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

Section on Capt. Harl Pease from AND

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 developments.

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.

The 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 B-25s.

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 AND

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 Captain Boeing."

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.