Mr GRIFFIN (Bruce—Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel) (3.48 pm)

I acknowledge the presence in the House today of many of the family, friends and loved ones of those lost on the Montevideo Maru, some of whom have travelled great distances to be here today. I also acknowledge that this tragedy has touched so many Australians, including members of parliament both past and present.

Former patron of the Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society, the honourable Kim Beazley, AO, lost his uncle on board that ship. My colleague the honourable Peter Garrett’s grandfather was also lost when the ship sank. Minister Garrett is the current patron of the Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society. I am sorry Minister Garrett is unable to be here today as he is attending the International Whaling Commission in Morocco.

I address this statement to the families and to the House. On behalf of the Australian government and the Australian parliament, I would like to express our sincere regret and sorrow for the tragedy that occurred with the sinking of the Montevideo Maru on 1 July 1942.

The opening months of 1942 were a dark time in Australia’s wartime history. Singapore and Java had fallen, our defensive outposts in Rabaul, Timor and Ambon had been lost, and the Japanese had already begun a series of bombing attacks on Australia beginning with Darwin on 19 February 1942.

Success in the battle of the Coral Sea provided a check to Japanese plans but even so, in May 1942, the war was brought home to Australians on the east coast when the Japanese attacked Sydney Harbour from the sea. And we were not to know that in a matter of weeks our nation was to suffer its most terrible maritime disaster— when, in a matter of moments, more Australians would be killed than would be lost in all the nation’s wars and conflicts since the end of the Second World War.

But let me step back in history a little bit first. The fall of New Britain in January 1942 was one of many disastrous battles involving Australians in the first months of the Pacific war. Lark Force, as the Australian defenders of the island were known, was hopelessly outnumbered, poorly equipped and had no plan of withdrawal. The chiefs of staff recognised that the force had no chance of repelling an invasion but felt, nonetheless, that the Japanese should be made to fight for the island and the deepwater harbour at Rabaul. The defenders put up a brave fight but the outcome was never in doubt. Of some 1,500 troops, 30 were killed in the fighting and about 400 escaped the island. Another 160 were killed in the Tol plantation—one of a series of massacres of prisoners committed by the Japanese in the opening months of the war.

The survivors became prisoners of war. Several hundred civilians who had been living and working on the island were also interned. Little was heard of, or from, either group again. There was one occasion, however, in April 1942, when prisoners were given 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.

On 22 June 1942 just over 1,000 men, military prisoners 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. They were among the last to see her human cargo alive.

Lieutenant Commander Wright, captain of the American submarine, USS Sturgeon, wrote in his log that early on the morning of 1 July 1942 his submarine 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 4,000 yards, two hit, and the tragic fate of the Montevideo Maru was sealed—the ship sank within 10 minutes.

Only three lifeboats were lowered, all capsized and one was badly damaged. 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.

According to Japanese accounts, the captain and more than 10 of his crew reached land where most of them, including the captain, were killed by Filipino guerrillas. Five survivors set out on foot for Manila, two died en route, the rest took 10 days to reach the city.

They reported the sinking and a search was immediately ordered, but too much time had elapsed and no trace of either the Montevideo Maru or survivors was found.

For the families of the men who had been on the ship, 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 three weeks after it happened, and in January the following year the Japanese Navy Department forwarded details of the sinking to the Japanese Prisoner of War Information Bureau, together with a nominal roll of the prisoners and civilians on board.

During the war, the International Committee of the Red Cross made several inquiries concerning the men who had been captured on Rabaul but received no answer.

In 1944 the Japanese Foreign Office sought information on the missing civilians from Rabaul, 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 as the Japanese advanced through Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific in 1942, the families and friends of the soldiers and civilians who had been captured on New Britain, had spent three-and-a-half years wondering and hoping.

Mrs Rhoda Coote was one of those wondering and hoping and writing letters to try and find out what was happening to her husband.

Evacuated to Australian with her daughter just before Christmas 1941, Mrs Coote only expected to be separated from her husband for a few months.

In 1942 G. F. Haughan, from the Red Cross in Port Moresby, wrote a letter in response to Mrs Coote:

I am unable to give you any news of any great importance but would like to point out that the news you mention regarding your husband is not, I’m sure, correct. Please do not let that worry you.

I have made a careful check on all the records held here and the only news I can give you is that just after the Japanese invasion your husband was seen at Gillalum Plantation in the company of Ernest Banks, Bill Yarrington, Tom Walker, Ted Allan, Tom Herkut, C. Clunn, P. Ryan, H. Fulton and Dick Moore.

I shall keep a close check for you; as a resident of New Guinea for some years I know a number of those persons who are missing and I will forward any news that comes my way.

I can only ask you to look on the bright side and hope all will turn out for a happy reunion for your husband.

This letter was dated 18 November 1942—five months after Philip Coote had perished on the Montevideo Maru. It was three more years before Mrs Coote would find out that there would never be a reunion with her husband, Philip.

It was a difficult time for the families waiting and hoping, especially for those like the Cootes who had been evacuated to Australia. They left behind their husbands, sons, brothers; they left behind their homes and their community—they faced some very long, lonely years.

I know some of you are here today, including Philip Coote’s son, daughter and three of his granddaughters; along with some of the families of those men mentioned in the letter—Walker, Ryan and Fulton—and I acknowledge your strength and fortitude.

By the end of September 1945, lists of men recovered from Japanese prison camps were being published every day, but more than 5,000 Australians remained unaccounted for, including those from Rabaul.

I think it is important to note here that over the years there have been suggestions that the Montevideo Maru either never existed, or that the Japanese actually massacred the prisoners and used the Montevideo Maru’s sinking as the explanation for their disappearance.

Such speculation is understandable when the loss of a ship and almost all on board is at question and the evidence lies mostly at the bottom of the sea. But the existence of the ship is beyond doubt as the Australian War Memorial holds photographs of it in its collection and the material that is available indicates that the Montevideo Maru was indeed sunk and that more than one thousand prisoners died when this happened. Stories suggesting the loss of a Japanese prison ship carrying many of the missing men from Rabaul first appeared in Australian newspapers on 26 and 27 September 1945, and on 28 September an Australian officer fluent in Japanese, Major HS Williams of the 1st Australian POW Enquiry Unit, 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 Japanese Prisoner of War Information Bureau admitted that full details of what had happened to the men from Rabaul 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—telegrams were sent to families across the country confirming what they had feared: few of the men taken prisoner or interned on Rabaul in 1942 had survived the year.

From these records—although not all the names were on them—it was clear that they were made up of members of the 2/22nd Battalion, 1st Independent Company, Fortress Artillery, Signals units, 17 Antitank Battery, Anti Aircraft Artillery, 19 Special Dental Unit, detachments from New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, 2/10 Field Ambulance, Ordnance Corps units, 8th Division Supply Column, Canteen Services Headquarters New Guinea Area, Royal Australian Air Force, the Royal Australian Navy and Australian civilians. To date the original Japanese nominal roll has not been recovered, but the Department of Defence is still undertaking a search.

In common with all those who died in our name in the world wars, each of those lost on the Montevideo Maru is officially commemorated by name on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The service personnel are commemorated on the memorial to the missing at the Rabaul (Bita Paka) War Cemetery, and the civilian dead are commemorated on the roll of honour located in Westminster Abbey.

Collectively, the service and sacrifice of those who were lost is commemorated on the Montevideo Maru memorial that is co-located with the official memorial to those lost at Rabaul on the waterfront of Simpson Harbour, at the national POW memorial at Ballarat, and more recently plaques have been placed at the Hellships memorial at Subic Bay in the Philippines. These commemorations provide a physical base of remembrance that complements the tireless efforts of the loved ones left behind to keep this terrible tragedy at the forefront of our minds, and in doing so to keep the promise that ‘we will remember them’. Quite rightly, the story of the Montevideo Maru will not end here. I expect historians in Australia and across the world will continue in their search for the missing pieces of the puzzle including the lost records. And I know fundraising efforts are also underway to erect a memorial here in Canberra at the Australian War Memorial.

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.

I acknowledge their grief has extended beyond the years of uncertainty. Not having a marked grave to signify their loved one’s life has weighed on many families— even to the present day. The Australian government will continue to work with them, the Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society and others interested in this tragedy to ensure the Montevideo Maru remains a part of our living history.

I ask leave of the House to move a motion to enable the member for Greenway to speak for 17 minutes.

Leave granted.
Mr GRIFFIN—I move:

That so much of the standing and sessional orders be suspended as would prevent Mrs Markus speaking in reply to the minister’s statement for a period not exceeding 17 minutes. Question agreed to.