The mystery behind eight missing priests in Sabah during WWII

Patricia Hului

One of the worst things when it comes to the atrocities of war is not knowing the fate of your loved ones who went missing.

When people went missing during wartime, it became logical to presume they were dead.

However, without physical evidence, one may never know the circumstances surrounding their deaths.

When Borneo was under Japanese occupation during World War II, all European soldiers and civilians were taken as prisoners of war (POWs). These civilians included missionary priests and nuns who came to the island to spread Christianity and established schools.

In Sarawak, most of the priests and nuns were taken to the Batu Lintang POW camp. One Mill Hill priest who was the parish priest of Marudi went along with other British officers to go to Long Nawang, Kalimantan to seek refuge. There, he was executed with more than 40 people by the Japanese.

In North Borneo, however, a small group of priests and their companions went missing, their bodies never found, even after the war.

It is understood that they were killed but how? And when?

Who were the missing priests?

The oldest of the missing priests is Monsignor August Wachter, who was also the Prefect of Northern Borneo at that time.

Born in Bludenz in Austria on Dec 7, 1878, Wachter was ordained as a priest on Dec 6, 1903. He came to Borneo in September, 1905, first arriving in Kuching and serving in Mount Singai. He also founded the St Michael Catholic Church Penampang and the Congregation of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception.

Reverend Joseph Bӧhm was born on Feb 20, 1900 in the diocese of Prague. He was ordained priest at the age of 27 and immediately sent to Borneo.

Meanwhile, Reverend Joseph Theurl was born on April 24, 1907 in Innsbruck, the fifth-largest city in Austria. Just like Bohm, he was sent to Borneo after his ordination on July 8, 1934.

The fourth of the missing priests was Reverend John Unterberger. He came to Borneo two days after his ordination on Sept 21, 1907. Unterberger was also the Pro-Prefect during the absence of Monsignor Wachter.

Reverend Mark Obertegger was born on April 18, 1905 at Meran. He came to North Borneo in 1930. The sixth missing priest is Reverend Anthony Raich. He was ordained during the First World War but he only joined the Mill Hill Society in 1923. Raich left for Borneo a year later in 1924.

The seventh priest in the group was Reverend Francis Flűr. Born on Jan 29, 1906, he was ordained on July 14, 1905 and then sent to Borneo.

Little is known about the eighth member of the group except that his name was Bro. Aegidius Leiter. He was a close companion of Monsignor Wachter.

Along with these eight religious men, there were three young local men who went missing with them. They were Patrick Lee, Peter Wong and Stanislaus Sabahai.

A fragment of a Roman collar that could have belonged to one of the missing priests

According to Union Catholic Asian News, British and Dutch missioners were detained in Batu Lintang POW Camp soon after the Japanese occupied Borneo in early 1942.

The report stated, “German missioners’ movements were restricted, except for Monsignor Wachter, who was free to visit Catholic communities. When Germany surrendered, the Japanese military no longer trusted the German missioners. Detained in May 1945, they were herded from place to place until they arrived in Tenom, the North Borneo Japanese military headquarters deep in the interior of Sabah, where one priest died of malaria in June. The other missioners were last reportedly seen alive in early August in Tenom, a piece of Roman collar found on the Sapong rubber estate near Tenom led to the belief they were killed there, but their bodies were never found.”

Located on the Tenom Lama-Kemabong road, Sapong was a rubber and tobacco estate established in 1905.

During the Japanese occupation, the estate became the 37th Japanese Army Headquarters in early 1944 to avoid being targeted by the Allies forces.

Were the missing priests shot to death?

An unnamed author wrote a historical account of what happen during the Japanese invasion of North Borneo which was published in The Daily Express on Nov 8, 2014.

In an article entitled ‘Looking back: North Borneo war scars’, the author gave his part of the story on might have happened to the eight missing priests.

He stated, “I have a sad and frightening story to tell. Monsignor A. Wachter, who was the Head of the Prefecture Apostolic of North Borneo and a few other priests of German nationals were later interned by the Japanese and were brought to Tenom from Penampang after the fall of Germany in 1945.

“Monsignor Wachter and the other priests, while being interned in Tenom, tried to contact us (my two brothers, Henry Edward, Jack Harry Maurice and myself) but they were refused permission by the Japanese to see us. We only learnt after the war, they were brought to Tenom from Penampang.

“Had we known they were in Tenom, we would have done something to rescue them from the Japanese. It was indeed sad to hear that Monsignor Wachter and the other priests were believed shot and killed by the Japanese.

“After the war, while I was serving in the District Office, Tenom, I tried my level best to locate the grave or graves of the late Monsignor Wachter and the other priests but to no avail.”

A view of Tenom town.

The missing priests could not have been killed by the Japanese because they spoke German?

However, another famous theory about what happened to the eight missing priests is that they were not killed by the Japanese in the first place.

As per reported in the Union Catholic Asian News, the Austrian priests at first were not interned by the Japanese because they knew how to speak German.

During WWII, the fight was between two major groups of nations which became known as the Axis Powers and the Allied Powers. The Allied forces were the countries that fought against the Axis powers. Meanwhile, the Axis Powers is an alliance between Germany, Japan and Italy.

It was believed that the Japanese did not interned the Austrian priests due to their alliance with the German.

If it is true, why did the Japanese capture and subsequently move them from Penampang to Tenom in May 1945?

The widely reported theory is that since Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allies on May 7, 1945, the Japanese could no longer believe the German-speaking Austrian priests.

Another theory is that after the failed resistance led by Albert Kwok and his Kinabalu Guerrillas, the Japanese started to turn aggressive toward the Catholic missionaries.

Putting aside what might be the reason behind the Japanese’ change of heart toward the priests, there is one thing for sure. The eight missing priests were moved from Penampang to Tenom in May 1945.

The answer could be in ‘A Glimpse of a Mystery’

In searching for the truth behind the mystery of missing priests, the answer could lie in the book ‘A Glimpse of a Mystery’.

Written by Fr Charles Chiew in 2012, the book explored all the possibilities of what could have happened to the priests.

He believed that the shooting of the priests by the Japanese was just based on rumour and hearsay.

In the end, Chiew concluded “without hesitation submit that the eight Austrian Mill Hill Missionaries, their companions and the Japanese soldiers and officers of the Judiciary Department perished at Sapong during the Allies Airstrike sometime between July 1 and August 15, 1945 (most likely on July 3, 1945).”

According to Chiew, there was no reason for the Japanese to kill the priests and they were in fact, brought to Tenom for their safety.

Even so, the airstrike caused the building of Judiciary Department and its occupants to be completely annihilated.

How did the Allies forces find out about the location of 37th Japanese Army Headquarters?

Operation Semut was a series of reconnaissance operations carried by Australia’s Z Special Unit during WWII. By June 1945, Operation Semut 1 successfully spread its armed forces thinly in entire northern Sarawak even as far as Tenom.

On top of that, they successfully gathered intelligence regarding Japanese positions in these areas.

The Allies forces then were able to launch precisely their attacks on Japanese strongholds including the Sapong estate, dropping bombs on it without knowing that there could be civilians inside these buildings.

At the end of the day, however, the mystery behind the eight missing priests could only be answered by theories.

Was it possible they were shot by the Japanese and then their graves were annihilated during the Allies airstrike? Maybe. Or what had Chiew proposed was true in the first place that they were all well and alive until the bombing? We might never a hundred per cent sure.

In remembrance of the eight missing priests, a cenotaph was erected to commemorate them at the Church of St. Anthony, Tenom.

Here are the photos of the cenotaph taken by KajoMag in August, 2018.