On 1 July 2009, on the 67th anniversary of the sinking, a Montevideo Maru plaque was unveiled and dedicated at the impressive Hellships Memorial at Subic Bay, Philippines.

Click here for photos of the unveiling ceremony.

The Hellships Memorial is dedicated to all POWs on all Hellships. It is located in a peaceful location adjacent to the sparkling waters of the bay and honours the thousands of WWII Allied prisoners-of-war transported on Japanese “Hellships” around Asia to work as slave labourers in factories, shipyards and mines to support the Japanese war effort. Many thousands of men perished on the ships or were killed when allied fire attacked the unmarked ships thinking they were legitimate targets.

The Memorial is made from black Italian granite; two semi-circular memorials, several metres long, face each other. In-between them, at one end, four large columns tell the story of the hellships.

The Montevideo Maru plaque, measuring 6 feet by 1 foot and engraved in black Italian granite, is prominent within the Hellships Memorial. It tells the story of the Montevideo Maru.

This beautiful setting is an appropriate place to recognise the final resting place of the men transported from Rabaul and sunk off the coast of Luzon.

It was an honour to attend such a special and moving ceremony. Much detailed thought had gone into making the occasion elegant and dignified—a fitting tribute to the men who had suffered so much.

Approaching the site on the day of the commemoration, two police guarded the entrance of the memorial: one carrying the Philippines flag and one the Australian flag. The stirring sound of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (or SBMA) Band heralded the start of the ceremony.

Mr Clive Troy welcomed everyone and explained a little about the reasons behind the Montevideo Maru plaque.

A poignant speech was made by the Australian Ambassador to the Philippines, His Excellency Mr Rod Smith. Relatives and friends of those lost on the Montevideo Maru were particularly moved by the sincerity with which Mr Smith delivered his concluding words: “This tragedy is not forgotten. The families are not forgotten. These men are not forgotten. We honour them all.”

With a grandfather and great-uncle lost on the ship, I felt privileged to speak on behalf of the families. Phil Ainsworth of the NGVR/PNGVR Ex-Members Association dedicated the plaque.

Also attending the event was Defence Attache Vic Jones, Assistant Defence Attache Lt Col Gary Barnes, Hellships Founder Randy Anderson and his team (including Memorial Designer Bob Chester), Kevin Hamdorf and Spike Nasmyth, City of Olongapo Mayor James “Bong” Gordon Jr, Presidents of both Subic Bay RSL and Angeles City RSL, representatives of the Salvation Army including Lt-Colonels Ron and Robyn Clinch, members of the Norwegian community in Manila and relatives and friends of those lost on the Montevideo Maru. Phil Ainsworth represented the NGVR/PNGVR Ex-Members Association, Suzie Alexander represented the Rabaul Historical Society and Clive Troy, who organised the magnificent occasion, represented the Montevideo Maru Memorial Committee. The support of all these people was greatly appreciated by all relatives who attended.

A wreath-laying ceremony followed. Stunning floral tributes were presented from the Australian Embassy in Manila, the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia together with the Papua New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, the Rabaul Historical Society, the RSL Subic Bay, the RSL Angeles City and others from relatives and friends who were present.

The Last Post was played and following a recital of the Ode to the Fallen, one minute’s silence observed. Finally, the playing of Reveille and the blessing.

There was significant coverage in the ABC, SBS and Channel 10 TV news in Australia that night due to the tremendous efforts by Keith Jackson, Chairman of the Montevideo Maru Memorial Committee, in getting the information out. John Schindler’s documentary team attended the commemoration and it is understood that their 104 minute documentary, The Tragedy of the Montevideo Maru, will go to air on the History Channel in November 2009. It is possible that a DVD of the commemoration service for the Montevideo Maru plaque may soon be produced too.

Special thanks to the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia, the NGVR/PNGVR Ex-Members Association, 2/22nd Battalion Lark Force Association and Greenbank RSL for supporting this magnificent plaque. Thank you, too, to Phil Ainsworth for his involvement in making it all happen. Sincere appreciation to Clive Troy for his vision in appreciating the significance of the site and for his efforts in making this a successful event and very memorable occasion.

The wording on the plaque reads:

This Memorial honours those 1053 Australian Prisoners of war and civilian prisoners of war who lost their lives when the Japanese naval prisoner ship Montevideo Maru was sunk by an allied submarine on 1 July 1942 off the coast of the Philippines, position 18 degrees 37 minutes north latitude and 119 degrees 29 minutes east longitude.

The ship sailed from Rabaul, located on the island of New Britain in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea and administered by Australia on behalf of the League of Nations. Rabaul was of strategic importance to Australia’s defence consisting of Australian military who were known as Lark Force together with the local militia unit New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR). 

Rabaul was overwhelmed by a large Japanese invasion force on 23 January 1942 and many Australian servicemen and civilians were captured. 852 military comprising 686 from 2/22 Battalion and attached units, 132 from 2/1 Independent Company and 34 from NGVR and 201 civilian prisoners were embarked on the Montevideo Maru at Rabaul on 22 June 1942. They were never seen again. Their families were not advised until late 1945, months after the Pacific War had ended.

This World War 2 tragedy has special significance as it is Australia’s worst ever single maritime disaster.

These men served Australia with courage and honour and with dignity never to be forgotten.

This plaque was erected by NGVR and PNGVR Ex Members Association, 2/22 Battalion Lark ForceAssociation, PNG Association of Australia and Greenbank RSL Sub Branch Australia and was dedicated by the Australian Ambassador to the Philippines, Mr Rod Smith, on Wednesday 1 July 2009.

Four columns at the Hellships Memorial tell the story of the Hellships:

This memorial honors the thousands of World War II Allied prisoners of war transported under horrific conditions by their Japanese captors on “Hellships” and scattered all across Asia to work as slave laborers in factories, shipyards and mines to support the Japanese war effort.

Many thousands of men were carried on these ships and thousands of those perished from murder, starvation, sickness, and neglect—or were killed when friendly forces unknowingly attacked the unmarked ships.

These heroes came from different homelands, different backgrounds and different circumstances but they shared a love of freedom and a dedication to protecting their homelands.

Truly, the Hellships remain amongst the most senseless atrocities of World War II, as so many lives were destroyed for no purpose or reason.

As early as the spring of 1942, only a few months after the fall of Allied territories in the Far East, the Japanese began moving POWs by sea out of the conquered areas and sending them to Thailand, Taiwan, Burma, China, Korea and Japan itself, to be used as slave labor.

A thousand or more men were crammed into a cargo hold, often with only enough room to stand for a journey that could last weeks. The heat was stifling, the stench unbearable. Even the most basic sanitary and medical provisions were refused. Hundreds of men, already weak and suffering from disease after years in POW camps, succumbed. Hundreds more went out of their minds.

Added to these inhumane conditions was the extreme brutality of the Japanese guards. Those who survived the unimaginable nightmare of the Hellships described their time abroad as the most horrific chapter of their wartime captivity.

In the final months of the war in the Pacific, with the Allies closing in, the Japanese began to escalate the movement of POWs on Hellships. While Japanese weapons transport bore Red Cross markings, ships carrying prisoners of war went purposely unmarked and were unknowingly targeted by Allied aircraft and submarines. Dozens of Hellships were attacked, killing hundreds of Allied POWs.

More than half a century later, many of the men lie beneath no headstone or other marker, their bodies impossible to recover from their watery graves. This is the only Memorial they will ever have.

The Japanese committed many atrocities against POWs; but the decision to transport them on unmarked prison ships, making them legitimate Allied targets, is beyond comprehension.

This Memorial will offer a place of quiet reflection to future generations who must discover the extraordinary sacrifice of these heroes, not only that they may draw inspiration from their example but also to reaffirm the enduring hope of a world set free from war.

The Hellships Memorial will forever speak of this hope, serving as an anchor holding fast against the slow currents of complacency and forgotten loss.

The Memorial was constructed and is supported by those who survived the nightmare of being a POW and family and friends of those who died.

Dedicated on January 22, 2006
Subic Bay, Republic of the Philippines.

Andrea Williams