Lt Gen David Morrison, Chief of Army

30 June 2012

Veterans, families of those who were lost on the Montevideo Maru, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen…

War is a terrible thing.  It reaps souls and lives unlived and leaves waste, sorrow and broken years in its wake. Too often our remembrance can appear to give more emphasis to the nobility of sacrifice, rather than face the anguish and deep personal sorrow such sacrifice demands of those who go on living. At times, our ceremonies can gloss over the mistakes that are made in war, but mistakes and miscalculations are intrinsic to battle because war is solely a human endeavour.

That is not the case today, for at this gathering we remember one of the most tragic episodes in the annals of Australian military history. The sinking of the requisitioned transport vessel, the Montevideo Maru, by an American submarine, the USS Sturgeon, forty miles West of Luzon on the 1st of July 1942 was the culmination of a chain of disastrous strategic and tactical decisions.

No official passenger manifests have yet surfaced to confirm this but it is believed that 845 military prisoners of war and 208 civilian internees from Rabaul perished when the ship went down. Among those never accounted for were the grandfather of the current Federal Minister Peter Garrett and the uncle of our Ambassador to the United States, Kim Beazley, who was a missionary in Rabaul when it fell.

This was a tragedy on a massive scale. But in those dark early months of the Pacific war, bad news abounded. Darwin and other parts of Northern Australia were bombed. Singapore fell with thousands of Australians captured; Ambon and Timor followed.

Yet the true fate of the defenders of Rabaul has remained shrouded by mystery and uncertainty. That is because the Japanese—arguably for propaganda purposes—permitted the prisoners of war captured in Rabaul to write to their families and loved ones in Australia.

We can only imagine the heartbreak of those wives, parents, sons and daughters when at the war’s end their men-folk could not be found when Rabaul was recaptured. Indeed, when Australian troops arrived in July 1945 they could only account for a mere four civilian survivors and a handful of missionaries from the Vunapope mission.

Slowly the picture emerged from survivors like George [Gordon] Thomas, who had remained behind, that over a thousand captured or interned Australians had been forcibly boarded on to the Montevideo Maru for transportation to Hainan and then ultimately to Japan.

We now know from the Japanese and American records that they never arrived. The darkened ship was stalked by an American submarine, which engaged it off Luzon and sank it with terrible loss of life.

Rumours abounded of Australian survivors but none ever emerged to tell their tale. Indeed, an Australian Officer –Major H.S Williams – was dispatched personally by General Macarthur to attempt to get to the bottom of this matter and bleakly concluded that there had been no survivors.

The troops of the Rabaul Garrison, comprised primarily of men of the 2/22nd Battalion AIF, bore the brunt of these losses. Many of them had been induced to surrender by Japanese pamphlets assuring them that they would be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions only to be promptly and callously executed in the Tol Plantation south of Rabaul.

In the current edition of Quadrant Magazine, the estimable Peter Ryan – a veteran of the New Guinea campaign- who continues to write with passion and authority on defence issues- described the faulty strategy of forming detachments of ‘penny packets’ in the form of small isolated garrisons around the archipelagic approaches to Australia as the Japanese threat materialized. I commend his article to you. His capacity to puncture cant at his ripe age amazes me.

Peter Ryan was right. It was folly to send token forces to Rabaul to wave the flag and far too many brave young Australians paid the ultimate price for it. The dead of the Montevideo Maru silently rebuke Australia and remind us some 70 years later of the consequences of neglect of the nation’s Defence – that paramount obligation of the state to its people.

It is altogether fitting that we pause today to reflect on the loss of those men and the burden their families carried for years – always wondering; always hoping against hope that somehow a loved one had survived and been found. We remember them with great respect on this 70th anniversary of their death.

We can pay them no greater homage than in ensuring that young Australian soldiers are never again sent overseas-especially into our near region – with inadequate training and equipment and no plausible strategic concept justifying their service.

Today is a day for sombre reflection on lives cut short and  futures squandered. I was encouraged by reports in last weekend’s media to the effect that among thousands of prisoner of war records handed over by Japan to Australia earlier this year, we may finally achieve some closure for some of the families who lost loved ones as a result of the sinking. These are presently being catalogued and translated by the National Archives.

This work, and the commemoration of the Montevideo Maru memorial tomorrow, underscore both the depth of the tragedy, and the national remembrance of that terrible event.  We have not forgotten.