It was World War II, and Jan O’Herne, a Dutch prisoner interned by the Japanese, remembered a “large, repulsive, fat, baldheaded” Japanese officer approaching her and unsheathing his sword.
“He stood right over me now, pointing the sword at my body,” she wrote in a memoir, “Fifty Years of Silence” (1994).
“He threw me on the bed and tore at my clothes, ripping them off,” she wrote. “I lay there naked on the bed as he ran his sword slowly up and down, over my body.” Eventually, she continued, “he threw himself on top of me, pinning me down under his heavy body.”
He proceeded to rape her, repeatedly, until the early hours of the morning.
It was a ritual of soul-crushing servitude that would continue for three months, day and night, with different Japanese officers, until Ms. O’Herne, then 21, was released back to the Japanese prison camp from which she had been taken.
She was warned that if she spoke at all of her experience, she and her family would be killed. For a half-century she stayed silent.
Ms. O’Herne, who died on Aug. 19 in Australia at 96 (her married name was Ruff-O’Herne), was among as many as 200,000 women in Japanese-occupied territory who were forced into sex slavery during the war. Most of them were Korean. Ms. O’Herne was one of the few Europeans.
In 1992, she became the first white European woman to step forward and publicly describe the rapes, beatings and abuse at the hands of the Japanese, according to the British newspaper The Telegraph. She spent the rest of her life seeking justice for the so-called comfort women — a term she rejected as appallingly euphemistic. There was nothing comforting about their situation, she said. As she put it bluntly, “We were war rape victims, enslaved and conscripted by the Japanese Imperial Army.”
Ms. Ruff-O’Herne was inspired to speak out after she saw three Korean women who had been rape victims tell the world on television, apparently for the first time, of their experiences as “comfort women.”
“Japan wouldn’t listen to the Korean women,” she recalled later. “But when European women come forward and say, ‘Wait a minute, you didn’t only do that to Asian women, you did that to European women, to Dutch girls, too,’ I knew they would sit up and listen — and this is what happened.”
Jeanne Alida O’Herne was born in Java, in the Dutch East Indies, on Jan. 18, 1923, to Celestin and Josephine O’Herne. Her father, an engineer, owned a sugar plantation; her mother raised their five children with the help of a household staff.
“I had the most wonderful childhood anyone could imagine,” Ms. Ruff-O’Herne wrote. The family was Roman Catholic, and Jeanne, known as Jan, was determined to become a nun.
She was 19 when Japan invaded Java in March 1942. She and her mother and two younger sisters were interned as enemy noncombatants at the Ambarawa prison camp in central Java and spent the next three and a half years in captivity.
CreditChip Somodevilla/Getty Images
In February 1944, Japanese officers lined up all the women from 17 to 21 years old and took 10 of them — all of them virgins, including Ms. O’Herne — to a brothel in the port city of Semarang. They were raped repeatedly that night and for the next three months.
Ms. O’Herne fought back and tried to make herself unattractive by cutting off her hair. But this only intrigued her captors and had the opposite effect.
Despite the warning that she would be killed if she spoke about her experience, Ms. O’Herne did tell her mother — who, she recalled, was so devastated that she could not discuss it. Still wanting to be a nun, she told a priest as well. “My dear child,” he told her, “under the circumstances, I think it is better that you do not become a nun.” She was shattered.
She also told her future husband, Tom Ruff, a British soldier, before they were married in 1946. He was an understanding man, she wrote, but she could not fully discuss what had happened, even with him, and she was never able to enjoy sex.
That frustration was just one of the lasting effects of her trauma. She hated flowers because the Japanese had stripped the women of their names and called them by the names of flowers. Beds looked monstrous to her. “Going to bed would arouse in me a feeling of apprehension,” she wrote. When it got dark at night, she continued, “this fear comes over me again, because getting dark meant being raped over and over again.”
Her fear extended to doctors, because the doctor who had come to the brothel to “examine” her for venereal disease would rape her before every examination while other men watched.
“Each time he raped me during the daytime,” she wrote, “as if it were a part of the process.”
Ms. Ruff-O’Herne and her husband settled in Adelaide, Australia, in 1960, and she became a teacher in Catholic primary schools there. They tried for years to have children, she said, but those attempts ended in miscarriages because of the internal damage she had suffered from multiple rapes. She eventually underwent surgery and gave birth to two daughters, Eileen and Carol.
Her daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren survive her. Her husband died in 1995.
Ms. Ruff-O’Herne wanted to speak out on behalf of the “comfort women” after seeing the Korean rape victims on television in 1992. But she had still not revealed her secret to her children or close friends.
“How can you tell your daughters, you know?” she said later. “I mean, the shame, the shame was still so great. I knew I had to tell them, but I couldn’t tell them face to face.”
Instead, she wrote down her story in a notebook and handed it to her daughter Carol as Carol was boarding an airplane. Carol said later that she had sobbed for the entire flight as she absorbed her mother’s experience. The story became Ms. Ruff-O’Herne’s memoir.
After that, Ms. Ruff-O’Herne began testifying in public, starting with an appearance in Tokyo at a hearing on Japanese war crimes. She testified in 2007 before the United States Congress.
The House passed a resolution in 2007 calling on Japan to acknowledge and apologize for the “coercion of young women into sexual slavery” in the 1930s and ’40s. The “comfort women” issue quickly became an issue of women’s rights and human rights, and Ms. Ruff-O’Herne dedicated the rest of her life to speaking up for women in wartime.
But her appeals for an official apology from Japan, and for compensation, were never fully addressed to her satisfaction.
“The apology will never come for me,” she told the newspaper The Australian Advertiser last year. “I’m too old.”
Her death was announced in a statement by the South Australian attorney general, Vickie Chapman. No cause was given.
In her later years Ms. Ruff-O’Herne, who became an Australian citizen, received numerous awards, including an Order of Australia in 2002 and a Centenary Medal from Prime Minister John Howard for her contribution to Australian society in 2004. She was also named a Dame Commander of the Order of Saint Sylvester, the second highest papal honor, by Pope John Paul II.
She said she was frequently asked why it took so long for the world to recognize the horrors she had endured.
“Perhaps the answer is that these violations were carried out against women,” she wrote. “We have all heard it said: This is what happens to women during war. Rape is part of war, as if war makes it right.”