21 Jan, 2012 01:00 AM

Singer turned politician Peter Garrett’s life has been shaped by the fall of Rabaul. His grandfather Tom, a planter, was taken prisoner when the Japanese seized the town 70 years ago this Monday.

The 56-year-old, who records indicate served with the 6th Light Horse in World War I, was one of the 1053 Australians killed when the Japanese prison ship, the Montevideo Maru, was torpedoed and sunk by an American submarine en route from Rabaul on June 30, 1942.

Mr Garrett’s father and his grandmother had escaped being caught up in the chaos and confusion surrounding the belated evacuation of Rabaul’s European women and children just before Christmas in 1941 by a strange quirk of fate. His father had a rare form of polio and had been sent to Sydney for treatment.

Years were to pass before the family found out what had really happened to Tom Garrett.

When Mrs Garrett also died young, Peter’s father was brought up by his aunts. By the time the future lead singer of Midnight Oil was born there weren’t many people to talk to about family history.

”My grandfather’s death was mentioned in passing at family events but it wasn’t until my mid-20s, when I saw an article concerning the incident, that my understanding was filled in,” he said. Mr Garrett, who is the patron of the Montevideo Maru Memorial Society, which is gearing up to unveil a memorial to the victims of the tragedy at the Australian War Memorial on July 1, wants to share that knowledge with other Australians.

He referred to the event in the opening lyrics of In The Valley, ”My grandfather went down with the Montevideo, The rising sun sent him floating to his rest”.

Now the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth, Mr Garrett said Rabaul and the Montevideo Maru were overlooked because Australians were used to seeing World War II through the visual record.

These events, unfolding in Japanese-occupied territory a long way from Australia and with few survivors, left no photos or newsreels.

He said the men and women caught up in the tragedy of Rabaul had been typical of their generation.

”They were plucky, resilient and strikingly resolute in spite of the appalling circumstances,” he said.

Mr Garrett, who said he would definitely be attending the unveiling of the memorial, took over as patron of the committee from Kim Beazley, the former Opposition leader and now Australian ambassador to the US.

Mr Beazley’s uncle, Sydney, a technical instructor at the Methodist Mission on New Britain, also went down with the Montevideo Maru.