On 22 June 1942, nearly 75 years ago, 1053 Australians boarded a Japanese hellship in Rabaul, the capital of the Australian Mandated Territory of New Guinea, and on 1 July 1942 every one of those men died when an allied submarine torpedoed the unmarked prison ship off the coast of the Philippines.
It is the only hellship with no allied survivors.
Rabaul was Australia’s front line in the Pacific war. Only a few short weeks after Pearl Harbor this war was fought on Australian soil against Australian people. 850 soldiers died, over 200 civilians died, and countless others died trying to escape. They died of hunger, malaria and mass butchery as in the Tol and Waitavelo Massacres.
The number of Australians who died as a result of the Fall of Rabaul and Kavieng in January 1942 is nearly five times the number of victims in the first bombing raid of Darwin, which occurred nearly one month later and double those who died in Vietnam.
Yet, most Australians know nothing about this critical time in our history.
The first Japanese surveillance aircraft flew over Rabaul on 8 December 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor. On 11 December 1941 Canberra said there would be no evacuation, reversing this decision the following day. Males over 16 years old were to remain, although there were cases of younger boys staying and being killed. On the same day a cable went from Canberra to Washington stating that those in Rabaul would be ‘hostages to freedom’.
The first bombs were dropped on Rabaul on 4 January 1942 and the last Australian civilians were taken out on 8 January 1942. Chinese civilians were not evacuated and both they and the New Guinean population suffered terribly.
1700 servicemen and at least 300 European civilians were not evacuated despite ships being in Rabaul at the time.
Japanese brutality towards prisoners of war, coastwatchers, interned civilians and missionaries in both New Britain and New Ireland was regular: 158 were murdered at Tol and more in other massacres. For those who gave themselves up, there was five months of imprisonment labouring for food to stay alive. On 22 June 1942, 1053 prisoners were embarked on the Montevideo Maru: all died on 1 July 1942 and this remains Australia’s greatest maritime tragedy. The Australian Government chose not to hold a post war enquiry.
Relatives and friends will attend services in both Rabaul, PNG, on 22 June 2017 and Canberra at the AWM on 1 July 2017 to remember this appalling sacrifice.
A book When the War Came: New Guinea Islands 1942 is being published by the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia Inc (Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Group) to commemorate the 75th Anniversary and will be launched in Canberra on 1 July 2017. There is more information in a brochure or you can use our order form.
Whilst the war is long gone, relatives of the victims believe that their men must be remembered and the events of Rabaul and the New Guinea Islands 1942 deserve due respect and recognition. Appropriate news coverage is needed for this neglected Australian history on these important 75th anniversaries.