1 JULY 2012

Admiral Ken Doolan – Chairman Australian War Memorial
Mrs Nola Anderson – Acting Director of the Australian War Memorial
Mr Phil Ainsworth – President, Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society
The Honourable Peter Garrett – Representing the Prime Minister
His Excellency Mr Charles Lepani – High Commissioner for Papua New Guinea

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I feel privileged to be with you this morning in our much loved place of remembrance and reverence, to dedicate a memorial of great import to our country; to honour service and sacrifice, to reflect deeply on a chapter in our military history that is not as well known as it should be.

Let me begin with its context – the 20th century – a time remarkable for advances in technology, education and social development, but a time more destructive of human life than any before. It began amid the last great colonial war, and ended just as the scourge of global terrorism was about to appear on the world stage. A century that saw the most terrible events in human history – the First and Second World Wars. In the first, Australia lost over 60,000 lives. And during the second, our nation suffered some of its greatest individual tragedies.

There are already in these grounds memorials to the huge Australian losses in Bomber Command, and in the horrific Sandakan Death March. Today we remember another such event. We honour the memory of a group of Australian soldiers and civilians who lost their lives in a six month period in 1942. Some were killed in the defence of Rabaul or in other parts of the New Guinea islands. Others later died as prisoners when the ship transporting them, the Montevideo Maru, was sunk – seventy years ago today.

The centrality of the prisoner-of-war experience to Australia’s Second World War can be measured by the profound loss of life. Only two out of three survived. The ordeal of three and a half years of captivity. These losses made up half of all the combat-related deaths suffered by Australian servicemen and servicewomen during the Pacific War. The suffering of survivors continued long after their return home. So too, the grief of those who lost loved ones.

My friends, there is another form of grief, the kind that arises from uncertainty, from not knowing the fate of dear ones. Uncertainty brings dread and cruel hope. This was so for families and friends of many of the men we honour here today. What had happened to all these missing Australians?

Ladies and gentlemen, located on the island of New Britain, Rabaul was the capital and administrative centre of the Australian Mandated Territory of New Guinea. Its attraction lay in its airfields and natural harbour. For Japan, these were keys to the advance into the south-west Pacific. The value of these assets had been recognised – well before the outbreak of war with Japan in December 1941.

In March and April of that year, members of the 2/22nd Battalion, AIF, had begun arriving in Rabaul. They were joined later by a detachment of the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, gun crews and batteries, and a detachment of the 2/10th Field Ambulance. They were known as “Lark Force”. Their job – to protect the airfields surrounding Rabaul, but they were ill-equipped to face the force of the Japanese invasion.

After days of aerial bombardment that had destroyed or led to withdrawal of the handful of RAAF aircraft in New Britain, Japanese troops began landing in the early hours of 23 January. The Australians, 1,300 of them, faced a vastly superior invasion force of over 5,300, which combined strong air and naval support. Australian defenders put up what resistance they could, but with no air support they had to withdraw. 28 Australian soldiers died in the fighting that day. Of the survivors, 400 escaped New Britain and returned to Australia. Those who remained, including 300 Australian civilians, were rounded up and interned as prisoners of war. A grisly fate was ahead for those captured on New Britain after the fall of Rabaul.

Soon after after their surrender, a group of 160 were bayonetted or shot in what has become known as the Tol Plantation Massacre. On 22 June 1942, 850 military prisoners and 200 civilian internees, were marched from their camps to Rabaul’s harbour. On other days they had walked the same route to work on the docks. This time they carried whatever kit they possessed. They 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 it had been a passenger ship on the China-Korea route, but the Japanese had commandeered it. They were using it to transfer their prisoners to China’s Hainan Island, then occupied by Japan. The dockside labourers were among the last to see the Montevideo Maru’s human cargo alive.

Tragically, nine days later the ship – not marked as carrying prisoners of war -was sunk off the coast of the Philippines on 1 July 1942 by the American submarine USS Sturgeon. The lives of all 1,050 Australians on board were lost in what remains to this day our nation’s greatest maritime tragedy. More than a thousand men lost – each a son, a brother, a father, or an uncle. Each story a special burden of grief for loved ones at home. Did they still live?

It must have been terrible to receive the news one dreaded to hear, but it was no less terrible to be constantly buffeted between hope and despair. For families of the men who had been on the Montevideo Maru there was never any news during the war. 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 sent details of the sinking to the Prisoner of War Information Bureau, 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.  They received no answer. Like many who waited in Australia for news of the men lost in south-east Asia and the western Pacific in 1942, families of Lark Force and the civilians who had remained on New Britain, spent 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’d been imprisoned at Rabaul. Suggestions about the loss of a Japanese ship carrying many missing men from Rabaul first appeared in Australian newspapers in September 1945. An Australian officer fluent in Japanese, Major HS Williams, was searching through records in Tokyo’s Prisoner of War Information Bureau when he found a list of 1,056 names. Many of these names were of servicemen, identified by name and serial number; the rest civilians. Their place of capture was given as Rabaul. Many appeared to be Australians – but the names had been translated from English into Japanese script and then back again, and this made things difficult. Director of the Prisoner of War Information Bureau admitted that the Japanese had known full details of what had happened to the men from New Britain since early 1943.

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 at Rabaul in 1942 had survived the year. The roll Williams unearthed later went missing. Very recently, what appears to be a copy of it re-surfaced in Japanese archives among other records of Australian prisoners of war. The Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs presented it to the Australian Embassy in Tokyo.

My friends, as we stand here today, on the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru, and recall all who perished in defence of Rabaul and the islands, we need to comprehend the sheer size of this loss.

In one night in 1942, nearly twice as many Australians lost their lives as did in the ten years of the Vietnam War. They, their families, deserve to be remembered.
The men who died will always be in the hearts and minds of their loved ones, but now, in this special place, we have a tangible reminder of their story in the form of this splendid new memorial by artist James Parrett. His sculpture brings together abstract form and concrete loss. Large sweeping curves convey the power of the sea and the magnitude of the tragedy.

Today, we re-affirm our promise to remember them, their achievements and their fate; we renew our pride in what they did, and we honour their profound sacrifice.

Admiral Doolan, ladies and gentlemen.