Fr. George Lepping, SM
Parish Priest, Nissan Island, 1976-1989
POW, Rabaul, 1942-1945
Account based on Susan Conner’s conversations with Frs. George
Lepping, SM and Tim Sugrue, SM, 24 Feb. 2003
and on article in Newsletter of Marist Society: Atlanta Province:
Summer 2001; Marist Society, Inc. 4408 Eighth Street, N.E. Washington,
D.C. 20017-2298 www.maristsociety.org/news:
Section on Capt. Harl Pease from
The same man who passionately states that "War is hell, really
hell, when you’re in it," bears no ill will against the men who
held him prisoner in the South Pacific for 3 ˝ years during World War
II. Fr. George Lepping, S.M. served as a missionary in the Solomon
Islands for 51 years before retiring to the Marist Center in
Washington, DC. where he remains active, writing about his earlier
years and helping with repair work Father Tim Sugrue never lived on Nissan, but he visited as fundraiser
for the Solomon missions. He traveled throughout the Melanesian
islands, closely following their complex social and political
The remote and primitive Pacific Island missions of Melanesia were entrusted to the
Marist Order by the Vatican in 1836. In 1938, Fr. Lepping, was ordained by
the Order and immediately assigned to St. Teresa’s, a
mission of 500 people in Buka, Bougainville. His next assignment
was to the Shortland Islands, south of Bougainville. However the
natural serenity of the islands was soon shattered by the outbreak of
World War II.
Fr. Lepping and fellow Marist Fr. Maurice Boch were taken prisoner
by the Japanese on April 30, 1942. For five months, they remained in
the Shortlands under house arrest. They were then shipped to Japanese headquarters in Poperang and
questioned before being moved 200 miles away, to a prison camp in
Rabaul, New Britain. There, unbeknownst to Allied strategists, some
500 missionaries were hunkered during the relentless bombing raids
conducted from Nissan Island. The Japanese had burrowed a warren of
tunnels through Rabaul and its environs, and the religious found
daytime refuge in them for 2 ˝ years. Many of Fr. Lepping's comrades
were killed and he was facing death himself when they were liberated
at the end of the war.
They were to have been taken to Japan. However the Allied
strategy of isolating and debilitating Rabaul made travel impossible.
Of course it also led to numerous privations as supplies were cut off. Conditions were poor and the priests were not
allowed to celebrate Mass. On October 8, 1942, a group of six American
and Australian prisoners, including Capt. Harl
Pease whose story follows, were taken away, ostensibly to build an
airstrip. Fr. Lepping says, "The Japanese killed them instead and
said to me, ‘You go tomorrow.’" That night, American B-17s
bombed the camp, wounding the guard who made the threat.
Fortunately, his replacement didn’t know that Fr. Lepping was marked.
The Marist Sisters who were in the camp were
well-treated after a group of Japanese women entertainers were
stranded at the camp and insisted that the conditions be improved.
prisoners were transferred after six months. "We were taken away
in a truck and thought we were going to be killed," says Fr.
Lepping. Instead, he and his colleagues were brought to Kokopo, where a large Sacred
Heart Mission had been converted into a prison camp.
Some 400 religious, 50 orphans and 25 seminarians lived at the
camp. Fr. Lepping taught English and Christian Doctrine at the
seminary and the priests were able to quietly celebrate a total of 30
Masses a day. "The Brothers were clever," says Fr. Lepping, "They had
buried sacramental wine in several spots around the grounds, so we
never ran out." Fr. Lepping describes theatrical
productions and the potent cognac one Brother distilled from bananas.
He liberated a mattress from his captors and carved himself a pair of
wooden shoes after "everything else fell apart."
The tempo of their days was dictated by the Allied bombing raids. American
B-25 bombers made daily runs over the Mission, so the prisoners lived
in dugout caves. "We came out in the afternoons, when the pilots went
back for their meal." The dietary staple was boiled cassava
roots. "We were allowed to go to the cemetery at the Mission in
the evening and there was a grotto en route," he says. "I always felt
that the Blessed Mother was watching over us."
At one point, American destroyers fired phosphorescent
shells that reminded Fr. Lepping of movies he had seen. He says that
the Japanese marked all the unexploded shells, but no one wanted to
move them to a safe spot. Fr. Lepping and the seminarians he mobilized
carted the shells to a ravine, which was later bombed by the
As the war drew to an end, the Japanese planned to detonate
explosives to seal the prisoners into the tunnels. The date had been
set for August 22. Fortunately, the war was over by then and Fr. Lepping’s group was freed by the Australians.
After the war, Fr. Lepping volunteered to work in occupied Japan,
but he returned instead to Bougainville, where he served in local
parishes until his retirement at the end of 1989.
Parish Priest on Nissan Island
In 1976, he arrived on Nissan to spend 13 years as Parish priest.
By then, there was nothing left of the military except the strip which
accommodated a fair size aircraft. He mentioned something that had
been turned on its side and used for an aerodrome. He did not mention
the abandoned ammunition strewn about that claimed so many limbs,
according to later accounts.
Father Lepping liked the islanders. They were good workers, good
students, good religious. The Marists had the two missions - Sigon and
Tongol. The East Point Chapel was where the Tongol priest
would travel up to say Mass. The school was about a mile south of the
airstrip. There are now native priests in the area.
He is not aware of the Australian plantation managers mistreating
the islanders as the British had. The mission took over running the
plantations after the war and gradually turned them over to the
natives. Fr. Lepping ("a bit of a socialist") helped them
establish stores and negotiate with ships for sale of products. Copra
was the main main export both before and after the war. That is what
the dryers on the map are for. The coconut is dried in its skin in
huge dryers for processing into soap, etc. Lever Brothers, which owns
Banika Island, is
traditionally one of the main purchasers. The topsoil is
recovering from the indignities on the Seabee bulldozers. The
infamous island pigs and fish are also exported.
Captain Harl Pease
On August 7, 1942, Capt. Harl Pease’s B-17 Flying Fortress failed
to return from a tumultuous battle over New Britain Island. For years
it was suspected that Captain Pease and his crew perished with their
aircraft. In the mid 1980’s, it was discovered by John Mitchell,
while visiting the Air Museum in Papua, New Guinea, that two Air Force
officers had been shot down on August 7th and taken
prisoner on the island of New Britain near Rabaul.
The final piece of the puzzle was provided by a Catholic priest, Father
George Lepping, who was interned at a Japanese prison camp near
Rabaul in September, 1942. He found Captain Pease there along with
three other American fliers. Everyone respected him, Father Lepping
stated, including some of the Japanese guards. Captain Pease was a
natural born leader without trying to be one. The Japanese looked up
to Captain Pease because they were in awe of the Boeing B-17 Flying
Fortress and to have the captain of a "Boeing" as the
Japanese called them. The younger Japanese guards would ask Captain
Harl Pease in broken English as "You, you ah, Captain
Boeing?", and Harl would stand straight and say, "Me, me
Sadly, Father Lepping confirmed that on October 8, 1942, the 26
year old Captain Pease from Plymouth, New Hampshire and three other
Americans and two Australians were given picks and shovels and taken
into the jungle by their Japanese captors to dig their own graves. The
six unarmed prisoners were then subsequently executed by the sword.
They are buried somewhere in the humid jungle near Rabaul on the
island of New Britain. On December 2, 1942, the parents of MIA Captain
Harl Pease, on behalf of their son, received the Congressional Medal
of Honor from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Pease Air Force Base
was dedicated to Captain Harl Pease on September 7, 1957.