Sister Bernadette's medals were presented at her funeral

Honouring a WWII codebreaker

Anita Jaensch 24 April 2019

A lifelong friendship led to the incredible story of a nun who served in one of the most secretive units of WWII.

Mick McShane was visiting a primary school friend at a Catholic nursing home last July when he first heard about fellow resident, Sister Bernadette. She had served in World War II, Mick learnt, but had never received the medals she was entitled to.

A member of Toombul-Clayfield RSL Sub Branch, Mick decided to see what he could do. Together with fellow member, George Knox, he visited Sister Bernadette. “We had a talk to her and she told us her story,” Mick said. 

Before being called to the service of the Church, Sister Bernadette had answered a different call – enlisting in the Royal Australian Air Force at just 18 years old. Pauline Barlow – as she was known before she took her vows – found herself transferred to Brisbane and assigned to Central Bureau.

Brisbane’s own Bletchley Park

The codebreakers of England’s Bletchley Park, having been the subject of many film and television series, are famous for the vital work they did in decoding German transmissions during World War II. 

Although less well known, the Central Bureau, headquartered at ‘Nyrambla’ in Brisbane, was dedicated to decoding Japanese transmissions in the Pacific. Central Bureau, was a joint US/Australian Signal Intelligence organisation established by General MacArthur in April 1942 to intercept and decrypt Japanese intelligence. When MacArthur moved his headquarters from Melbourne to Brisbane, Central Bureau came with him.

Unfortunately Sister Bernadette was reluctant to share many anecdotes with Mick and George. “She was still bound by...” Mick trails off, crossing his lips to indicate she still felt obligated to keep wartime secrets. “She just said that’s where she worked.”

Sister Bernadette with other members of Central Bureau.

But, as many documents about Central Bureau have been declassified, and its story has even been reported on in the media, we have a good idea of the sort of work she was involved with. 

The Japanese did not use conventional Morse code, instead employing a form of kana transmitted at high speed. Central Bureau’s intercept operators needed to devise a special shorthand to keep up. The transcriptions then went to cryptographers, who cracked the Japanese codes and transmitted vital intelligence to sites around the world – including Bletchley Park and Washington.

At a ceremony to commemorate the service of the men and women of Central Bureau, Derek Dalton, then Assistant Secretary for Future Capability and Security at the Australian Signals Directorate said, “Their weapons were not rifles and guns. Their weapons were their incredible talent for solving puzzles, their imagination and the sheer determination to prevail in the face of incredible technical challenges.”

Mick says the fact Sister Bernadette was assigned to Central Bureau indicated she must have been highly intelligent. 

“We are interested in how she got into that unit. We tried to track her primary and secondary education but the school she went to in Rockhampton has been amalgamated or closed so we couldn’t obtain her records,” he says. “To get into that unit though, you had to have brains.”

A lifetime of service

Seven years after the end of World War II, Pauline Barlow took her vows as a Sister of St Joseph. She worked as a teacher and principal in Catholic schools throughout Queensland until 1982, when she moved into social services and family support. 

When Mick and George met Sister Bernadette, she was 92 and able to look back on a long and productive life. Because of her age and ill health, they – together with RSL Queensland Veteran Services Officer Sharon James – moved quickly on her medals application. 

But sadly, despite their best efforts, Sister Bernadette’s medals arrived too late; she passed away on 4 December 2018, before they could be presented to her.

Toombul-Clayfield Sub Branch President Bill O’Chee spoke movingly at her funeral. On her casket, he placed her medals – a final tribute to her life of service.

Vale Sister Bernadette.

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