezing and ravaged by disease. At the same time Sister Berenice, Bishop Scharmach and the nuns were taken to a dark, uninhabited jungle valley where they would be safe from air raids.
Sisters of War is adapted from the wartime diaries and interviews with Lorna Johnston (nee Whyte), Sister Berenice and others who survived. The story of their captivity, their friendship, their will to survive and their extraordinary courage has never been told.
It airs at 8:35pm Sunday November 14 on ABC1.