Past times: Montevideo Maru Feed

Beazley and I will meet Vets Minister on MvM

Veterans’ Affairs Minister Alan Griffin MP will meet with Prof Kim Beazley, ambassador-designate to the US, and me next Tuesday to discuss how the Australian Government can better recognise the Montevideo Maru tragedy.

“The Montevideo Maru sinking is Australia's most devastating loss at sea, but is a quiet part of public consciousness of World War II history,” Prof Beazley has said in a submission to the Federal Government.

The Japanese ship, carrying over 1000 Australian prisoners of war captured in Rabaul, New Guinea, was torpedoed off the coast of the Philippines on 1 July 1942. All the prisoners died.

The submission argues that War Cabinet decisions that led to the fall of Rabaul with the loss of so many Australian troops and civilians imposes a moral obligation on the Australian government and people that needs to be properly addressed.

Despite the passage of time the disaster of Rabaul and the Montevideo Maru remains powerfully imprinted on relatives of the 1500 or so people who died, including 1053 on the ship, but it is a muted part of Australia’s history.

There has been a continuation of grief and frustration, sustained to this day, for the relatives.

This is because they lack knowledge of how and where many of their loved ones died and because of failure by previous Australian Governments to appropriately recognise the tragedy and effectively respond to a profound need for closure.

The submission seeks permanent national recognition for those who died in the form of a memorial in Canberra and the declaration of the sinking site as an official war grave.

It also seeks the formation of a working party to plan how the tragedy can be made a better known part of Australia’s history.

“Getting this story more firmly into our national consciousness is a noble effort,” says Prof Beazley.

MvM doco to premiere on Foxtel Wednesday

Doco_Poster Wednesday is Remembrance Day and Foxtel will mark Australia’s greatest maritime disaster with the documentary, The Tragedy of the Montevideo Maru, premiering at 7.30pm on the History Channel.

Introduced by Sky News anchor Jim Waley – who lost a relative on the ship – and narrated by actor John Jarratt, the two-hour feature tells the story of the deaths of over 1,000 Australian POWs locked in the hold of the Japanese hellship Montevideo Maru when, in the early hours of 1 July 1942, it was torpedoed off the coast of the Philippines by the American submarine, USS Sturgeon.

The documentary recounts the harrowing story of the sacrifice and suffering endured by these men. It features re-enactments of the event as well as in-depth interviews with the only surviving Japanese crew member and a Sturgeon crew member who witnessed the sinking ship through the periscope.

The documentary also explores the broader story of the Australian POW experience and features interviews with Australian and British survivors of other prison ship sinkings.

“In the tradition of event television such as Beyond Kokoda and He’s Coming South, the History Channel remains committed to remembering the legacy of Australia’s brave men and women,” says Foxtel manager, Jim Buchan. “I’m delighted we’re able to share this truly incredible if forgotten story.”

Producer John Schindler said he was drawn to the story because his mother lost four friends in the sinking. “It is Australia’s greatest maritime tragedy with the loss of 1,053 lives and yet, remarkably, most Australians have never heard of it. This documentary will once and for all put faces to numbers.”

The Tragedy of the Montevideo Maru, World Premiere, Remembrance Day, Wednesday 11 November, 7.30pm, The History Channel, Foxtel

Now there's plenty of action to honour the MvM

Subic_Display Bob Chester is designer of the Hellships Memorial at Subic Bay, which is a marvellous tribute to prisoners of war unfortunate enough to be incarcerated on Japanese vessels in World War II.

Bob is currently working on a Montevideo Maru display in the Hellships Museum ready for a Remembrance Day service on 11 November - which PNG Attitude understands may be attended by a senior Australian politician.

He knows it's very short notice, but Bob would greatly appreciate memorabilia that can be loaned to him for presentation in the display on Remembrance Day. If you’re able to assist, his email address is

And you can see something of what Bob is doing by visiting this website here.

“We did a display of Montevideo Maru with things I could put up, carvings photos, story,” says Bob. “I have a large display case that needs items.”

The local Angeles City RSL Sub Branch, using $7200 from the Australian Department of Veterans’ Affairs, is installing an interpretative panel at the memorial and also assisting the museum to mount the display that tells the Montevideo Maru story.

In all, this is a splendid cooperative effort in the Philippines after many years during which this terrible  tragedy – Australia’s worst disaster at sea - has been sorely neglected at home.

Subic_Plaque Also in the next couple of weeks a project is to be launched to place a memorial, with a commemorative plaque for Lark Force and the men lost on the Montevideo Maru, at Cape Bojeador off the north-western tip of Luzon, the point most adjacent to where the ship was torpedoed 110 km to the west.

This project will cost $5000 to complete, which will be privately subscribed. At some point soon we’ll be soliciting donations from readers.

The objective is to have the memorial in place by 1 July 2010, the anniversary of the sinking of the ship.

The organisers are planning a ceremony on that day in which a boat will travel to the site of the tragedy and wreaths laid on the water.

It’s great to witness such a buzz of activity around the Montevideo Maru after so many years of neglect and official indifference.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday 17 November, Kim Beazley and I will meet with Veterans’ Affairs Minister Alan Griffin in Canberra to present a submission seeking greater national recognition of the tragedy. More about this in the weeks to come.

Upper photo: Bob Chester and assistants in action at the Hellships Museum

A small photo on the piano began a long journey

Portrait Film producer John Schindler, right, is reaching the end of a very long road.

His epic documentary The Tragedy of the Montevideo Maru is about to hit TV screens across Australia.

And in a nice touch, the two one-hour episodes are to be broadcast back-to-back on Foxtel’s History Channel on Remembrance Day, Wednesday 11 November, from 7.30 pm.

There’s no release date yet for the DVD, but I can tell you it will have much additional material and interviews not shown in the TV version.

“I got engaged with the Montevideo Maru story two years ago, when Mum died,” says Schindler.

“My brother and sister and I were deciding what should be done with items very precious to her and I was intrigued by a small photo Mum had on her piano. It was of a handsome lad, a friend of the family named John Wilson Day.

“My Mum and her sister Molly had promised John and the three Turner brothers that they’d wave goodbye to their troopship, Zealandia, from the middle of Sydney Harbour Bridge as it sailed in 1941.

“But they were late and, when they got there, the ship had passed Pinchgut and was almost out of sight.

“John and most of his company didn't come back from the war. Mum said it was a mystery what happened to them. All she knew was they died on a ship called the Montevideo Maru.”

And that’s how John Schindler became involved with the Montevideo Maru. It’s a compelling story, as I come to learn myself - and as Schindler explains.

“In my films, I’m drawn to factual stories about human bravery and self sacrifice for the good of other human beings. In the case of the Montevideo Maru the ultimate sacrifice was made by over 1,000 brave young Australian men.

“I think this story should be told for their sake, for the sake of their relatives, many of whom are still alive, and for the sake of the Australian people who enjoy a democratic society because of them.”

The film includes interviews with people connected with the tragedy as well as archival footage, still photos and dramatic re-enactments. The original music is by two of Australia’s top film music composers. Production began in 2007 and filming has taken place in San Francisco, Boston, Japan, the UK and throughout Australia.

Maru civilians on way to freedom when killed

Anniv Cover 1972 Historian Rod Miller has discovered new evidence linking the Montevideo Maru with planned internee exchanges between Japan and Australia in World War II.

In a paper, Sunk en route to freedom, Miller says the 1053 men being shipped from Rabaul when the Montevideo Maru was sunk off the Philippines by a US submarine on 1 July 1942 were being shipped to the Japanese-occupied island of Hainan in China.

It was Australia’s worst maritime disaster.

Miller agrees with the Chifley Government’s assessment that a post-war inquiry into the loss of the Rabaul men was unnecessary because all the facts associated with the occupation of the Rabaul area were known to the government.

“This knowledge included the loss of the men captured there [who were] aboard the Montevideo Maru,” Miller writes.

He says the movement of the Montevideo Maru was associated with the exchange of Japanese and Allied internees in 1942, writing: “circumstantial evidence supports the contention that the Rabaul men were being moved into a zone that had been negotiated with the Japanese for the exchange of civilian internees.”

Miller’s research also reinforces that the Australian government was exploring all avenues to gain information about the men in Rabaul, including negotiating with the Japanese.

The government received advice from Japanese sources about the Rabaul prisoners, citing this extract from a file:

“Approximately 1,300 troops were at Rabaul at the time of the Japanese attack: of these 700 were taken prisoner or surrendered, according to advice from Japanese sources, 300 were in hospital or were casualties, and 160 had just been rescued. This left 140 not accounted for. He thought that most, if not all of these, would be casualties.”

Even if the Rabaul prisoners had reached Hainan, however, they may not have made it to freedom.

The prisoner exchange may have foundered on Foreign Minister HV ‘Doc’ Evatt’s view that it could be “highly dangerous to return from Australia 1120 [Japanese] internees many of whom will be able to imperil our security during the critical period of war.”

History buffs can find the complete paper on Rod Miller’s Montevideo Maru website here.

Photo: PNG First day cover with postmark commemorating 30th anniversary of the departure of the Montevideo Maru from Rabaul on 22 June 1942. Left click on the image to enlarge it [Max Hayes]

Beazley & the other Methodist martyrs of Rabaul


Chris Diercke is a former school principal from Newcastle, a man with deep roots in the Gazelle Peninsula (think Vunapope born and Queen Emma lineage) and someone I admire. I have high hopes for him in his new role on the national committee of the PNG Association.

Chris’s son Nathan, who lives in the UK, is passionate about philately and, in a recent e-Bay purchase,  captured this first day cover from 1972 commemorating the departure of 12 Methodist missionaries aboard Montevideo Maru on its fateful last voyage.

It came together with a page, apparently extracted from a Rabaul Trinity Press publication, telling about the missionaries, all of whom worked in the Gazelle.

Nathan says the items emanated from a collector in Llandudno, Wales, and they attracted quite a number of bids, eventually fetching $25 (commemorative covers like this usually sell for around the $2-8 mark, he says). “It shows some interest from others out there,” Nathan comments.

An accoMethodist_Missionariesmpanying document depicts, and gives unexpectedly cheery biographical summaries of, the missionaries who were working in and around Rabaul when the Japanese invaded in January 1942.

What all these men have in common, apart from their Methodism, is that they were captured and interned by the Japanese and died on Montevideo Maru on 1 July 1942.

Among them is Sid Beazley, uncle of Kim – Australia’s next Ambassador to Washington. (It's just a little bizarre that Sid died when Montevideo Maru was torpedoed by the submarine Sturgeon, deployed by the US Navy.)

The page, headlined ‘A Noble Band’, has an introduction that reads:

"The Methodist missionaries aboard the Montevideo Maru are still remembered with love and respect by the people whom they served, including former pupils who are now leaders of the indigenous Church.

"These endorse the official tribute of November 1945: 'They brought to the New Guinea District a remarkable diversity of gifts combining spirituality, scholarship, administrative ability and practical and technical knowledge.' Each had his own particular qualities."

Uncle Sid And it proceeds with short profiles of the each of each man (and doesn't the pic here shows a close resemblance to a younger Kim?). The bio for Sid says :

"From Western Australia; served as a builder and technical instructor 1937-42. On loan to the North Australia District [of the Church] 1940-41, he had just returned to set up a technical School at Vunaraima when the war came. The buildings were destroyed but the influence of this missionary continued in the lives of the carpenters whom he trained."

We pause to think of Sid Beazley, just 33 when he died, and the other victims of the war in New Guinea.

Maru film: Spine-chilling surprises & revelations


Film producer John Schindler’s two-hour documentary on the Montevideo Maru (two 60-minute episodes) is now definitely scheduled for broadcast in November.

The Tragedy of the Montevideo Maru is to premiere on Foxtel’s History Channel – most likely on Thursday 11 November, Remembrance Day.

And Schindler promises fireworks.

“I’ve done the research and there will be surprises and revelations,” he says.

“The re-enactments we shot are spine-chilling. I just hope the relatives of the men who died will be OK with them.”

“But they were expensive to put together and there’s not even enough in the kitty for a launch party.”

Schindler spent all his money, and more, on the film. Earlier this year he mortgaged his house because he wanted the final result to be an appropriate tribute to one of Australia’s greatest, if unheralded, tragedies.

You’ve just got to be awestruck at that kind of commitment.

Readers without Foxtel should check PNG ATTITUDE for details of the DVD release expected to occur around the same time the program goes to air.

A moral obligation our nation must discharge

For the last few months I’ve been working with other members of the Montevideo Maru Memorial Committee to develop a paper seeking federal government recognition of the sacrifices associated with the Japanese invasion of Rabaul in 1942 and the sinking of the Montevideo Maru.

In broad terms, the submission tells the story of this tragic piece of Australian history and asks the government to agree to three recommendations:

(1) To construct a memorial in Canberra to commemorate the sacrifice of those who died defending Rabaul and the islands.

(2) To initiate action to have the site of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru declared an official war grave.

(3) To appoint an official group to develop strategies to ensure that the fall of Rabaul and the sinking of the Montevideo Maru remain an enduring part of the nation’s history.

In late 1941, the Australian Chiefs of Staff and the Australian Government, knowing the dangers and believing the sacrifice was justified in the defence of Australia, chose to position and retain Lark Force and civil administrators in Rabaul, and did not encourage other civilians to leave until too late.

It can be fairly said – and historian Prof Hank Nelson supports such an assertion that this decision, made by a new government confronting the most difficult circumstances, burdens the Australian nation with a significant moral obligation to those men and women and their relatives.

These people were compelled to make a sacrifice emanating from a need to defend Australia. It was a sacrifice that made a great contribution to the safety and security of the nation, and such a sacrifice was a very great contribution to the nation indeed.

I hope to be in Canberra in November alongside Australia’s ambassador designate to the US, Kim Beazley, to advocate the proposal to the federal government.

Dear Senator Faulkner, find the nominal roll


Dear Minister,

As a former member of the Defence Forces of Australia I saw active service at Milne Bay, Wau, Aitape-Wewak and the surrender of the 18th Army in New Guinea.

Since the end of the hostilities I have been engaged in trying to find out what happened to our captured forces at Rabaul and became interested in the shipping movement of the Montevideo Maru and other ships possibly involved in the transportation of prisoners from Rabaul particularly those of the captured civilians.

I endeavoured to trace the whereabouts of a roll described as the Katakana Roll brought to Australia from Japan and deposited with the Australian Army in Victoria Barracks in Melbourne.

The Katakana Roll was a handwritten document of manifold size paper comprising some 47 pages in Japanese writing.

I saw the roll which was retrieved by Brigadier later Sir Donald Cleland, Administrator of Papua New Guinea, who went to Melbourne and together with Mr Harry collected the roll and brought it to Rabaul for display to the Returned Servicemen as a matter of interest.

Sir Donald had required the roll for verification of matters pertaining to the establishment of registration of deaths in the Territory of PNG.

Sir Donald requested us to keep the matter from media release and now it is very difficult to find anybody living who recalls this meeting and I cannot recover any records pertaining to the roll itself nor any record of the interpretation translation.

I commend the foregoing to you for your consideration, action & advice please.

Yours faithfully,

Albert Speer, MBE

Dear Minister: Ailsa's letter from a bitter heart


Ailsa Nisbet is 87 and lives in Murrumbeena, a quiet and leafy suburb 13 km south-east of the Melbourne GPO. Nick Cave grew up there. So did Bill Shorten.

Last month, after making the long journey to attend the Montevideo Maru commemoration at Subic Bay, Ailsa wrote an impassioned letter to Veterans’ Affairs Minister, Alan Griffin. Here’s what she had to say:

I have just recently returned from a Montevideo Maru dedication in Subic Bay in the Philippines. It was a very emotional and long waited for recognition of the worst disaster in Australian history that so few people know about.

I lost a precious brother on that boat and know just what, after 67 years, this means to us. I believe you said you weren’t aware of any ‘document or cover up’. I can assure you it was a complete cover up from the Australian Government as well as the Japanese and we have waiting too long from some recognition of this disaster.

The ‘boys’ who escaped, because of no ammunition, guns etc, were treated as deserters when they returned and have been fighting for a Defence Medal all these years with many promises of being ‘looked into’ by so many politicians and ‘high up’ personnel and so far no result, they apparently didn’t serve long enough!

These beautiful young boys from the 2/22nd Battalion were sent to Rabaul – all volunteers to save our precious country, young gallant men who wanted to be in the Middle East to finish off the war, as they said.  It was not a picnic for them.  There was doubt that they would receive any deferred pay – 5/- a day pay was all they had – they were treated so badly.

I am sure their effort in Rabaul prevented Australia being taken over, as men with a minor resistance, they prevented a walk into Australia by the Japs and we would have lost this precious freedom we have here. The men who are left (14) are nearing the end of their lives – wonderful men who work tirelessly for remaining relatives and have fought for the Defence Medal, are too ill and frail to fight any longer, so I am begging you to do something about it.

Don’t put in on a shelf and say you will look into it - do it before it’s too late. We all have our freedom and our wonderful country because of what these gallant young men sacrificed for us.  I sometimes wonder why they bothered – they only seem to be remembered on special occasions like Anzac Day and then forgotten.

I am 82 years of age and would like to see this recognition for them before I die too. This letter is written from a bitter heart.

Thank you for reading it.

Photo: The annual get together marking the anniversary of the formation of the 2/22nd Battalion at Trawool in NE Victoria was held recently. Marg Curtis reports that there was a great turn up of around 100 family members and the weather was terrific.

Herstein article reveals more pieces of MvM story

The Herstein relatives’ take on the fall of Rabaul and the Montevideo Maru tragedy appraised by CHRIS DIERCKE, who's assiduously pursued the Norwegian connection with the story

Overall Benn Bolt's translation reflects as much as I know about the story, plus bits about which I knew nothing. It also reflects so many unknowns.

As of 2002, when the article was published, descendants of the Herstein crew were still in the dark about what happened to their forebears. Very little has changed.

In fact, the pursuits and achievements of the Montevideo Maru Memorial Committee to date have impressed the Norwegians with whom I'm in contact.

There are a few errors in the article, some probably due to translation: for example, New Britain is rendered as New England and coast watchers are called coast guards. And the date and time given for POWs boarding the Montevideo Maru (1 July at 3am) are both incorrect.

But the article, overall and in its detail, summarises the complexity of the Rabaul and Montevideo Maru tragedies and poses the question once more of what really happened to the Herstein crew and the rest of the hostages from Rabaul.

The author was correct in asserting that some prisoner lists did not include the Herstein crew. In fact some prisoner lists have only some crew members listed; some have no crew listed and a couple have them all listed.

I believe it's helpful and interesting to have received this article from Benn Bolt because it tells us a little more about Herstein and reinforces some information about which we were already aware.

The Herstein men’s fateful decision to stay

The final extract from an article by Norwegian STEINBJOERN MENTZONI on the men of MS Herstein, most of whom died in the sinking of the Montevideo Maru. Translated by Benn Bolt Jr

Once the Herstein crew gathered on land, Captain Gundersen took command.

The crew were accommodated in two nearby hotels, while boatswain Gerhard Olsen, engineer Peter Brandal and cook Arthur Landhaug were taken to hospital to get treatment for injuries received during the bombardment.

Early next morning came the message they all feared. Japanese ground forces were on their way to Rabaul.

The crew came together for a short conference. There was disagreement about what to do. Some thought they should be in the town when Japanese forces arrived.

Norway was not in war with Japan, and they believed they could be sent home, as other Norwegians had been before.

The third mate and third engineer wanted to stay in Rabaul. Gundersen did not trust the Japanese. He thought he could be forced to reveal things that could damage Allied shipping. He argued it was best to escape. The crew, except one of the youngest, wanted to stay in Rabaul. The young man probably died during the flight from Rabaul.

Before the crew split, the captain gave them 60 pounds each in cash. Then he farewelled the crew, urging them to get away from the harbour and the town. With the characteristic Nortraship cap on his head, Captain Gundersen was the only man that came home to their loved ones after the war in 1946.

The crew were taken prisoner by the Japanese, and put under surveillance. They were later used as slave labour. The story of their stay in custody is one of inhuman conditions, torture, starvation and no help or medication for the sick.

Late in June 1942, the prisoners were marched under a strong guard to board the Montevideo Maru. Destination was Hainan Island in Japan.

More than 1,000 people disappeared without a trace. Among them was the Norwegian ship’s crew. At the end of October 1945 authorities sent a telegram to those who waited: "Your husband was on board the prisoner ship Montevideo Maru which was sunk the first July 1942. None of the hostages survived". Several refused to believe this message.

There were no witnesses and there were no traces of the lost ship. There was no one who could explain what had happened. Some speculated that the truth did not come forward because it was deliberately hidden.

Their children hoped their fathers would soon come back. But they never came home. Some fathers from other parts of Japanese occupied areas came home. But no one from Rabaul. Many surviving family members still ask themselves: What happened to my husband and my brother?

Captain Gotfred M Gundersen died on 22 July 1971 and is buried in the cemetery at Tromøy, Arendal. He was the only one from the Herstein that got a grave where relatives can go to remember him.

Source: ‘Where is my son, my husband and my brother?’ by Steinbjoern Mentzoni, Helgelands Blad, 13-14 February 2002. Translated by Benn Bolt Jr, July 2009.

A longer version will be published in the August issue of MvM Newsletter, produced by Friends of Montevideo Maru. Join the Friends free here.

The fatal last voyage of the MS Herstein

An article by STEINBJOERN MENTZONI in a provincial Norwegian newspaper provides new insights into the men of MS Herstein trapped in the fall of Rabaul in 1942. Translated by Benn Bolt Jr

When Norway was occupied, orders came from the ‘new’ Norwegian government that all ships were to go to ports under German control. Not many officers followed this order; most ships instead heading to Allied ports, and became part of the fleet which fought against the Germans.

No one knows with certainty what happened to the crew of the Norwegian ship MS Herstein. The captain survived and came home to his family in Norway. The relatives of the rest of the ship crew still wonder today what happened to their loved ones.

When Herstein left Port Moresby harbour the Japanese forces were on the march, even though no one knew when they would attack. Captain Gotfred M Gundersen guided his ship along the New Guinea coast, navigating as close as possible to reefs to keep any Japanese submarines at bay.

Herstein had barely come into harbour in Rabaul before cargo booms were raised so that the loading of copra could begin. A new message from the authorities gave ordered Gundersen to take a full cargo of copra on board: 6,000 tons instead of 2,000 tons. The additional time in Rabaul was to have disastrous consequences for ship and crew.

Captain Gundersen was at naval control for final orders before departure from Rabaul. The crew began to make the ship seaworthy, even though loading was not complete. Rumours had it that the attack on Rabaul was not far off. There was nervousness in the small Australian garrison.

Herstein was still in Rabaul when it was attacked by Japanese aircraft on 20 January 1942. Captain Gundersen ran towards the ship to get on board. There was no chance. The ship was far from naval control and there was total chaos in the area. About 100 aircraft approached at low altitude.

Bombs and incendiaries hit the ship, which quickly caught fire. Anti-aircraft artillery fired on land and on the ship. The crew struggled to limit the fire. They connected all available fire hoses.

On deck the first mate Møller tried to extinguish the fire. With him was second mate Benn Bolt. But the heat and flames had become so intense that Møller gave orders to abandon ship. Left on deck was steward Karl Thorsell from Sweden. He was killed in the battle. Some other crew members were injured, but managed to get ashore. The crew also got Thorsell’s body ashore. It lies in an unknown grave.

Source: Extracts from ‘Where is my son, my husband and my brother?’ by Steinbjoern Mentzoni, Helgelands Blad, 13-14 February 2002. Translated by Benn Bolt Jr, July 2009.

Tomorrow: ‘The Herstein men make a fateful decision’. A longer version will be published in the August issue of MvM Newsletter, produced by Friends of Montevideo Maru. Join the Friends free here.

MvM recognition boosted – and now the next step


During the last week or so - and especially in the last 24 hours - there has been great media and political attention on the 1 July 1942 sinking of the Japanese prison ship, Montevideo Maru, that cost 1,053 lives.

You can find ABC-TV's report (WWII tragedy remembered) on yesterday's ceremony at Subic Bay here and SBS-TV’s report (Maritime disaster remembered) here. You'll have to forgive the ABC's interpretation of the ship's name - Motivideo Maru – and get through the SBS intro ad, but both pieces are worth a look. Our thanks to PJ Madam (SBS) and Gavin Fang (ABC) for their work.

The press coverage of the issue has been too extensive to list here but there were substantial articles in all of Australia’s major newspapers – including The Australian, Age, Sydney Morning Herald and Canberra Times – as well as in many regional papers and on the internet. 

Alan Jones was particularly supportive through his nationally syndicated radio program.

And Foxtel took the opportunity of the anniversary to announce that it will screen John Schindler's two-part documentary, The Tragedy of the Montevideo Maru, later this year.

After an early hiccough, the political commentary was generous and to the point.

Veterans’ Affairs Minister Alan Griffin called for the nation to pause and remember the 1053 Australian lives lost. “War brings many tragedies and today we remember one of the greatest tragedies of the Second World War,” he said.

Shadow Minister Louise Markus thanked and acknowledged the men who “made the ultimate sacrifice for this nation, a sacrifice that has contributed to the peace we enjoy today”, adding: “But there is still more to do for the families of these heroes. I urge the Australian Government to do everything that it can to locate the resting place of the Montevideo Maru.

And Australia’s Ambassador to the Philippines, Rod Smith, appended an eloquent and pertinent footnote when he concluded yesterday’s speech at Subic Bay by saying: “This tragedy is not forgotten. The families are not forgotten. These men are not forgotten. We honour them all.”

These are words that the victims’ families have wanted to hear and have so often been denied by politicians and bureaucrats down the years.

The public exposure of the Montevideo Maru issue will take a rest for a while, but the Montevideo Maru Memorial Committee will continue to prepare a submission for the Federal Government on how this tragedy can be prominently and permanently marked.

Some proposals include a memorial in Canberra and for the site of the sinking to be declared a Commonwealth War Grave. PNG Attitude reader Bob Curtis has usefully suggested that the PNGAA could take the lead in organising a public subscription for a memorial plaque.

These and other ideas will be considered by the Committee. The submission is expected to be with the Commonwealth early next year – and then will follow a vigorous process of advocacy.

We’ll keep you informed from time to time, but if you want more regular information through a monthly newsletter or to express support for these activities you can become a Friend of Montevideo Maru by emailing me here. By the way, yesterday the number of Friends passed the 100 milestone.

Photo: Andrea Williams (PNGAA) and Phil Ainsworth (PNGVR Ex-Members Association) at Subic Bay. Both are organising members of the Montevideo Maru Memorial Committee.

These men are not forgotten, they are honoured

These extracts are taken from the speech given by ROD SMITH, Australia's Ambassador to the Philippines, who presided at the Montevideo Maru memorial service at Subic Bay today

Smith_Rod At about a quarter past ten on the night of Tuesday 30 June 1942, the United States  submarine Sturgeon patrolling northwest of Bojeador of Luzon sighted a darkened ship on a westerly course going at high speed.

The log of the submarine’s captain, Lieutenant Commander WL Wright, tells the story:

“Put on all engines and worked up to full power, proceeding to westward in attempt to get ahead of him. For an hour and a half we couldn't make a nickel. This fellow was really going, making at least 17 knots…

“Determined to hang on in the hope he would slow … sure enough, about midnight he slowed to about 12 knots. After that it was easy…

“At 0225 fired four-torpedo spread, range 4000 yards. At 0229 heard and observed explosion about 75-100 feet abaft stack. At 0240 observed ship sink stern first. He was a big one.

“A few lights were observed on deck just after the explosion, but there was apparently no power available, and his bow was well up in the air in six minutes.”

The ship torpedoed and sunk was the Montevideo Maru. To the best of our knowledge, she carried 1,053 prisoners from the Australian Territory of New Guinea, one as young as fifteen.

There were fathers and sons, civilians and troops, missionaries and traders, businessmen and administrators. They had all been captured and interned by the Japanese in Rabaul. They all died.

The youngest, the fifteen-year old, was Ivan Gascoigne, recorded as a clerk, the son of Cyril Gascoigne, who also died.

The sinking of the Montevideo Maru at 2.40 am on Wednesday 1 July 1942 was Australia’s greatest disaster at sea, then and now. It remains one of our country’s worst disasters.

This memorial to the Hell Ships of World War 2 now includes a commemorative plaque to mark the tragedy of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru 67 years ago today.

The plaque has been placed here as a result of the generosity of a number of private organisations - the NGVR/PNGVR Ex-Members Association, the Lark Force Association, the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia and the Greenbank Returned Services League Club in Brisbane.

I pay tribute today to all of you who have travelled so far to be present for this historic event in this special place.

This tragedy is not forgotten. The families are not forgotten. These men are not forgotten. We honour them all.

Opposition wants govt to fund search for MvM

Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs LOUISE MARKUS MP has marked today’s memorial ceremony at Subic Bay by calling on the Federal government to fund a search for the Montevideo Maru

The unveiling of a new plaque to commemorate Australian prisoners of war and civilians lost when the Montevideo Maru sank after being torpedoed off the Philippines in World War II is welcomed.

The sinking of the Montevideo Maru with the loss of 1053 Australian prisoners of war and civilians on I July 1942 is the greatest single tragedy in Australia’s maritime history but more importantly it is one of our lesser known.

Those who perished had been previously captured and held by the Japanese at Rabaul on the Island of New Britain in what is now known as Papua New Guinea.

It is important to thank and acknowledge those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this nation, a sacrifice that has contributed to the peace we enjoy today.

But there is still more to do for the families of these heroes. I urge the Australian Government to do everything that it can to locate the resting place of the Montevideo Maru.

In April 2008 a spokesperson for the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd said the Government would consider the idea of a fundraising appeal to find the ship.

In June 2009 my parliamentary colleague Steve Ciobo tabled a series of petitions on behalf of 1,295 Australians calling on the Rudd Government to fund the search for the ship.

I call on the Government to respond so that families who lost their loved ones can have closure.

Australia should pause and remember: Minister

On the 67th anniversary of Australia’s worst maritime disaster, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Alan Griffin, has called for the nation to pause and remember the 1053 Australian lives lost in the sinking of the Montevideo Maru.

“War brings many tragedies and today we remember one of the greatest tragedies of the Second World War,” Mr Griffin said.

Speaking on indulgence in Parliament last week, Mr Griffin said the story of the sinking was an unfortunate and lesser known episode of the Second World War.

“On 1 July 1942, a United States submarine, USS Sturgeon, torpedoed and sank what it believed to be a Japanese merchant vessel. It was in fact the Montevideo Maru, carrying Australian prisoners of war and civilians who were locked in the hold with no means of escape once the ship was struck,” he said.

“On board were 1053 Australian prisoners of war and civilians who had been captured and held by the Japanese at Rabaul on the island of New Britain, in what is now known as Papua New Guinea.

“The Montevideo Maru took 11 minutes to sink.  No Australians survived.  It was not until after the war that Australian authorities discovered the tragic fate of those captured at Rabaul.

“The families and associations with connections to the Montevideo Maru have never lost sight of the tragedy that occurred 67 years ago. That some questions concerning the ship may never be answered must also add to their sense of loss.  It is something that we as a nation should never forget,” Mr Griffin said.

Mr Griffin said a local ceremony would be held in Subic Bay to remember those lost in the tragedy.

“Today the Australian Ambassador to the Philippines, Mr Rod Smith, will unveil a plaque commemorating those on board the Montevideo Maru on behalf of the Papua New Guinea Volunteer Rifles Association at the Hellships Memorial, established in memory of all the ships that carried POWs,” he said.

Mr Griffin also confirmed he has approved a $7200 grant to enhance the central plinth at Subic Bay.

“Later in the year, under a grant made by the Australian Government to the RSL Angeles Sub-Branch in the Philippines, commemoration of the Montevideo Maru at the Hellships Memorial will be further enhanced and an interpretation will be placed in a nearby museum.”

The funds have been granted through the Overseas Privately-Constructed Memorial Restoration Program, which recognises the contribution that organisations around the world make to honouring Australia’s wartime heritage.

The fateful order: ‘Continue loading copra’

Rev Neville Threlfall

MS_Herstein The failure to evacuate civilians on the Norwegian freighter Herstein [left], in port at Rabaul in January 1942 just ahead of the Japanese invasion, occurred because of an order that the ship was to "continue loading copra".

It is usually stated that the Curtin Government made this heartless response to the request by Harold Page, Deputy Administrator at Rabaul, that Australian civilians, except for some essential personnel, be evacuated on the Herstein.

But who was actually responsible for that order? Prime Minister John Curtin had his hands full with the 8th Division fighting a losing battle in Malaya and other Australian troops fighting in North Africa, where Tobruk had just been relieved.

It is extremely doubtful that he knew about Page's request. The request was sent to the Department of External Territories, which passed it on to the Treasury because of the commercial importance of the copra waiting to be loaded at Rabaul.

Again, it is doubtful whether Treasurer JB (Ben) Chifley saw it. Some Commonwealth departments were located in Melbourne and some were in Canberra. Cabinet ministers were kept busy shuttling between the two cities (costing the lives of three ministers when their plane crashed near Canberra in 1940.) More likely a public servant in the Treasury made the decision, for that is where the reply originated.

My authority for this is an interview with the late Jim Burke in 1981. Jim was employed in the Public Service of the Mandated Territory in 1941 and, when Australian women and children were evacuated from Rabaul on the Neptuna and the Macdhui on 22 December 1941, he was posted to the Neptuna as welfare officer for the evacuees.

When he reported to External Territories in Australia he was told not to return to Rabaul and was seconded to the Treasury for the rest of the war. While working there Jim saw the original of the telegram: “Continue loading copra”.

Page’s first telegram was sent on 16 January 1942. He repeated his request on the 19th, while copra loading continued. But the only answer came from Japanese dive-bombers, which on 20 January set the Herstein’s cargo ablaze and reduced her to a total wreck.

Harold Page was a very correct public servant and had obeyed orders.

Weeks later he confided to his fellow-prisoner Gordon Thomas that he now wished that he had acted on his own initiative and carried out the evacuation without official permission; but it had not entered his head to do so at the time.

Page himself would have remained in Rabaul in any case, with a few others to maintain order; but in the end he joined the other Rabaul civilians on the Montevideo Maru who paid with their lives for the demand to “continue loading copra”.

History Channel commissions MvM documentary

Movie On the 67th anniversary of Australia’s greatest maritime disaster, the History Channel announced it has commissioned a two-part TV documentary to commemorate the sinking of the Japanese POW hell ship, Montevideo Maru and, the publicity claims, “uncover the mystery behind it”.

The series will premiere on the History Channel in late 2009. Entitled The Tragedy Of The Montevideo Maru, it will tell the story of how, on 1 July 1942, the Japanese was torpedoed in the early hours of the morning off the Philippines’ coast by the USS Sturgeon.

What the Americans did not realise at the time was that the ship was in fact a floating prison - holding over 1000 Australian POWs and civilians. Not one of them survived.

Group channel manager for Foxtel’s History Channel, Jim Buchan, said “We’re thrilled to be able to continue our commitment to commissioning vital Australian documentaries for our national audience.

“In the tradition of event television such as The Battle of Long Tan, Beyond Kokoda, and He’s Coming South, we regard the visual documentation of Australia’s history an important part of remembering the legacy left behind by our brave men and women for the next generation.”

Mr Buchan said the documentaries will ensure that the brave Australian soldiers who served on New Britain and New Ireland, and who perished on that fateful night, will never be forgotten.

The documentary is produced by film maker John Schindler.

The fall of Rabaul and the Montevideo Maru

Elizabeth Thurston & Andrea Williams

A memorial to the sinking of the Montevideo Maru, Australia’s greatest disaster at sea, will be unveiled at a ceremony at Subic Bay at 11am this morning by Australian Ambassador to the Philippines, Rod Smith.

The Montevideo Maru left Rabaul on 22 June 1942 with 1053 prisoners of war, all of whom tragically died when the ship was torpedoed on this day in 1942.

The establishment of the memorial has been coordinated by the Montevideo Maru Memorial Committee supported by the NGVR/PNGVR Ex-Members Association, Lark Force, the PNGAA and Greenbank RSL. The site is part of the Hellships Memorial dedicated to prisoners of war who suffered on Japanese vessels.

With the outbreak of World War 2, Rabaul became of strategic importance. The Army authorised the formation of the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR), a militia unit formed from Rabaul’s white residents. A detachment of young Chinese men, determined to contribute, formed an Ambulance Brigade which became part of the NGVR.

In March 1941, with the threat of Japanese invasion looming, the Australian Government sent Lark Force to Rabaul - 1400 men from the 2/22nd battalion and other units. Their band comprised the Brunswick Salvation Army band from Melbourne. Soon after, the 2/10th Field Ambulance, which included nursing sisters, also arrived.

On neighbouring New Ireland, Kavieng was defended by the Commandos 1st Independent Company.

Most European women and children had been evacuated from Rabaul on the Macdhui and Neptuna by Christmas 1941. The hospital nurses were offered evacuation but remained. The army nurses were not offered evacuation. Some civilian and missionary women stayed in the Rabaul area.

Because they were not Australian citizens, Chinese and mixed-race women and children did not qualify for evacuation. The civilians who remained in Rabaul consisted of administration officers, planters, businessmen and traders. Most of the women and children evacuated never saw their husbands and fathers again.

On 19 January 1942, the Norwegian cargo ship Herstein arrived in Rabaul to load copra. When it was bombed in a Japanese air raid, the civilian population suspected it had lost its last opportunity to leave. Although no one knew it then, the Australian Government had already made the decision that the men in Rabaul were ‘hostages to fortune’.

When the Japanese invaded with 5000 troops on 23 January 1942, Lark Force had little chance. The men of the 2/22nd put up a gallant fight but were overpowered.

The order “Every man for himself” was given and the men who had survived the battle tried to escape to the north and south coasts of New Britain. Without food in gruelling tropical conditions they faced great difficulty.

The Japanese dropped pamphlets declaring they would be treated as prisoners of war and many surrendered. Most returned to Rabaul and about 150 were executed at Tol Plantation on the shores of Wide Bay. Most of the civilian men were captured early after the invasion and interned for five months in a camp at Rabaul.

On 22 June 1942, 845 members of Lark Force and 208 civilians were marched aboard the Montevideo Maru. The ship set sail for Hainan Island. On the night of 1 July, about 30 km west of Luzon, the US submarine Sturgeon torpedoed the ship which listed and sank immediately.

The captain of Sturgeon, Commander Wright, had no idea the Montevideo Maru was carrying allied POWs. The men from Rabaul were all lost. The sinking of the Montevideo Maru became the greatest maritime disaster in Australian history.

A statement by the Minister for External Territories in the Australian House of Representatives on 5 October 1945 said: “These servicemen and civilians who have lost their lives in such a tragic manner have undoubtedly given their lives in defence of Australia just as surely as those who died face to face with the enemy. To their next of kin the Commonwealth Government extends its deepest sympathy.”

Lest We Forget.

Not knowing men’s fate was the hardest thing

From ILYA GRIDNEFF, AAP's correspondent in Port Moresby

The hardest thing for families who lost relatives in the sinking of the Montevideo Maru during World War 2 was not knowing the fate of their loved ones.

But for those families, closure may finally come on Wednesday when a plaque is unveiled at an official ceremony marking Australia's worst maritime tragedy.

Ailsa Nisbet, 82, along with her daughter Marg Curtis and cousin Ron Hayes, will represent one of 15 Australian families at the July 1 memorial at Subic Bay in the Philippines.

They leave Melbourne today to pay respects to Ms Nisbet's brother, Private John "Jack" Groat, who was on board the Montevideo Maru when it sank on July 1, 1942, carrying 845 prisoners of war from Australia's Lark Force and 208 civilian men.

The troops had been taken prisoner after Japan invaded Rabaul in PNG in January 1942.

The unmarked Japanese ship left occupied Rabaul on June 22, 1942 but nine days later an American submarine, unaware it was carrying allied prisoners, torpedoed it off the Philippines coast.

The sinking of the ship was not reported back to Australia, and for several years the fate of the prisoners of war was unknown. Ms Nisbet said for years her brother's fate was a mystery.

"The family was first told he was missing," she said. "Then they said 'missing presumed dead', then we got a message he was a prisoner of war, then we got a letter from Jack saying he was being looked after by the Japanese. But that's all. Mum didn't hear what happened until late 1945. And there is still doubt about it," she said.

Phil Ainsworth, in the Philippines for the event, said the committee aimed to get more national recognition for the tragedy. "This memorial will give the families some comfort because even now 67 years later they still feel discomforted and in grief," he said.

Veterans' Affairs Minister Alan Griffin marked the 67th anniversary of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru in a speech to Parliament last Friday. "I've spoken to individuals who lost family members as part of the Montevideo Maru and I know these things remain with people forever," he said. "I express my heartfelt sympathy for their loss."

Source: Wartime sea tragedy to be marked by

Ilya Gridneff [AAP], The Age. 29 June 2009. Read the entire article here

MvM victims honoured in our Parliament

The Minister for Veterans Affairs, Alan Griffin MP, and the Shadow Minister, Louise Markus MP, yesterday afternoon gave speeches to the House of Representatives marking the 67th anniversary of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru.  Because of their significance, PNG Attitude reports them in full:

Mr GRIFFIN (Bruce—Minister for Veterans’ Affairs) (3.53 pm)—War brings many tragedies and next week we commemorate one of the greatest tragedies of the Second World War. On 1 July 1942, a United States submarine patrolling the Babuyan Channel leading from Luzon in the Philippines into the South China Sea torpedoed and sank what it believed to be a Japanese merchant vessel. It was in fact the Montevideo Maru carrying Australian prisoners of war. Its sinking is the greatest single maritime tragedy in Australia’s history, with the loss of 1,053 Australian lives. The Montevideo Maru carried no markers identifying it as a POW transport and was indistinguishable from legitimate targets of allied aircraft and submarines. The prisoners were locked in the hold with no means of escape once the ship was struck. The Montevideo Maru took 11 minutes to sink. No prisoners survived.

What we know of this tragedy comes from Japanese survivors who eventually reached Manila and reported the sinking. By the time searches were launched, it was too late. No trace of the vessel or any survivors could be found. On board were 1,053 Australian prisoners of war and civilians who had been captured and held by the Japanese at Rabaul on the island of New Britain in what is now Papua New Guinea. Among those aboard was former member for Brand Kim Beazley’s uncle and the current member for Kingsford Smith’s grandfather.

Through the war, Australian authorities sought information on the whereabouts of those captured at Rabaul. However, they were never informed that the Montevideo Maru was sunk with the loss of all prisoners during the war. It was not until after the war that Australian authorities discovered the tragic story. With 1 July this year being the 67th anniversary of the sinking of the ship, we will pause to remember the loss.

The servicemen lost on the Montevideo Maru are among the 12,104 casualties of World War II who have no known grave.

On 1 July this year, the Australian Ambassador to the Philippines, Mr Rod Smith, will unveil a plaque commemorating those on board the Montevideo Maru on behalf of the Papua New Guinea Volunteer Rifles Association at the Hell Ships Memorial established in memory of all the ships that carried POWs. Later in the year, under a grant made by the Australian government to the RSL Angeles sub branch in the Philippines, commemoration of the Montevideo Maru at the Hell Ships memorial will be further enhanced and an interpretation will be placed in a nearby museum.

The families and associations with connections to the Montevideo Maru have never lost sight of the tragedy that occurred 67 years ago. That it is still shrouded in mystery must also add to their sense of loss. It is something that we as a nation should never forget, as I am sure all members would agree.

Mrs MARKUS (Greenway) (3.56 pm)—I rise on indulgence, Mr Speaker. I would like to associate the coalition with the minister’s remarks. The sinking of the Montevideo Maru with the loss of 1,053 Australian prisoners of war and civilians on 1 July 1942 is the greatest single tragedy in Australia’s maritime history.

More importantly, it is also one of our lesser known.

The Montevideo Maru sank after being torpedoed off the Philippines. There were no survivors. The Australian prisoners of war and civilians who perished had been captured and held by the Japanese at Rabaul on the island of New Britain in what is now known as Papua New Guinea. I note that the names of the army and air force casualties are listed on the memorial to the missing at the Bita Paka war cemetery in Rabaul, which I have had the honour of visiting.

In placing my condolences on the record today, I wish to help to bring to the attention of the Australian public this little-known sacrifice of 1,053 Australians on board the Montevideo Maru so many years ago. In particular, I wish to thank and acknowledge those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this nation, a sacrifice that has contributed to the peace that we enjoy today.

I understand that on 1 July on the 67th anniversary of the tragedy the Australian Ambassador to the Philippines will unveil a new plaque commemorating those on board the Montevideo Maru on behalf of the PNG Volunteer Rifles Association at the Hell Ships Memorial established in memory of all the ships that carried prisoners of war. I commend this latest acknowledgement of the tragedy, but also wish to remind the House of the important and vital contribution of our veteran community, past, present and also into the future. It is important in honouring those who have served our nation and given the ultimate sacrifice and also in acknowledging the significant loss to their families that every effort is made to locate the resting place of those who lost their lives at sea on that fateful day. I ask and urge the government to do everything that it can to locate the resting place of those who lost their lives when the Montevideo Maru sank. Lest we forget.

Griffin makes parliamentary statement on MvM

It’s been difficult to get details. We even called the Minister’s office without luck. But it seems Veterans Affairs Minister Alan Griffin made a statement on the Montevideo Maru in Federal Parliament this afternoon.

Our first alert came from Rod Miller, who, it is clear, assiduously checks hits on his website, and also has great prescience. “Had a couple of hits today that I haven't seen before,” said Rod, a pre-eminent researcher on the Montevideo Maru. They were all from the ACT and two from Parliament House itself.

Chris Diercke was the first to confirm the statement to Parliament, and tried hard to get a copy. Like me, he'll have to wait for Hansard in the morning.

Then Brian Darcey reported in: “4pm today. A belated, but welcome statement from the Minister just read out in the House of Reps was no doubt prompted by your letter to The Australian. Better late than never, but his lack of any real knowledge of the tragedy was confirmed when he repeatedly mispronounced 'Rabaul'.”

Come on, Brian, let’s not be churlish.

More information as we get it. I'm in Melbourne tomorrow for a few days and might find it difficult to post. Bear with me.

Leading academic busts some myths & legends

Down the years many myths and theories developed around the fall of Rabaul and the sinking of the Montevideo Maru in 1942. In next month’s Montevideo Maru Newsletter, historian EMERITUS PROFESSOR HANK NELSON addresses some of these. A preview...


There are repeated statements by people of good intent about the government declining to hold an inquiry after the war. Sometimes the Pacific Islands Monthly is quoted ['Australian government will not inquire into Rabaul'].

In fact, if you go back to Chifley's speech on 28 June 1946, he said at the end of a rowdy debate that had covered many subjects that if it could be shown that men in command were guilty of 'corruption, dishonesty or treason' he would favour inquiries.

He referred to specific military failures - Dunkirk, Malaya, the Middle East - but not Rabaul. At the end of his speech, Menzies, then leader of the Opposition, said 'I personally agree with him'.

Introducing the debate, Anthony had mentioned the three incidents involving the 23rd Brigade - Timor, Ambon and Rabaul. Anthony spoke mostly about Ambon and Timor but he did include Rabaul at the end of his speech.

The Curtin government is often held responsible for the disaster of Rabaul, and Curtin as Prime Minister in January 1942 certainly had a responsibility for events occurring then.

But the Labor Government had nothing to fear from an inquiry. The Menzies and Fadden governments had made the decision to deploy the troops to Rabaul (and to other points where over 20,000 became prisoners) and Curtin inherited those decisions in October 1941. Menzies had been in power when other disasters such as Greece and Crete had taken place.

The War Cabinet papers are instructive. After the Japanese entered the war, the fate of the troops in Rabaul was reconsidered. The Chiefs of Staff advised that they should stay. They made this recommendation knowing that the invading force likely to be faced by Lark Force would be overwhelming and that Australia would be unable to strengthen or evacuate the troops.

They made this recommendation because Australia was then making strong pleas to the Dutch and the British to fight in the Netherlands East Indies and Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong and we wanted the Americans to fight in the Philippines and to deploy forces in Australia and in the southwest Pacific. We could hardly do this and withdraw our own troops.

Also we wanted to maintain a 'forward observation line' and wanted to force the Japanese to commit troops and materiel to an invasion force. It was not so much the time taken by the troops in Rabaul in resisting an attack that was important, but the fact that their presence meant that the Japanese had to bring together an extensive force of ships (including aircraft carriers, mine sweepers, submarines, troop carriers) and aircraft.

The chiefs of staff reported that they did not have the shipping to evacuate or escort Australian troops and they did not have the aircraft to protect the ships at sea. It is true but unlikely that the Curtin government could have over-ruled the chiefs of staff.

The Chiefs of Staff also advised that civilian government in Rabaul should continue. Obviously they did not want the troops diverted to maintaining martial law and they did not want chaos on the eve of an invasion. (Kieta was looted when the civilian government left and even on Misima and the Trobriands there was a break down in law and order.)

When the War Cabinet received Page's urgent request to evacuate non-essential government personnel, it was the Chiefs of Staff who made what turned out to be the disastrously slow recommendation to Page to send a list of the numbers involved. The Chiefs of Staff were more aware by 17 December that they could not supply ships or aircraft to secure passage of civilians from Rabaul. They knew that they would be taking a great risk in encouraging people to put to sea when the skies were dominated by the Japanese. In retrospect of course that risk was worth taking.

The Curtin Government had inherited the policy of the dispersal of small forces to the north and it had acted in conformity with the best available advice. The arguments of the Chiefs of Staff were rational - even if you disagree with them. And you can read in the War Cabinet minutes Curtin asking the Chiefs of Staff for assurance that all possible was being done for the men in Rabaul. So the Labor government had little to fear from an inquiry.

PNG Attitude will bring readers full coverage of the Montevideo Maru memorial service at Subic Bay next Wednesday, the 67th anniversary of the sinking.

You can obtain the Newsletter each month by becoming a Friend of Montevideo Maru. I's free and you can be added to the email list here.


Maru slips minister’s radar: The Australian, Today

Mark Day must be complimented for his compelling story on the Montevideo Maru ("Mystery of the missing hell ship”, Inquirer, 20-21/6). But Veterans Affairs Minister Alan Griffin has fumbled the issue once again.

Last week Griffin said he was “not aware of any claims regarding lost documents” in relation to the sinking of the Montevideo Maru on July 1, 1942, Australia’s worst sea disaster that cost 1,053 lives.

A central part of the story surrounding the fate of the men of Rabaul was the disappearance of a Japanese manifest and other key documents relating to the men’s fate. Failure to acknowledge this is a serious enough admission for any Australian politician but a real own goal by the man who carries the title of Minister for Veterans Affairs.

Now Griffin has told Day he “will consider any requests from the (Montevideo Maru) committee” concerning the ship. But this was a grudging admission, as the next part of the quote showed: “Australians fought and died at many locations around the world. We do a lot in recognition of this and are doing more, but it is difficult to satisfy every concern people have.”

That’s quite a putdown. In the days before the July 1 unveiling of a memorial at Subic Bay—to which his government has contributed nothing, not even the presence of an MP—why couldn’t Griffin have said simply how sorry he feels for the relatives who still grieve for their men. Why couldn’t he have said that the Commonwealth recognises this as a great tragedy. Why couldn’t he have added how Australians should remember these sacrifices with deep gratitude and humility.

And why couldn’t he have pledged that, on Thursday June 25, the last sitting day before the ceremony at Subic Bay, he would rise in the House of Representatives to deliver a tribute to the men of Rabaul, including those who died on the Montevideo Maru?

Now that would be true statesmanship.

Keith Jackson
Chairman, Montevideo Maru Memorial Committee
Neutral Bay, NSW

Source: Letter to the Editor, The Australian, Tuesday, 23 June 20009

On this day, 1942, the Montevideo Maru sailed


On this day, Monday 22 June, in 1942, 1,053 men – military prisoners and civilian internees - were marched from their camp to Rabaul harbour.

“On other days they had walked the same route to work on the docks,” wrote Ian Hodges, “but this time they carried whatever kit they possessed and were flanked by guards with machine guns.

“Chinese and New Guinean dockside labourers saw them board a ship, the 10,000-ton Montevideo Maru The labourers were among the last to see her human cargo alive.”

So on this day we remember the 201 civilians, ranging in age from 15 to 63, who were marched aboard that ship, including the 23 crew members of the Norwegian merchant vessel, Herstein.

And we remember the 852 personnel from these military units, most of them attached to Lark Force:

2/22nd Battalion
2/22 Battalion Bandsmen, all members of Salvation Army Bands
1st Independent Company
Fortress Artillery
Signal Units
No 17 Anti-Tank Battery
Anti-Aircraft Battery
No 19 Special Dental Unit
New Guinea Volunteer Rifles
2/10 Field Ambulance
Ordinance Corps
8 Division Supply Column
Canteen Services HQ
Royal Australian Airforce
Royal Australian Navy

Two emails but not a conversation as yet

 ----- Original Message -----

From: Griffin, Alan (MP)

To: Keith Jackson

Sent: Monday, June 22, 2009 12:05 AM


Dear Mr Jackson

I get really sick of people who haven’t had the courtesy to put a proposal to me directly for consideration trying to conduct a campaign through the media.

Given your extensive involvement in the Labor Party for such a long period of time, I’m bloody disappointed that you know so little about how to try and have an issue properly considered. 

Given your supposed expertise on this matter I’m also surprised that  you are so unaware that Defence, not Veterans’ Affairs are responsible for support around searches for missing vessels and the recovery and identification of remains.  If you’d been paying attention you would have seen that recently with who was commenting around such matters with respect to HMAS Sydney, Fromelles and recent MIA searches in Vietnam.

As to what I said to Mark Day, I would have thought that someone with your extensive political and journalistic experience would know that journalist select quotes from interviews and the story is then edited accordingly.  Therefore, you should know that you don’t know what else I said or the context in which it was said.

And as a lobbyist I would have expected a bit more sophistication when it comes to commenting on the political process.

Best wishes

Alan Griffin


From: Keith Jackson

To: Griffin, Alan (MP)

Sent: Monday, June 22, 2009 07:34:42 AM


Dear Alan -

This issue has been put to Government many times. The relatives have been booted around the park, fobbed off, pushed from pillar to post. And, yes, advised that DVA was the place to go.

"Know how to get the issue properly considered", you're kidding. What do you expect people to do when they've been frustrated so many times? Meekly fade away? Hmm, I think I'm on to something there.

Mark told me he'd mentioned to you "Why not tell them what they want to hear – that you’ll find a way to give comfort". It was good advice. And you would not have been "taken out of context", if indeed you were, if you'd said something approximating those 'words of comfort' Mark referred to.

I'll ignore your final par. My colleagues and I will just keep on fighting for a group of Australians whose relatives paid a very high price for their country; a group of people who still grieve and who have been ignored for too long.

I am sorry, given your eminent position in our community, that you do not seem to be prepared to do likewise.



Shock: Minister unaware of nominal roll mystery

In an extraordinary admission, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Alan Griffin, has told the Sydney Morning Herald he is "not aware of any claims regarding lost documents or a cover-up" regarding the Montevideo Maru.

The Minister has thereby revealed his ignorance of one of the great mysteries surrounding the fate of the men of Rabaul and reinforced the feelings of victims’ relatives that the Commonwealth Government doesn’t know and doesn’t care.

And that's the disappearance of the nominal (Katakana) roll - written in Japanese characters - and other key documents relating to what happened to the men of Rabaul interned by the Japanese in early 1942.

Mr Griffin made his remarks in an interview by the Herald’s John Huxley for an article published today to mark the 67th anniversary of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru. The article is online here.

It tells the story of Philip "Hooky" Street who grew up in Rabaul where his father, James, was solicitor-general.

"The last time I saw him was Christmas 1940. I was only 11 years old,” Hooky says. Hooky left Rabaul to attend boarding school in Sydney. His mother followed soon after as the Japanese forces approached New Guinea. His father, along with the other men of Rabaul and the islands, stayed on.

James Street and hundreds of other civilians and troops, captured by the Japanese in the fall of Rabaul in January 1942, then disappeared – whether in the nation's worst maritime disaster, the sinking of the Montevideo Maru, or in the many random atrocities that occurred in the Gazelle Peninsula. It is likely that James Street was bayoneted to death in the Tol plantation massacre.

“More than 60 years on,” Huxley writes, “Street, like thousands of others who lost loved ones in the tragedy, is still waiting for explanations, still fighting for ‘comfort and closure’, still seeking national recognition of the sacrifices made by the Australians abandoned in PNG.”

"Many people believe there's been a government cover-up from the start, to prevent panic at home,” Street is quoted as saying, “I tend to think it was more a stuff-up … a terrible blot on the nation's military history. I don't want a witch-hunt, but I want answers."

The Montevideo Maru Memorial Committee is preparing a submission for presentation to the Federal Government later this year.

It will seek to educate Parliamentarians on this issue, to gain national recognition of the tragedy of the men of the Rabaul and the sinking of the Montevideo Maru, and to spur the Government into trying to locate those missing documents, the ones Mr Griffin, despite his portfolio, is not aware of.

Source: ‘Seeking comfort and closure 67 years on’ by John Huxley, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 June 2009

Report on torpedoed ship not passed on; then lost

Exactly two weeks from today, on the 67th anniversary of its sinking, a memorial to the Montevideo Maru will be unveiled at Subic Bay in the Philippines. DON HOOK and KEITH JACKSON look at the enduring mystery behind Australia's greatest disaster at sea.

The Imperial Japanese Navy completed a report within six months into the sinking of the Montevideo Maru and provided a complete nominal roll of those on board, but the details were never passed to Australian authorities.

The Montevideo Maru sailed from Rabaul on 22 June 1942 bound for Hainan Island carrying 1,053 Australian prisoners of war and civilian internees. Nine days later, the USS Sturgeon torpedoed the ship off the Philippines island of Luzon and all prisoners died in Australia's greatest maritime disaster.

After the war ended, an Australian Army officer, Major HS Williams, was attached to the Recovered Personnel Division in Tokyo to investigate the sinking of the ship.

In a report dated 6 October 1945, Major Williams said many enquiries had been made about the fate of the prisoners by Australian authorities through the International Red Cross and the Swiss Legation in Tokyo  , but without effect.

He said three crew survivors, who reached Manila ten days after their ship went down, had alerted the Japanese Navy to the sinking of the Montevideo Maru.

According to the Navy, an immediate search was ordered but due to the lapse of time no trace of either ship or men could be found.

On 20 July 1942 the Navy reported the sinking of the Montevideo Maru to the owners Osaka Shosen Kaisha.

After completing its investigation, the Navy forwarded details to the Huryo Joho Kyoku (Prisoner of War Information Bureau) on 6 January 1943. The details included a complete nominal roll of 845 POWs and 208 civilians who were on board and presumed dead.

Major Williams said the POW Information Bureau did not act on the details provided by the Navy. In fact, he said the details remained hidden in the bureau’s files until he discovered them on 28 September 1945.

When confronted, Lt-General Tamura in charge of the POW Information Bureau admitted that the details had been in the bureau’s possession since January 1943.

According to Major Williams, the general expressed regret that the information was not transmitted to Australia  but claimed it was “due to an oversight”.

In 1945 Major Williams, who was fluent in Japanese, brought the nominal (Katakana) roll back to Australia – where, incredibly, it was lost.

“I have no idea what happened to the Katakana roll,” says eminent ANU historian Prof Hank Nelson, who has extensively researched the fall of Rabaul. “It might turn up. Sometimes these things are referred to another department - say Attorney-General's, because some matter of law arises, or Foreign Affairs - and are subsequently located by accident.

“But the more people who are alerted to the fact that it is important and missing, then the chances of it turning up increase.”

And, speaking of the efforts by the Montevideo Maru Memorial Committee to get greater official recognition of the sinking and a renewed commitment to searching for the missing roll, Prof Nelson adds: “So power to your campaign.”

Rabaul POWs were fearful of submarine attacks

Don Hook

As the inauguration of the privately-funded memorial to the Montevideo Maru at Subic Bay on Wednesday 1 July draws nearer, PNG Attitude is featuring regular stories on the events of this time.

USS_Sturgeon Australian prisoners of war boarding the ill-fated Montevideo Maru at Rabaul on Monday 22 June 1942 were fearful of being attacked by American submarines.

Nine days later, less than an hour after midnight on Wednesday 1 July, the ship was torpedoed by the USS Sturgeon [pictured] at a point about 11 km off Cape Bojeador Lighthouse on the north-west corner of the Philippines island of Luzon.

All 1,053 prisoners locked in the ship’s holds - 845 Australian troops and 208 civilians – lost their lives.

Captain Lex Fraser, a commando officer who was a POW in Rabaul from February to July 1942 says that, shortly before sailing, the troops were separated from their officers.

“We were told they were to be transported on a 10-day voyage to a better place with plenty of food and accommodation, and away from the front line,” Captain Fraser says.

“That sort of story was told everywhere to POWs and we did not believe it any more than others.

“Our guess at the time was that they were going to Hainan Island, and even then we were fearful of American submarine attack.

“We knew that they [the US submarines] were active, as the Japanese stores were getting low due to shipping losses.”

Captain Fraser, second-in-charge of the First Independent Company headquartered at Kavieng, said the POWs were very worried about the separation and they’d exchanged addresses hoping that one day they’d meet again.

Map_Mainichi_Shimbun Writing in his unit’s history We Were The First, Captain Fraser said he could still visualise his batman, Pat Byrne, who had just had his 18th birthday. “I had become very close to him and it was sad meeting with his mother in Sydney after the war when I had to tell her his fate.”

Captain Fraser, his fellow officers and a group of Army and civilian nurses boarded another Japanese freighter, the Naruto Maru on 5 July – about a fortnight after the Montevideo Maru sailed.

“We had several submarine warnings and were fastened down into the hold while the convoy scattered. We could hear the explosion of depth charges in the distance, apparently dropped by the escort destroyer.”

The Naruto Maru arrived at Yokohama Harbour on Tokyo Bay on 14 July. During the next three years, the officers and nurses were prisoners at various locations throughout Japan.

After the war, Lex Fraser returned home to Ingham in Far North Queensland where he still lives. He is now aged 90 and has been awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for his services to the community.

Map showing the route of the Montevideo Maru and the location of its sinking [Mainichi Shimbun, 8 June 2009]

Andrea’s quest for closure on worst sea disaster

Katrina Adamski, North Shore Times

NST_H&S Andrea Williams remembers growing up on an idyllic island in Papua New Guinea. Little did she know that her family would be tangled up in the mystery of what happened to the men who were killed in Australia's worst maritime disaster.

The Montevideo Maru, a Japanese prisoner-of-war ship, was torpedoed on July 1, 1942, off the coast of the Philippines with the loss of 845 Australian troops and 208 civilians - 1053 men.

Mrs Williams, now living at St Ives, said the prisoners had been put to hard labour in the township of Rabaul in PNG before being sent to sea. Her grandfather, Philip Coote, and her grandmother’s brother, Hugh Scott, were civilians who were listed as being on the ship when it was targeted by the Americans as “fair game”.

“It sank within a few minutes and there has never been a proper memorial dedicated to the men who died,” Mrs Williams, 53, said.

“The relatives of these men would like some recognition because they simply disappeared from our lives. Neither the ship nor the prisoners were ever recovered despite it remaining Australia's greatest single maritime disaster.

“Many questions remain unanswered, but all we want is for the Federal Government to fund a memorial in their honour.”

Her solace is being a member of the Montevideo Maru Memorial Committee, which represents the interests of the families of soldiers and civilians captured in Rabaul. Their greatest achievement is organising for a plaque to be erected next month in Subic Bay, 150km from where the ship sank off the Philippines.

Another member, Albert Speer, of Naremburn, who knew Mrs Williams’s grandmother, has devoted many years to looking for answers about who was on board. Mr Speer, 87, is keen that a katakana nominal roll (the only proof of who was on board), which he saw in New Guinea in the early 1960s, is located.

The Australian government ran a brief, closed inquiry into the fall of Rabaul in May, 1942, but it ended before the Montevideo Maru sailed. At the end of World War II the government said there had already been an inquiry into Rabaul and nothing would be gained by having another.

“I served during the war as a field ambulance officer in New Guinea and after the war I was posted to Rabaul as a medical assistant,” Mr Speer said.

“I became interested in the ship’s history and wanted to find out the truth. I’ve been searching for many years because the mystery remains about missing documents and who was on board. I won’t ever give up. It’s a never-ending search.”

Salvos join forces with Montevideo committee

The Montevideo Maru Memorial Committee has been boosted by the appointment of two members of the Salvation Army, John Cleary and Lindsay Cox, by Australian Territorial Commander, Commissioner James Knaggs.

“The sinking of the Montevideo Maru was a tragedy for the Salvation Army, with the loss of so many Salvation Army Bandsmen who were part of the 2/22nd Battalion,” Commissioner Knaggs said. “Please know that we are supportive of the efforts of the Committee, and would be willing to provide whatever support is appropriate and possible.”

The Committee was established earlier this year to represent the interests of the families of the soldiers and civilians captured in Rabaul and the New Guinea islands after the Japanese invasion in January 1942, many of whom are believed to have perished on the Montevideo Maru when it was torpedoed off the Philippines on 1 July 1942.

The purpose of the Committee is to gain national recognition and greater understanding of the tragedy and its antecedents in the interests of relatives and the historical record.


John Cleary has been described as one of Australia's leading commentators on religious affairs. He is a member of the ABC's specialist religion unit and is best known for his years as presenter of The Religion Report and the philosophy program, Meridian.

John is a member of the Salvation Army and former bandmaster of the Brunswick Band, closely connected to the 2/22nd Battalion and the Montevideo Maru. In 1994 his book on the Salvation Army in Australia, Salvo, was Australian Religious Book of the Year.

Head&Shoulder Lindsay Cox is the Melbourne-based Territorial Archivist for the Salvation Army's Australia Southern Territory.

As a Salvation Army bandsman and an ex-CMF soldier, he has long been interested in the tragic story of the 24 Salvation Army bandsmen who enlisted in the 2/22nd Battalion, featured in the comprehensive files and photographic collection at the Salvation Army Heritage Centre, where there is also a permanent exhibition.

Lindsay is author of Brave and True, a detailed account of the Band of the 2/22nd Battalion. He has also written several other books on Australian Military history and early Salvation Army history.

A memorial service for the 1,053 men who died on the Montevideo Maru will be held at Subic Bay, 150 km south of the site of the sinking, on 1 July. Australian Ambassador to the Philippines, Rod Smith, will unveil a plaque at the Hell Ships Memorial.

This week, planning began on a major submission to the Commonwealth Government to gain national recognition of the sinking as a major national event and to secure the Government’s engagement in further historical research into the matter, which, like the fall of Rabaul in January 1942 – even 67 years after the event – remains shrouded in mystery.

Passage denied: The sad saga of the MS Herstein


The MS Herstein was a Norwegian cargo ship of 5100 tons, owned by Sigurd Herlefson & Co and which, since May 1941, had been chartered to the Commonwealth of Australia.

In January 1942, while berthed and loading copra, Herstein was severely damaged in a Japanese air raid on Rabaul. She caught alight and there were some fatalities. Herstein was eventually cut from her moorings and beached near Matupit Harbour.

The master of the Herstein, Captain Gotfred Gundersen, managed to evade capture by the Japanese and escaped from New Britain on the Laurabada, but, upon the fall of Rabaul, 31 of the ship’s crew were taken prisoner by the Japanese. They were interned and later transferred to the ill-fated Montevideo Maru.

Before the demise of the Herstein, Australian Administration officials in Rabaul had suggested to the Federal Government in Canberra that the ship forego loading copra and, instead, take on board non-essential civilian personnel and ship them to safety before the imminent Japanese invasion. The request was turned down.

And so it was that the original role of the Herstein, to take on copra, remained unchanged, the people of Rabaul effectively stranded, the last reasonable means of evacuation denied them.

On 20 January, the Japanese bombing raid scored several hits on the ship and the highly combustible cargo burned for two days. The Japanese invaded three days later.

Canberra’s reluctance to enable the Herstein to be deployed to the evacuation of civilians not only resulted in the destruction of the ship, it was a death sentence for most of its crew and perhaps for many hundreds of Australian civilians.

It was one of those enigmatic decisions that leave a multitude of questions unanswered.

Source: From research by Chris Diercke, who is investigating the Norwegian and Japanese antecedents of the Montevideo Maru disaster.

A story of a plane flight & two John Curtins

Flying back to Sydney from the Sunshine Coast this afternoon, I happened to find myself in a seat adjacent to John Curtin, the grandson of the Labor Prime Minister of the same name who came to power in October 1941 as head of a government which, in the words of historian Prof Hank Nelson, “faced great and immediate danger”.

John Curtin petit-fils, a pleasant and cheerful man with his grandfather’s eyes, was explaining that he felt Australians in general lacked of a well-balanced sense of our own history.

His remarks struck a chord, and I asked if he had heard of the Montevideo Maru. He had not and, when I explained and he looked slightly crestfallen, I hastened that this was no fault of his. It was another momentous Australian event that for too long had not been made part of our story.

An early decision made by the Curtin Government had been to evacuate women and children from Rabaul and the islands, but to leave behind the male (and Chinese and mixed race) civilians and a small garrison of Australian troops, known as Lark Force.

Lark Force was the bastion against the Japanese advance. The bulk of these troops comprised the 2/22nd Battalion of the Australian Army. Amongst their number was the Brunswick Salvation Army band from Melbourne.

In January 1942, Rabaul was overwhelmed by a far superior Japanese force. Disaster ensued. Precious few of the troops and but one bandsman, Fred Kollmorgen, escaped alive. The Japanese executed many more.

Of the many men taken prisoner – 1,053 troops, civilians and the bulk of the Brunswick Band – died when the Montevideo Maru was torpedoed off the Philippines on 1 July 1942.

And there is another, even deeper, link with John Curtin, as ABC Radio’s John Cleary, a religious commentator, Salvo and former Brunswick bandmaster, has explained.

“The socially progressive and creative Salvation Army attracted a promising young man to its Brunswick Citadel in the 1900s,” he informed the ABC-TV program Compass in April 2008. “He was John Curtin and he would go on to be wartime Prime Minister of Australia.

“The young Curtin became an enthusiastic lantern bearer, assisting the Citadel’s brass band on its night marches through the streets of Brunswick."

John Cleary subsequently told a journalist from the West Australian newspaper: “So, in 1941, when [Curtin] had to make the decision to abandon the garrison on Rabaul, and he finds out later that they’ve all gone down [on the Montevideo Maru] courtesy of the Americans, he must have known their families. He would have felt that deeply personally.”

And now his grandson, also John Curtin, my companion on a flight to Sydney, has become the most recent Friend of Montevideo Maru.

The Montevideo Maru Memorial Committee has been established to gain official Federal Government recognition of Australia’s greatest maritime disaster and to secure government assistance in resolving a number of outstanding issues relating to the fall of Rabaul and the sinking of the ship.

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