It was 1938 when Darlene Deibler set sail with her husband for life as missionaries in Papua New Guinea. I can imagine she dreamt of what any young newlywed on such a journey would dream of: Accomplishing great feats for the Lord, learning the ins and outs of a new culture, starting a family. Little did she know that she would make a return voyage as a widow and former prisoner of war just a few years later.
Even amidst terrible heartache, Darlene Deibler Rose’s story (Rose was the surname of her second husband) is an amazing testimony of God’s power and presence through some of the worst adversity this world has seen. She shared her story in Evidence Not Seen: A Woman’s Miraculous Faith in the Jungles of World War II, a biography well worth your time.
One year after her conversion as a young girl, Darlene felt God’s call to missions while listening to a missionary to Africa speak at a church in Boone, Iowa. Years later as an adult, she would feel her heart warmed in a different way interacting with another missionary speaker, Russell Deibler. The two were wed August 18, 1937. Russell had pioneered missions work in unreached parts of Papua New Guinea and nearly lost his life doing it—several times! Darlene, a gifted linguist and speaker of several languages, loved her identity as a missionary and being the first white woman natives had ever seen. Darlene was living a dream by working with a great mission team to share the love of her Savior with those who had never heard. What more could she want?
Life soon began to unravel as her team heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the radio. As inhabitants on an island in the Pacific, they soon became captives of the Japanese Imperial army. Russell along with most other men in their compound were separated from the women and loaded into trucks for transport to a prison camp across the island called Pare Pare. Seeing this, Darlene ran to pack Russell a few things in his pillowcase and before bidding him farewell. As the truck pulled away, Russell’s parting words to his wife quoted Hebrews 13:5, “Remember one thing, dear: God said that He would never leave us nor forsake us.” Little did Darlene know that those would be the last words she would ever hear from her husband. The day was March 13, 1942.
Darlene and the rest of her team were soon brought to the Benteng Tinggi internment camp, the first of various POW camps and prisons they would experience over the next three years.
Life as a Prisoner of War
Conditions at POW camps barely sustained life, and many times didn’t. Rats and flies were rampant, spreading diseases like dysentery and malaria and claiming lives due to poor conditions and a lack of basic healthcare. Food rations were small and scarcely provide energy for the manual labor POWs were forced to do on a daily basis. The Japanese officers often brutally beat people for small infractions as public examples in order to keep the peace and exert their authority. During air raids, prisoners would sit in shallow trenches, hoping and praying a bomb wouldn’t take them or their friends.
Had God forsaken Darlene? It sure felt like it, especially when she heard the news from another prisoner of her husband’s passing.
Walking by Faith
During challenging times, Darlene would recall Russell’s parting words and the admonition of their mentor, Dr. Robert Jaffray, “Lassie, whatever you do, be a good soldier for Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 2:3). Heeding Jaffray’s biblical charge, Darlene battled for the Lord and never gave up hope in Him.
Perhaps her most stretching experience came when the Japanese summoned her away to the dreaded Kempeitai prison for solitary confinement and intense interrogation. Thinking Darlene an American spy, the Japanese interrogated her every few days hoping to uncover evidence worthy of execution. Even though diseased, alone, malnourished, and extremely uncomfortable, Darlene battled for Christ.
One day guards led her out of the compound and drove her to a secret police headquarters. She was forced to sign an official government statement and ate what she gathered to be her last meal. They led her into another room where she saw her executor begin to draw his sword, and she prepared to meet her Maker.
At such time you might expect the words of Romans 8:35 to come to mind, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” (emphasis added). Instead, the Lord brought song lyrics to mind, “I’ll live for Him who died for me!” She wrote of the experience, “I felt confused by the message of the song. ‘Lord is this the deliverance—deliverance into Your presence by way of the sword? Isn’t this a strange song when I’m going to die?'” At that moment a car screeched to a halt at the front of the building, and before she knew it, she was being whisked away by other officials and returned to Kampili, her previous camp. God delivered her from death.
After surviving the war, Darlene remarried and spent most of her life doing what she loved best: frontier missions work with those not yet reached. She went into the Lord’s presence in 2004. Great Christian biographies like Darlene Deibler Rose’s affect me deeply and shouldn’t be read hastily. Instead, they should be pondered lest our souls forget God’s amazing work in the past through faithful servants.
Lessons from Darlene Deibler Rose’s life
1. Our greatest trials may be when we give the most glory to God.
Darlene’s late husband Russell is an example of this as well as her. One comfort Darlene received after hearing of Russell’s death was his impact on other prisoners. He taught the Bible regularly, cared for men deeply, and made many feel as if Christ Himself were present in the POW camp. Many shared how a Christmas service led by Russell had bolstered their wavering faith and one man reported that he came to Christ that day after hearing the message Russell delivered. Lasting fruit came from the darkest trial.
Another example from the late Russell Deibler came after a long and dangerous trek through uncharted territory to reach a new people group. Russell’s feet were in awful shape, filled with puss and covered in blood. Darlene had to repeat the process of stripping off dead tissue, applying medicine, and dressing his feet with bandages—a nauseating routine. Dr. Jaffray witnessed Russell’s plight and wrote about it in The Pioneer, a missions journal:
“This morning I looked at the bleeding feet of a missionary, his wife tending them, the blood and pus running, and I thought to myself, ‘What a nauseating sight that is!’ But, as I walked from the room, the Lord kept saying to me, ‘Oh, but to Me they are beautiful feet!’ Then I remembered – ‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of them that bringeth good tidings’ – good tidings to those men and women in New Guinea who sit in darkness and the shadow of death… Some day the last one will turn to Jesus. Then the clouds will part asunder and our Savior will be there!”
We can be tempted to think that our trials divert us from the path of God for our lives instead of as being the path for our lives. This rang true in Darlene’s war experience and for so many saints in history, but nowhere more clearly than Christ on the cross. God can and will turn our trials to gold, for us and for others.
2. The supernatural power of the Word of God is able to strengthen and sustain.
During Darlene’s war-time imprisonment, Bible verses would come to mind at the perfect time to fortify her faith. The hundreds of verses and entire books of the Bible she had memorized as a child were a fountain of blessing during life as a POW, keeping her mind sharp and spirit hopeful. Her knowledge of Scripture helped other POWs as well:
“I established a practice that I believe was responsible for maintaining the high level of compassion and cooperation that existed in our small [POW camp] community…Every night we invited everyone to remain while we read a portion of God’s Word and prayed…Throughout those very difficult years that tried our souls, God kept our barracks a calm center in the eye of the military storm that raged around us.”
3. Loving our enemies is potent spiritual warfare.
Mr. Yamaji ran the Kampili POW camp. He was a cruel man and greatly feared among POWs. Darlene had seen him mercilessly beat people for minor infractions and had painstakingly followed his quota of catching 100 flies daily in a failed attempt to curtail the camp’s growing fly population.
After hearing of the death of Darlene’s husband, Russell, Yamaji summoned Darlene to his office. Perhaps realizing she had nothing to lose, Darlene asked for permission to speak and proceeded to share the gospel with him.
“[Jesus] died for you, Mr. Yamaji, and He puts love in our hearts—even for those who are our enemies. That’s why I don’t hate you, Mr. Yamaji. Maybe God brought me to this place and this time to tell you He loves you.”
Her witness affected him so deeply that he fled to another room to cry. Strangely, from that moment on, the feared enemy felt and acted like a friend.
Sometime later, when hearing she was to be executed as a spy, he lobbied on her behalf and saved her from her executor’s sword. And in the 1980’s, decades after the war, Darlene heard that Mr. Yamaji had shared the gospel over Japanese radio. (It’s unclear in the book if he came to faith but it appears he did if he’s sharing the gospel on the radio!)
In Ephesians 6:15, the Apostle Paul calls believers to “put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace” as shoes. We wage spiritual war when we proclaim the gospel because it is the power of God unto salvation for those who believe—even our fiercest enemies.
4. God will guide His people if they seek Him.
When the Deibler’s mission team first heard of World War II escalating, they knew they had to act quickly. Should they stay or should they go? If they packed their bags and left without consulting the Lord, they might feel like cowards the rest of their lives. If they stayed without consulting the Lord, they might look like fools and even die. Dr. Jaffray’s counsel was for each couple to seek God independently for His will for them. Knowing God’s answer would give them the confidence they made the right decision. Astoundingly, the entire team felt led to stay. Three days later the group heard the ship they would have taken was torpedoed with no known survivors. That’s confirmation if I’ve ever seen it!
When facing tough decisions, we must not rely on our own (and often nonexistent) understanding as Proverbs 3:5–6 says; we must seek the face of God confident He will make our paths straight.
5. God cares for His suffering children.
There are countless ways to illustrate this truth Darlene Deibler Rose’s story. I’ll share two striking examples:
On one occasion, a Catholic priest was transferred from Pare Pare, Russell’s camp, into Darlene’s camp. She knew the priest would have information on his life and condition but felt strangely pulled away from talking to him for several days. Sometime later, a woman shared the news of Russell’s death with Darlene and told her that the priest had been given strict commands not to share any outside information and that if he did, he would be executed. This helped Darlene know that her Lord was caring for her even as she heard the news of her husband’s death.
On a different occasion while in solitary confinement, Darlene peered from the transom of her cell into the prison courtyard to see another prisoner being snuck bananas while the guard’s back was turned. Bananas sound pretty good for a woman on a diet of maggot-infested rice gruel! She prayed to the Lord, confessing her desire for bananas but conceding the impossibility of ever attaining one. Several days later through a unique turn of events, a guard opened her door and plopped 92 bananas on the ground. 92! She was overjoyed at the bananas and shamed that she doubted the Lord. Even when His children doubt, God cares for them in sometimes over-the-top ways, and sometimes gives them 92 bananas. [Read the whole banana account.]
6. We can trust in our sovereign God even when times are at their worst.
One time during an air raid, Darlene found herself hunched on a mattress in her trench when she thought of a Bible a friend lent her. She had left it in the barracks and would hate to see it destroyed, so she risked her life to save it. As she ran and entered the barracks, bombs dropped and POWs ran for their lives in every direction. Darlene didn’t return to her mattress in the trench until a while after the raid ended, and when she did, she realized a bomb had destroyed the mattress she was on and would have killed her. God gave her the desire to save the Bible in order to save her.
God’s Words in Hebrews 13:5–6 ring true:
“I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”
Like Darlene Deibler Rose, we can trust God at all times. We can pour our hearts out to Him, for God is a refuge for us (Psalm 62:8). I pray the Lord doesn’t call you to the hardships he called Darlene Deibler Rose to during World War II, but I know if He does, you will be in good hands.
Listen to a recording of Darlene Deibler Rose share her testimony: