An address delivered on the occasion of the Memorial and Thanksgiving Service of the Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society
By Professor John Pearn
FROM SADNESS – May There Come Proud Closure
FROM DISASTER, MAY THERE COME RESOLVE – That in a Future World, Such Events Which We Memorialise Today, Will Not Again Occur
Following personal loss, closure is a personal thing. For many, comfort comes from the sharing of such loss. Those of us whose lives have been touched by the war-time incarceration of relatives, their tribulations and their deaths, are enjoined at this time of special remembrance. They were spouses and partners, parents and grandparents, relatives and friends of the several thousand families who remember their service and sacrifice.
Those who perished in July 1942 served as soldiers and civilians and were caught up in the maelstrom of war. They were infantry men, commandos, bandsmen, signallers and medics. Others were civilian government employees maintaining the machinery of society in a tropical outpost. Other victims were planters and business folk. One thousand and fifty three of them, men and adolescent boys, lost their lives during the sinking of the Montevideo Maru.
The sinking of that ship remains Australia‟s largest maritime disaster. The prisoners of war, soldiers and civilians both, perished in the water, entrapped below decks in the holds of the ship, in the early morning of the 1st of July 1942. Concurrent with these events, many other families lost loved ones on the Islands of New Britain and New Ireland, brutally killed under unimaginable circumstances. Many others were harried, executed or imprisoned. A few escaped to recount their experiences.
In our Reflections, we look forward to the unveiling of a physical memorial, placed on Australian soil, to honour their sacrifice. It is anticipated that in July 2012, those of us who are spared will meet again, in our Nation’s Capital, to dedicate a fitting memorial which will be a tangible symbol of reference to these events. It will honour the more than a thousand victims of the Montevideo Maru disaster; and those of the military and civilian forces of New Britain and New Ireland, who have no known grave.
A physical memorial is an important witness of such service unto death. However, memorials also serve as metaphors. The metaphor of the Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Memorial will also be a witness of our Nation‟s resolve that there is a higher ethic than the brutality of war. When all attempts at peace have failed, and when nations become locked in combat on the battlefield, civilised peoples still adhere to a higher principle. In the aftermath of conflict, when prisoners are taken, one manifestation of that higher ethic is a resolve that there will remain dignity in victory; and that prisoners will be treated with physical care and humanity.
The Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Memorial will be a witness of that metaphor – that the events which it commemorates will not again recur in a future, better world.