Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen and welcome to the Australian War Memorial. My name is Ian Hodges, I’m a historian in the Memorial’s Military History Section and today I will be speaking to you about the sinking of the Montevideo Maru on 1 July 1942. This is one of a series of short Roll of Honour talks that are being given at the Memorial this year to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the events of 1942.

The names of 610 2/22nd battalion men are listed are here on the Roll of Honour. Almost all of them were members of Lark Force, which had been based on the island of New Britain, off the northern coast of New Guinea, since the early part of 1941. Some of these men were killed in the fighting that followed the Japanese invasion of New Britain in January 1942, others died while trying to escape and at least 130 were captured and then massacred in the Tol plantation. The rest, by far the majority of those whose names appear on this roll, lost their lives sixty years ago today, when the ship on which they were being sent to Japan, the Montevideo Maru, was sunk off the northern coast of Luzon by an American submarine. They were not the only ones to lose their lives in the South China Sea that night. Lark Force also comprised members of the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, an Australian coastal defence battery, an anti-aircraft battery, an anti-tank battery and a detachment of the 2/10th Field Ambulance. Men from each of these units were also on board the Montevideo Maru, as were 136 civilians, including 20 missionaries, who had been living and working on New Britain when the Japanese came.

The fall of New Britain at the beginning of 1942 was one of many disastrous campaigns involving Australians in the first months of the Pacific War. Lark Force was poorly equipped, lacked reinforcement and had no plans for withdrawal. When the Japanese invaded New Britain with vastly superior forces the defenders were quickly overcome. Those who didn’t escape the island in the first confused days ended up in Japanese captivity. Once they became prisoners little was heard of, or from, them again. There was one occasion, in April 1942, when the Japanese gave their prisoners a chance to write to their families. The letters were dropped in mailbags over Port Moresby and about 400 were delivered. For many who received these letters it was their last contact, two months later most of the writers were dead.

On 22 June 1942 just over a thousand men, military prisoners—but not the officers—and civilians were marched from their camps to Rabaul’s harbour. On other days they had walked the same route to work on the docks, but this time they carried whatever kit they possessed and were flanked by guards with machine guns. Chinese and New Guinean dockside labourers saw them board a ship, the 10,000-ton Montevideo Maru. Before the war she had been a passenger ship on the China/Korea route but the Japanese had commandeered her and were now using her to transfer their prisoners to Japan. The labourers were among the last to see her human cargo alive.

At this point I think it is worth mentioning the theories that the Montevideo Maru either never existed, or that the Japanese really massacred the prisoners and used the Montevideo Maru‘s sinking as the explanation for their disappearance. There is little evidence to support this. The existence of the ship is beyond doubt, we have photographs of it in our collection here at the Memorial. It is easy to engage in conspiracy theories when the loss of a ship and almost all on board is at question, the evidence lies mostly at the bottom of the sea. But there is enough to suggest that the Montevideo Maru was indeed sunk and that more than a thousand prisoners died when this happened.

Lieutenant Commander Wright, captain of the American submarine, USS Sturgeon, wrote in his log that early on the morning of 1 July 1942. Sturgeon chased a large ship as it sped from the Philippines westwards into the South China Sea. He guessed that it was heading for Hainan and for some time doubted whether he could catch it. But by 2.30 in the morning the submarine had drawn close enough to fire its torpedoes. Four were fired from 4000 yards, 2 hit and the ship sunk within ten minutes.

A report from the Montevideo Maru‘s owners records the sinking as having occurred at the same place and time as that recorded in Wright’s log. This report states that the ship took on water quickly and the captain ordered abandon ship. Only three lifeboats were lowered, all capsized and one was badly damaged. Even just after the sinking there were few survivors in the water and the Japanese crewmen and naval guards who had made it onto the lifeboats headed for the Philippines coast. Japanese accounts claim that the captain and more than ten of the crew made it ashore where most of them, including the captain, were killed by Filippino guerrillas. Five survivors then set out on foot for Manila, two died en-route and three made it after a ten-day trek. They reported the sinking and a search was immediately ordered, but too much time had elapsed and no trace of either the ship or survivors was found. I have seen another account that suggests there were 17 Japanese survivors; whatever the case at least 71 Japanese crewmen and naval guards also died when the Montevideo Maru was sunk.

For the families of the men who had been on the Montevideo Maru there was never any news during the war, but Japanese authorities had known of the loss since shortly after the sinking. The ship’s owners were informed just three weeks after it happened, and in January the following year the Japanese Navy Department forwarded details of the sinking to the Prisoner of War Information Bureau together with a nominal roll of the prisoners and civilians on board. During the war the Red Cross made several enquiries concerning the men who had been captured on New Britain but received no answer. In 1944 the Japanese Foreign Office sought information on the missing civilians from New Britain, but no response was forthcoming and the Swiss legation made at least seven unsuccessful attempts to get the same information.

Like many who waited in Australia for news of the men who had been lost in Southeast Asia and the western Pacific in 1942, the families and friends of Lark Force and the civilians who had remained on New Britain, had spent three and a half years wondering and hoping. By the end of September 1945 lists of men recovered from Japanese prison camps were being published every day, but still more than 5,000 Australians remained unaccounted for, including those who had been imprisoned at Rabaul.

Stories suggesting the loss of a Japanese prison ship carrying many of the missing men from Rabaul first appeared in Australian newspapers in late September 1945, and an Australian officer fluent in Japanese, a Major H.S. Williams was searching through records in Tokyo’s Prisoner of War Information Bureau when he found a list of 1,056 names. Many were of servicemen identified by name and serial number, the rest were civilians. Their place of capture was given as Rabaul and many appeared to be Australians, but the names having been translated from English into Japanese script and then back again created considerable difficulties. The Director of the Prisoner of War Information Bureau admitted that full details of what had happened to the men from New Britain had been in Japanese possession since the beginning of 1943 and he expressed regret that no details had been transmitted to Australia. The translated roll reached Canberra in late October 1945 and telegrams were sent to families across the country confirming what they had feared; few of the men taken prisoner or interned at Rabaul in 1942 had survived the year.

As we stand here today on the 60th anniversary of the loss of the Montevideo Maru and look at the names of those who perished on that ship—and not forgetting that the civilians who died are not listed here—we should remember that 60 years ago today Australia experienced its worst maritime disaster. Almost twice as many Australians lost their lives in one night as did in the ten years of the Vietnam War. They, and the families and friends who endured years of not knowing their fate, deserve to be remembered.