Wiltscheck chronicles life of martyred nun

NEW ULM – A retired 3M electrical engineer described his book about the life and death of a Freeport farm girl who became a missionary nun before dying a martyr’s death on a Japanese warship off the coast of New Guinea in World War II.

Speaking Thursday at the New Ulm Public Library, Gary Wiltscheck said he learned bits and pieces of the life story of Sister Adelaide Koetter several years ago while researching his wife’s family in the Freeport area, which is located in Stearns County, between Melrose and Albany.

“It’s an inspiring yet tragic story,” Wiltscheck said. “Only a few people ever knew about her. Even her parents went to their graves not knowing the whole story of the end of her life.”

Wiltscheck said several of Koetter’s sisters, a first cousin and aunt, were Benedictine Sisters, but she joined the Holy Ghost convent near Chicago. She served in Meridian, Miss., for three years before being sent to New Guinea in 1937.

Koetter took a train to Vancouver before boarding the RMS Niagara, a Canadian Australasian line ship that took her to Honolulu, Fiji, Sydney, Australia and Papua, New Guinea. She served at a school, church and hospital on an island in the Bismarck Sea, 13 miles off the mainland.

“Imagine what life was like, working as a nurse and teacher without training in a place full of venomous snakes and many diseases,” Wiltscheck said. “Her letters home, which took three months to arrive, told of her love of working with children, doing things like clearing underbrush off railroad tracks, and searching for souls on bush-covered foot paths. On one trip, her shoe broke, she cut her foot, and used iodine to treat it.”

He said New Guinea natives feared earthquakes, often searched the skies for Japanese warplanes and found snakes in the chicken house.

“With a grandstand view of Japanese military operations including a huge Navy build-up off New Guinea in 1942, the Japanese perceived missionaries as spies and decided they must go,” Wiltscheck said.

In January 1943, 1st Lt. James A. McMurria, a B-24D Liberator pilot with the 90th Bombardment Group, 321st Bombardment Squadron, became lost with nine other crew members over the island of Wewak, ironically the same island where Koetter worked.

Eight of the B-24 crew survived the plane being shot down at sea by the Japanese. Four badly hurt crewmen rode a life raft until it deflated on a coral reef, just off an island near New Guinea.

A message detailing the crew’s need for medical supplies was carried by a native to Koetter before she boarded a Japanese escort ship.

“The missionaries were forced to sign affidavits stating they were spies,” Wiltscheck said. “The Japanese showed no respect for the missionaries. They built a gallows on the ship, stripped the missionaries, and executed them by hanging and shooting them one at a time.”

Aided by friendly natives, McMurria and his crew were fed, sheltered before they continued towards a military base in a hand-made raft, only to be betrayed by a native and captured by a Japanese Army patrol while sleeping on a beach, Wiltscheck said.

“The crew was treated poorly, suffered from starvation, malaria, scurvy, beri beri and open sores before ironically arriving as prisoners of war in the same missionary school where Koetter earlier served,” Wiltscheck said. “Three of the crew were shot one night by the Japanese. The other five rode a Japanese warship to mainland Japan. McMurria later wrote a book about it, “Fight for Survival.”

Wiltscheck said the Vatican sent a priest to New Guinea in 1964 to find out what happened to the 38 lost missionaries.

Koetter’s parents died in 1968. The family didn’t learn many details Koetter’s last days until 1980 when her nephew, Jim Dresbach of Detroit, had a chance encounter with a visiting New Guinea missionary who spoke of her, prompting Dresbach to do research.

Wiltscheck said McMurria’s book, Koetter’s letters home and the website PacificWrecks.org greatly aided his research. A grotto dedicated to Koetter’s memory was built in the Freeport Cemetery.

(Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at fbusch@nujournal.com).

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