8 November 2010
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security Section
The sinking of the Montevideo Maru in 1942 and the consequent loss of over 1000 Australian soldiers and civilians is the greatest loss of Australian lives at sea in war or peace. The concealment of the facts of the sinking by the Japanese military has led some to doubt the veracity of the accounts given of the events, and resulted in great uncertainty about who was actually onboard. This Background Note will outline the history of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru and tell the story of the search to find the truth about the sinking, and just who was on board the vessel when she went down.
The Montevideo Maru was an unmarked Japanese transport freighter which sank on 1 July 1942 while taking 1051 Australian soldiers and civilian Prisoners of War (POWs) to Hainan Island, which was then occupied by the Japanese. The Montevideo Maru was torpedoed and sunk in the South China Sea, approximately 100 km west of the Philippines’ Cape Luzon by the USS Sturgeon, a United States submarine, captained by Lieutenant Commander William Wright. The ship was torpedoed at 2.29 am and sank stern-first 11 minutes later. There were no Australian survivors. This was the biggest single loss of life in Australia’s wartime history, with up to 845 soldiers and 206 civilians believed to have been locked in the ship’s hold when it sank. This number also included the crew of the Norwegian registered MS Herstein, a cargo vessel which had been destroyed by Japanese bombers during the invasion of Rabaul. It is accepted that Lieutenant Commander Wright could not have known its holds were full of people.
Many of the Australians who died were members of Lark Force.
Garrisoned in Rabaul, on the tip of the eastern province of Papua New Guinea (PNG), Lark Force consisted of the 2/22nd Battalion AIF (Australian Imperial Force) and supporting units. It comprised 1400 Australian Army soldiers and ‘… represented Australia’s cursory first line of defence in PNG after Japan entered the war’. According to Norm Furness, a former member of Lark Force who has devoted over 50 years to the cause of gaining recognition for Lark Force:
We were poorly equipped, mainly with stuff from World War I that had been packed in grease for 20 years ... we were supposed to be a garrison force and build up the fortress to protect the base and the airfields, but the extra equipment and reinforcements never came. We had two field guns and one was cracked ... and our airforce consisted of 10 Wirraways and two Lockheed bombers - trainer planes really.
… We were supposed to defend 35km of beach with antiquated equipment. If the Japanese landing parties attracted any flak, they would just go another 500 yards up the beach … I remember looking in the bay and there were 25 Japanese ships, including two aircraft carriers.
The Australian army garrison was inadequate for the task it faced and was quickly overrun by an estimated 15 000–20 000 Japanese soldiers in January 1942. Unfortunately, the garrison was not reinforced nor was it ordered to withdraw. The difficulties of sending reinforcements by sea and maintaining the additional forces when they were there meant that the Australian Chiefs of Staff decided that reinforcements were not possible. Much of Australia’s fighting force was still focused on the war with Germany and this, plus the relentless advance of the Japanese down the Malayan Peninsula and the resultant fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942, must inevitably have drawn the attention of the Chiefs of Staff away from the situation in Rabaul.
Only hours into the invasion, the commanding officer, seeing the futility of the situation, ordered ‘every man for himself’. Approximately 400 Australians fled into the jungle, but many were subsequently recaptured and over 130 were tortured and killed. About 300 men survived a punishing trek to avoid capture and returned safely to Australia. The rest were taken prisoner and a few months later were marched from their compound, minus some officers, to a transport ship—the Montevideo Maru. Before boarding many of the prisoners were allowed to write letters to their loved ones. These were subsequently airdropped over Port Moresby. According to one witness, the departing soldiers were ‘… half-starved and ill ... with a smile and a cheery wave for those remaining, the stronger supporting the weaker, arm in arm’.
The families of those on the Montevideo Maru, unaware of the ship’s loss, continued to send letters to their loved ones in the belief they were being held as prisoners of war. It was not until after the war that families discovered the fate of those lost on the Montevideo Maru.
Some have claimed that even after the Japanese were defeated in New Guinea in 1945, the Australian authorities did little to determine what had happened to the people of Rabaul until the war ended. Norm Furness, the former Lark Force member, says he gave up asking the Government to search for the ship:
I’m not writing any more letters. I’ve written to Prime Ministers and Defence Ministers and Opposition Leaders. I’ve written to local members and look where it’s gotten me.
For many years there was speculation as to whether the Montevideo Maru actually existed. Some believed that the Japanese had actually executed all the POWs and fabricated the sinking in an attempt to avoid charges of war crimes. While it is generally accepted from the first-hand accounts of people on the wharf, that the Montevideo Maru sailed from Rabaul with Australian POWs on board in July 1942, some descendents continue to resist the official version, believing the Australians were executed in New Guinea and that the passenger list of the Montevideo Maru was ‘padded’ by the Japanese in an attempt to conceal war crimes. There is still confusion over the nominal roll, which was ‘… apparently lost from the national archives after being brought back from Japan by post-war investigators’.
The Australian War Memorial’s website Remembering 1942: The sinking of the Montevideo Maru, 1 July 1942 includes the transcript of a 2002 talk by historian Ian Hodges in which he described the loss of the ship and argued that ‘there is little evidence’ to support the theories that the ship did not exist. In fact, he says, ‘the existence of the ship is beyond doubt’. The War Memorial site also includes a copy of the 6 October 1945 report by Major H.S. Williams, the Australian officer attached to the Recovered Personnel Division in Tokyo after the end of the war. This report describes the sinking of the Montevideo Maru and also details the lack of information on POWs from Rabaul provided by the Japanese during the war. The War Memorial site also has a copy of a list of passengers believed to have left New Britain on the Montevideo Maru. This list, also dated 6 October 1945, was compiled in New Guinea after the war by two ‘recovered POWs’ then believed to be at Lae, and contained only 168 names.
Some commentators have suggested that rather than being sunk by the USS Sturgeon, ‘… the ship indeed left Rabaul on June 22  with its cargo of prisoners [but] returned empty two days later, the Japanese having executed them all’. These commentators say this alternative scenario is supported by ‘compelling evidence’—one Rabaul local said the Montevideo Maru, after steaming for nine days, should have been a long distance from the point where it was thought to have been sunk. Further, the commentators have suggested that the ‘cover-up theory’ gains further strength from the accounts of Major Williams:
Major Williams discovered that the Japanese navy had notified the Prisoner of War Information Bureau in Tokyo of the loss of the Montevideo Maru in January 1943. But the Information Bureau failed to pass on the news to Allied authorities as it was obliged to. After pressuring the Japanese for some time, Major Williams unearthed a list supposedly containing the names of those on board buried in files in Tokyo in September 1945. Cover-up theorists regard this as evidence supporting their belief the Japanese attempted to hide the true fate of the men who boarded the ship in Rabaul. In the atmosphere of retribution that existed after the war, Australian military authorities found no evidence to support a war crimes inquiry into the fate of those captured at Rabaul.
According to media reports:
Only one eyewitness account has ever emerged and then only after 60 years when the sole surviving Japanese sailor revealed heart-wrenching details of the “death cries” of trapped Australians going down with the ship while others sung Auld Lang Syne.
This eyewitness, former Japanese sailor Yoshiaki Yamaji, contradicted the post-war account of the Australian Government that all prisoners perished at sea, by revealing that he saw dozens of Australians alive in the water. Unfortunately, no evidence appears to exist which would substantiate this claim.
While World War II historian Dr John Knott, of the School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University, admits that ‘… there is a great deal of mystery surrounding all that happened in Rabaul from the time the Japanese arrived until the end of the war …’ he nevertheless supports the official history of the Montevideo Maru.
Margaret Reeson, author of A Very Long War: the Families Who Waited, has examined the transport of POWs from New Guinea and accepts that the likely scenario is that the Montevideo Maru did sink with over 1050 Australians on board:
The question of who died on the Montevideo Maru may never be answered…There were a number of lists of names compiled, some clearly contained names of men who couldn’t have been on the ship. One of them, for instance, seems to have been a list of the names of the men in the prison camp at Rabaul.
Some commentators have suggested that the discovery of the HMAS Sydney in 2008 has ‘… added to the sense of loss and abandonment felt by thousands more Australians whose loved ones disappeared without trace …’ on the Montevideo Maru in 1942 and that ‘… the families of those who died felt forgotten by their country every time HMAS Sydney was mentioned’.
According to an article in the Canberra Times, Associate Professor Mark Staniforth, a maritime archaeologist from Flinders University has said:
… $500,000 would buy a base suite of equipment, including multi-beam echo sounder, sonar sounder and magnetometer. Marine archaeologists would then be able to locate wrecks in up to 500 metres of water … (including) … the Montevideo Maru.
The article suggests that the money spent by the Government on the discovery of the HMAS Sydney off the coast of Western Australia is ‘… dead money because no infrastructure remains in Government hands … (as) the technology used to find the ship had to be imported’. According to Professor Staniforth, the Government spends only $400 000 a year to preserve Australia’s 5500 shipwrecks and none of this money is spent on infrastructure.
A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister said on 23 April 2008 that the Rudd Government, after receiving a letter from Sydney historian and Montevideo Maru campaigner Albert Speer would consider an appeal to provide funds to find the ship:
The Rudd Government understands the desire of relatives to know the resting place of their loved ones who tragically lost their lives at sea.
We will consider all applications on merit. If merit is found, a proposal will then be put forward to the Government for consideration.
Also in April 2008, former Defence Minister Kim Beazley, whose uncle was lost when the Montevideo Maru went down, said that, given the discovery of the HMAS Sydney, an effort should be made to find the Montevideo Maru:
I think it would be a very good thing, given it was Australia’s greatest sea disaster. I don’t think we have lost as many people at sea before.
According to David Mearns, the US shipwreck hunter who led the search for the HMAS Sydney and the German raider Kormoran, the 3.7 kilometre depth at the site of the Montevideo Maru would not prohibit a search: 
Such a depth is not a barrier to a search like the one we conducted for Sydney. It just ensures that the expedition will be costly and run into millions of dollars.
The Montevideo Maru Memorial Committee (MMMC) was set up in early 2009 by relatives of the men who lost their lives in the sinking. The objectives of the Committee are listed in the first edition of their newsletter as:
1. To secure national recognition of the Montevideo Maru tragedy.
2. To facilitate comfort and closure in the minds of the victims’ relatives.
3. To locate the nominal roll brought back from Japan that was deposited with Central Army Records.
4. To stimulate action to provide greater knowledge of the events that led to Montevideo Maru tragedy including the official handling of the Rabaul evacuation in January 1942.
5. To encourage government action to ensure the story of the tragedy is a significant part of Australia’s social history and to enhance knowledge in the community of the role of and sacrifices made by Australians in PNG.
The current patron of the Committee is the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth, Peter Garrett, whose grandfather, Tom Garrett, went down with the vessel.
Another body, the Montevideo Maru Foundation appears to be a recently established, as yet unincorporated body, whose aim is to help raise awareness of the loss of the Montevideo Maru as Australia’s worst maritime disaster. Its co-patrons are the Member for Fadden, Stuart Robert, and the Member for Moncrieff, Steven Ciobo.
The Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society was established to ensure national recognition of the fall of Rabaul and Australia’s greatest maritime disaster. Its president is Keith Jackson.
The following petitions on the Montevideo Maru have been presented in the Australian Parliament:
- 13 October 2003—Steven Ciobo, MP, presented two petitions to the House of Representatives, one of which was from 473 citizens calling for the House to support any investigations into the Montevideo Maru. The other petition, signed by 475 citizens, proposed a search to discover the burial places of servicemen still missing in New Guinea.
- 16 February 2004—Steven Ciobo, MP, presented a petition to the House of Representatives from 15 citizens requesting that the House support any investigation into the sinking of the Montevideo Maru.
- 21 June 2009—Steven Ciobo, MP, presented three petitions to the House of Representatives, one of which was from 913 citizens calling for the House to support any investigations into the sinking of the Montevideo Maru. The other petitions, signed by a total of 381 citizens, proposed a search to discover the burial places of servicemen still missing in New Guinea.
- 8 February 2010—Julia Irwin MP, presented a petition to the House of Representatives from 239 citizens requesting that the House support any investigation into the identity of the ship thought to be the Montevideo Maru.
On 8 April 2010, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Petitions took evidence from three members of the Montevideo Maru Foundation who submitted that a number of deaths attributed to the sinking of the Montevideo Maru had not in fact occurred then. The Montevideo Maru Foundation told the Committee that it ‘is asking for financial and technical support to identify the final resting place of several people who were understood to have been buried near Rabaul but who have been declared lost with the Montevideo Maru’.
Albert Speer, former PNG administrator and a Montevideo Maru campaigner would like the Government to consider funding a search for the ship. Mr Speer has written to the Prime Minister calling for action for ‘the sake of historical truth, certainty and peace of mind of the families’ of the victims, urging the Government to fund the search for the Montevideo Maru and recover the captain’s safe, which will presumably contain the passenger manifest:
The continuing existence of doubts still obscuring truth and causing anguish to all families of Australians who lost their lives in the Pacific War should be of concern to all Australians. It is surely the duty of the Australian government to do all in its power to remove those doubts, just as it has done in other cases no more or less deserving.
Cynthia Schmidt, a researcher for the Montevideo Maru Foundation, who directs a campaign to find missing soldiers killed in South-East Asia during World War II, has asked the Federal Government to use the technology utilised to find the HMAS Sydney to search for the Montevideo Maru.
On 1 July 2009, the 67th anniversary commemoration of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru, the Minister for Veterans Affairs, Alan Griffin MP announced some measures the Government was taking to honour the victims of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru:
“Today the Australian Ambassador to the Philippines, Mr Rod Smith, will unveil a plaque commemorating those on board the Montevideo Maru on behalf of the Papua New Guinea Volunteer Rifles Association at the Hellships Memorial, established in memory of all the ships that carried POWs,” he said.
Mr Griffin also confirmed he has approved a $7200 grant to enhance the central plinth at Subic Bay. “Later in the year, under a grant made by the Australian Government to the RSL Angeles Sub-branch in the Philippines, commemoration of the Montevideo Maru at the Hellships memorial will be further enhanced and an interpretation will be placed in a nearby museum.” The funds have been granted through the Overseas Privately-Constructed Memorial Restoration Program, which recognises the contribution that organisations around the world make to honouring Australia’s war time heritage.
One of the Australians who attended the commemoration ceremony, Andrea Williams, a member of the MMMC whose grandfather and great uncle both died on board the vessel, continued to maintain pressure on the Australian Government to do more to investigate the fate of the Montevideo Maru:
“There is a fair amount of literature on the Montevideo sinking but there are some nagging specifics, like why there was no inquiry into the fate of these men,” she said. Australian archives had several passenger lists but they were inconsistent and there was no passenger manifest, she said. “What has happened to the nominal roll of the men apparently on board?”
However, as the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs told the Sydney Morning Herald at the time:
... he was not aware of any claims regarding lost documents or a cover-up”, and there were no plans to organise a search for the ship. “Through official commemoration and an ongoing program of publications, the Government recognises and honours those lost on the Montevideo Maru, bringing the disaster to the nation’s attention.”
More recently, in August 2009 the Minister for Defence, John Faulkner, also explicitly rejected any suggestion that the Australian Government should fund a search for the Montevideo Maru. In response to a petition sent to him by Julia Irwin MP, Senator Faulkner wrote:
While the sinking of the Montevideo Maru was a national tragedy, an international search for the vessel is not possible at this time. Unlike HMAS Sydney II, an Australian vessel located in Australian waters, the Montevideo Maru is an unflagged vessel and lies in the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone. The Australian Government can protect vessels lying in Australian waters under the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976, but cannot protect vessels lying outside Australian waters. Regrettably, the Philippine Government does not have similar legislation that could protect the Montevideo Maru if it were found.
Any search for the Montevideo Maru would alert shipwreck looters to the possible location of the wreck, which would threaten the wreck and the remains of those onboard. This would be unacceptable to the Australian Government, and forms the basis of the decision not to search for the Montevideo Maru at the present time.
However, on 11 November 2009 (Remembrance Day), the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs raised the possibility of declaring the site an official war grave:
“I think we all agree now that the detail and the significance of the event have not received appropriate recognition in the past.” He said the Government would investigate the possibility of declaring the site of the sinking, off the Philippines, an official war grave, and assist family and friends in raising funds for a memorial in Canberra. 
Media reports stated that the Australian War Memorial would set up a permanent display on the sinking of the Montevideo Maru and that the Government ‘will renew the search’ for the Japanese records which contain the names of those who died. There were no details about how the Government would go about this, but given Senator Faulkner’s comments it would seem that the close cooperation of the Philippines Government might assist.
On 21 June 2010 the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs made a Ministerial Statement to the House of Representatives concerning the Montevideo Maru. The statement did not announce new policy but set out the facts and fully acknowledged the suffering of the relatives of those people who perished on the Montevideo Maru:
As we stand here today, I would like to formally mark the great loss of the Montevideo Maru and honour those who died. Australia is forever grateful for their service in defence of our nation during the Second World War. I would especially like to acknowledge the great emotional suffering of the families and friends they left behind. These people endured many long and painful years waiting for news of their loved ones and they deserve to be remembered. The fortitude needed to survive the three years it took for the tragic news of the death of their loved ones to reach them is exemplary. And I extend to them my wholehearted condolences. Their experience is an integral part of our wartime history.
As mentioned above, a roll of those persons who had embarked on the Montevideo Maru was discovered in Tokyo by Major Williams in 1945. The roll was taken by the Japanese at an unspecified time, but probably well before the Montevideo Maru left Rabaul on its ill-fated final voyage. The 48 page roll was in Katakana (Japanese script) and was partially translated by Major Williams and then completed in Australia. The roll was then checked against personnel records and this was the basis on which next of kin were informed of the suspected death of their loved ones. It should be noted that the process of translation would not have been easy, and given that the Japanese roll was an attempt to render English names into Katakana in the first place the process of double translation must give rise to some doubts about the accuracy of parts of the list.
There is still confusion over the whereabouts of the original roll, which was ‘… apparently lost from the national archives after being brought back from Japan by post-war investigators’. This statement reflects what has become received wisdom on this issue but even this is somewhat confusing. On his website Montevideo Maru, Rod Miller states that it is the original Katakana roll which is lost and not the English translation.
How the roll was lost and what, if anything, has been done to retrieve it has also been something of a mystery. However, during a meeting of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Petitions held in November 2009, Brigadier David Mulhall informed the Committee:
There is a document called the Katakana roll, which we believe to be the most reliable record of who may have been on the Montevideo Maru when it was sunk. That document has been searched for for many years now. We believe that we may have found a copy of it, but right now we are in the process of trying to verify the authenticity of that document. That is being worked on actively and we hope to be able to give some advice in due course.
In a book entitled Heroes at Sea the late Don Wall published an ‘Honour Roll’ in which he lists the people who died when the Montevideo Maru went down. Unfortunately, Mr Wall does not provide any information on the provenance of the roll.
It is possible that Mr Wall derived his information from the Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour. Since this can be searched online by entering the date of death, it is possible to retrieve the names of Australian military personnel who died on a particular day. A search using 1 July 1942 as the date of death retrieves 871 names which must, in the main, be the AIF personnel thought to have perished on the Montevideo Maru. The Montevideo Maru is not mentioned on any of these records, with place of death listed as ‘At sea (South West Pacific Area)’ and cause of death described as ‘presumed’.
The War Memorial website has a copy of a list of passengers believed to have left New Britain on the Montevideo Maru. This list, dated 6 October 1945, was compiled in New Guinea after the war by two ‘recovered POW’ then believed to be at Lae, and contained only 168 names. No explanation is given as to the method used by the compilers to create the list.
On the balance of evidence, it seems that the story of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru by the Sturgeon is more likely than not. Given the speed with which the vessel went down it is not surprising that there were so few survivors from the crew and none at all from those locked below decks.
The Katakana roll provides a list of the people most likely to have been on board the Montevideo Maru but it is not certain that it is accurate or even that all those on the roll actually boarded the ship. The discovery of the roll and some analysis of it, in addition to any further research that might be done in the Japanese war archives, may be fruitful, but it might also be that a degree of uncertainty and doubt will remain.
The National Archives of Australia holds a number of files with data about individual people thought to have died on the Montevideo Maru. This can be accessed on the NAA website at http://naa12.naa.gov.au/scripts/ResearcherScreen.asp.
There is a memorial to the Montevideo Maru in the POW Memorial at Ballarat and the Australian War Memorial has a website on the Montevideo Maru at http://www.awm.gov.au/atwar/remembering1942/montevideo/
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