19 December 2010


IN A MOVE made without fanfare, not even an announcement, the Australian Army History Unit has published a direct translation of the Japanese roll that lists the names of soldiers and civilians captured in Rabaul and who died on the prison ship, Montevideo Maru.

We’ve got to thank reader Martin Hadlow for spotting the emergence of the list on the internet, probably last Wednesday.

But perhaps the Army should have consulted the Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society before publishing the roll, which is a very significant historical document.

In an introduction on the website – which it says is “a memorial to the Australians lost” – the Army says the roll, originally compiled by Japanese occupation forces in Rabaul and translated after the war, contains the names of 845 Australian soldiers and 113 civilians (including 16 missionaries) together with a further ten names added by Australian Army staff in Tokyo after the war.

By my calculation, that’s 968 names: 855 servicemen, 113 civilians. But the published roll contains 984 names: 818 servicemen, 166 civilians. The Army’s going to have to clear up those discrepancies for starters.

The figures also do not include 30 crew members from the Norwegian freighter, Herstein, captured in Rabaul and aboard the Montevideo Maru when it sank. These men, who should be counted amongst the civilians, would bring the Army’s numbers to 998 (Army calculation) or 1,014 (my calculation).  Must do better, Colonel!

The number of prisoners who died on the ship has been estimated at 1,053 for many years, but the new list – if the numbers can be sorted out – should become the definitive record.

It is remarkable that the confusion that has surrounded who exactly was on the ship should be perpetuated nearly 70 years later by an act designed to throw more light on this matter.

The Army History Unit says the roll, retrieved from the Army archives last year and subjected to a process of rigorous authentication, is “the first translation of a Japanese roll that was sent to Australia by Major H S Williams of the Recovered Personnel Division on 3 October 1945.

“Major Williams had been sent to Japan after the surrender as part of the Australian effort to find out exactly what had happened to Australians captured by the Japanese.

“The Japanese Navy provided a roll of POWs in Rabaul which had been made in Japanese by transliterating the sound of European names into Japanese characters. This process was carried out in reverse by Major Williams’ team. This gave the Service number of military personnel and a reasonable spelling of the name.”

“Once in Australia, this roll was compared to lists of people known to have been in Rabaul at the time of the Japanese invasion to confirm details of number and spelling of names.”

But the Army still needs to clear up the latest confusion about the number of men on the ship, and exactly who they were.