For more than 60 years Jack Atkinson, a former US submariner, has carried in his wallet a faded news clipping.

It is a constant reminder of his terrible role in a tragic event of World War II, the sinking of the Montevideo Maru off the Philippines in 1942 killing nearly 1200, including 1053 Australians.

Atkinson was a machinist on USS Sturgeon, which by mistake torpedoed the Montevideo Maru, a merchant ship being used by the Japanese to transport prisoners-of-war and civilians from New Britain.

”The captain thought that it was a troop ship,” he said. ”He thought that’s what it was.”

Minutes later he was one of several crew members invited to inspect the damage through the submarine’s periscope. “We thought it was a troop ship… We saw people jumping over the sides,” says Atkinson, 93, fighting back tears. ”I’m so sorry that it happened. But we didn’t know about it… It was just a terrible thing.”

Atkinson, one of the few remaining observers of the encounter, is interviewed in the documentary The Tragedy of Montevideo Maru, to be shown on the History Channel tonight.

The screening coincides with a fresh initiative by family and friends to secure recognition and proper remembrance of those who died in the attack, who numbered more than twice the Australian casualties in the Vietnam War.

Next week a delegation led by Kim Beazley, ambassador-designate to the US, will press the Veterans’ Affairs Minister, Alan Griffin, to provide comfort and closure for the bereaved.

”The Montevideo sinking is Australia’s most devastating loss at sea, but is a quiet part of public consciousness of World War II history,” said Beazley, whose uncle is believed to have died in the sinking. His Labor Party colleague Peter Garrett also lost an uncle.

For those who died, the delegation will seek permanent national recognition, in the form of a memorial in Canberra, the declaration of the site of the sinking as an official war grave, and further efforts to establish precisely who was on board the ship.

Despite the passage of time, the disaster and the disorganised evacuation of Rabaul that preceded it remained imprinted on family and friends of the dead, said Keith Jackson, chairman of the Montevideo Maru memorial committee.

”There has been a continuation of grief and frustration to this day … because of failure by previous Australian governments to appropriately recognise the tragedy and effectively respond to a profound need for closure.”

Source: Still haunted by song of doomed diggers by John Huxley, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 November 2009