During World War II the courage of one missionary enabled him to defy both the Australian and the Japanese authorities so that he could continue to serve the people of New Guinea. But ultimately he paid the supreme sacrifice.
Adolph Wagner was born in 1912 in New Guinea, the son of the German Lutheran missionary Leonhard Wagner, who served at Wareo in the Finschhafen district for 32 years. Adolph, his brother and two sisters grew up with local children as their playmates. Consequently, they were fluent in the local language. When 12-year-old Adolph left Wareo to further his education, the New Guineans implored him to come back one day as a missionary. He replied, ‘Yes, if God gives me grace’.
Adolph went to Germany to undertake his secondary education and then to pursue teaching and theological studies at Neuendettelsau. He graduated in 1937 and returned to New Guinea at the beginning of 1938, filled with joy to serve on the mission field.
He was stationed at the Teachers Training School at Heldsbach, near Finschhafen. Because he knew the local language from childhood, he was put in charge, so that the head could go on a well-earned furlough. The next four years were difficult, as he had to face numerous problems with both students and teachers. But he stood firm for what he knew was right, and, as things eventually improved, he gained their respect.
But more far-reaching trouble was to come. In December 1941 Japan declared war and began its rapid invasion of South-East Asia. Adolph’s wife and child were evacuated to Australia, along with other missionary wives and children. The German missionaries had already been interned in Australia the previous year.
He realised that … the fledgling church would be orphaned once all of the European mission staff had gone
In mid-January 1942 Japanese planes flew overhead on their way to bomb Lae. The Australian authorities then began removing all expatriates from the Finschhafen area. But Wagner decided to keep the school going. He realised that, as there were no ordained indigenous pastors yet, the fledgling church would be orphaned once all of the European mission staff had gone. So he prepared teachers and evangelists to administer the sacraments.
In mid-February he received word in the middle of the night that Australian soldiers were coming to evacuate him. He was determined to stay and to minister to the people, so he quickly gathered some goods, saddled a horse, farewelled his students and fled into the night. He rode to the Wareo district where he had grown up and there took refuge in a cave which the locals thought was home to evil spirits. He was thus able to evade detection, even from the locals.
After a few weeks, when it was obvious that the Australians had left, he returned to Heldsbach and resumed teaching at the school. But he was also needed to administer the sacraments in the local congregations.
Accompanied by some helpers, he embarked on a journey at the beginning of September which would take him to all regions of the Huon Peninsula over seven weeks. The people received him with gratitude and love. His days were filled with services, counselling, admonitions and giving of comfort. In his diary he records that he examined 120 schools, baptised about 1800 persons, confirmed 250 children, and gave communion to about 1000 people.
In December the Japanese occupied Finschhafen and the Australians began conducting aerial bombing in the region. It was no longer safe to stay at Heldsbach. Together with the small number of students remaining with him, Wagner moved into the mountains, to the village of Zageheme. From there he continued teaching and conducting visits to congregations over the next months.
In September 1943 the Allies began to retake mainland New Guinea, causing the Japanese soldiers to retreat. As they fled through the forests, the Japanese pillaged villages for food and forced the men to act as carriers. When Wagner heard of the destruction and atrocities being committed on the people, he confronted a Japanese officer. He was arrested and, over the next two months, was forced to act as an interpreter to engage carriers.
Because he defended the New Guineans whenever soldiers mistreated them, he was hated by the Japanese. Finally, in December, he was murdered by them as he walked with a group of soldiers along a bush track. His faithful companion, Gahazia, escaped to tell the tale.
Why had Adolph Wagner stayed in New Guinea? Adolph saw his life as dedicated to bringing the gospel to the people of New Guinea. He was not prepared to abandon his fellow Christians, but regarded it as his duty to remain with them. His fearlessness towards the Japanese demonstrated the depth of his love for his people. As he wrote in his diary, ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear’ (1 John 4:18).
This is Lyall Kupke’s final column for The Lutheran as LCA Archivist. We thank him for the lively way in which he has brought history to life in this column; we pray God’s blessing on his retirement and we look forward to occasional Stepping Stones stories from Lyall in the years ahead.