The Montevideo Maru – Lost at Sea, Lost from Australian History

Apr 23, 2010 7 Comments by

Hank Nelson kindly prepared the following article on behalf of for Paradise Magazine, the in-flight magazine for Air Niugini.

View the printed article here > Paradise Magazine – October 2009 – The Montevideo Maru: Lost at Sea, Lost from Australian History (PDF – 800kb)

The full text can be found below.

The Montevideo Maru:
Lost at Sea: Lost from Australian History

On 5 June 1942 the United States submarine, Sturgeon, commanded by W. L. (‘Bull’) Wright left Fremantle in Western Australia on her fourth war-time patrol. After a six-hour chase on 25 June the Sturgeon caught up with a Japanese merchant fleet off Manila in the Philippines, fired three torpedoes at one of the largest ships, and then evaded depth charges. The Sturgeon reported a ‘few’ gauges and lamps were shattered.  On 1 July while about 65 miles west of Luzon, she attacked and sank what appeared to be an unescorted transport, the Montetvideo Maru, and on 5 July scored hits on a tanker in a convoy. She was back in Fremantle on 22 July. It had been long, dangerous and apparently successful patrol. But between leaving from and returning to an Australian port, the Sturgeon had unwittingly and for long unknowingly fired the shots resulting in Australia’s greatest tragedy at sea.

* * * * *

In late 1940, a year after the start of World War II, the Australians had almost no defences in Rabaul, then the headquarters of the Australian administration of the Territory of New Guinea. There were no fixed defences and the only trained men were the few Australians – and later Chinese – who had volunteered for part-time service in the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles. They also had New Guinean riflemen in the police force; but the Australians were unsure just how they could or should use the police in the event of an attack. The absence of defences in Rabaul was not unusual: there was not much more protection in Port Moresby or Darwin.

On the advice of the Australian Chiefs of Staff, the Australian conservative governments of Menzies and then Fadden began shifting troops north. One of the main components of Lark Force, arrived in Rabaul, appropriately on Anzac Day, 25 April 1942. The Australians enjoyed the sight of the deep, almost enclosed harbour and the spectacular volcanic cones of Tavurvur, Mother, North Daughter, South Daughter and Vulcan: the exotic smell of wet tropics, copra and sulphur from the smoking Tavurvur; exploring the shaded tree-lined streets and gracious colonial buildings, some built by the first colonial power, the Germans; looking for bargains in Chinatown or the bung (the market), and taking a drink at the Cosmopolitan or Rabaul Hotels, or even the exclusive Rabaul Club.

The Australians were worried about German warships, disguised as merchant ships, which had been in the area. But even as the main unit of Lark Force, the 2/22nd Battalion, assembled in Rabaul, Australian military commanders were warning that ‘In the event of war with Japan’ Lark Force could face an invasion ‘in vastly superior strength’.  Most of the troops in Lark Force, less conscious of the growing threat from Japan, thought they had been side-lined in a tropical outpost. Some began asking for transfers to the ‘real war’ then taking place in North Africa, the Middle East and Europe. At the same time the Australian commanders increased the urgency of their warnings.

By December 1942 Colonel Joseph Scanlan, the Lark Force Commander, had about 1,400 troops, few of the heavy weapons required to meet a serious invader, and 24 Squadron, equipped with Hudsons and Wirraways, had arrived. Lakanai and Vunaknau were operating airstrips. Scanlan was hoping that more troops were on their way and that the Americans would use Rabaul as a base. Equipment to make Rabaul a suitable port for the American navy was at sea when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbour, Malaya and the Philippines on 7 and 8 December 1942. With the Japanese already having bases in their Micronesian colonies, there was nothing between the Japanese and New Guinea.

For months the Administration had been discouraging Australian women from going to New Guinea, but it had been restrained as it did not want to cause alarm. Some Germans thought to have been sympathetic to the Nazis regime in Germany had been interned in Australia and now more Germans, Italians and all Japanese were interned. Plans were in place to evacuate white women and children from both Papua and New Guinea. The gathering of women and children in the main centres and then flying and shipping them to Australia was underway at Christmas. The Neptunia and the Macdhui sailed from Rabaul, leaving a town lashed by wet season squalls. Crowded aircraft took out those from outer stations who had missed the ships. There were 53 people on a 21-seater DC3 leaving Port Moresby, two children shared a belt on one seat, women held infants and babies were in baskets at their feet. Mission women and nurses were given an option to stay and that meant Methodist mission, government and army nurses and the women of the Sacred Heart mission were almost the only white women at Rabaul and Kokopo. No places were offered to Asian women in Rabaul, but later some were evacuated from mainland New Guinea.

The Australian military commanders faced tough decisions. By January 1942 they had over 20,000 troops to the north of Australia – from Malaya and Singapore through Java, Ambon, and Timor to New Guinea. With most trained units still in the war against Germany, the Australians could do little to support the men facing the advancing Japanese. The Australian Chiefs of Staff advised the Curtin government to retain the troops in Rabaul, although they could not re-enforce them or guarantee ships and protective aircraft to get them out. The Australians were asking the Dutch, British and Americans to fight in their colonies and they wanted the Americans to use Rabaul as a base. So they themselves could scarcely withdraw. They also wanted to retain Rabaul for as long as possible, the key point in their forward observation line, and they wanted to force the Japanese to put together the fleet, aircraft and landing force needed to take a defended Rabaul. That would cost the Japanese time and if there were no defenders in Rabaul the Japanese would immediately have other options further south. The Australians in Rabaul – and other troops to the north – faced disaster.

As Rabaul prepared to be a battle ground in a world war it was losing its status as capital of Australian New Guinea. Sir Walter McNicoll, the Administrator had left government house on Namanula Hill with its view across Rabaul and St George’s Channel and shifted to Lae. Harold Page, Government Secretary, became Deputy Administrator in Rabaul.

Japanese reconnaissance aircraft were seen over Rabaul and the first bombs fell on 4 January 1942. About fifteen New Guineans living near the Rapindik labour compound were killed and many more wounded. Other raids followed. On 15 January Page cabled Canberra asking that all unnecessary civilians be evacuated. The Chiefs of Staff advised the Australian Cabinet on 19 January that the civil administration should be maintained as long as possible, they could not guarantee safe passage of civilians to Australia, and Page should compilie a list of the non-essential civilians who ‘could advantageously be evacuated’.

It was already too late. On 20 January about 120 Japanese aircraft attacked Rabaul. Both the bravery and the ineffectiveness of the Australian airmen in their Wirraways against modern fighters were obvious. At the same time the ship that might have evacuated civilians, the Herstein, was sunk and the dangers facing any unarmed and unescorted shipping were demonstrated. On 21 January an Australian Catalina crew reported that an invasion fleet was on its way and the next day it could be seen from high ground near Rabaul. The last serviceable Australian aircraft left, the remaining airmen began leaving for the east coast where they hoped to be picked up by flying boats. Heavy pre-invasion bombing continued on 22 January.

The men of Lark Force made their way to defensive positions on the coast and on the main roads. The Japanese official history reports that at 11.40pm on 22 January the first landing barges of the 5000 strong South Seas Force took off: ‘Light from the distant volcano and the burning streets of Rabaul reflected with a weird beauty into the night sky, making finding the way relatively easy’.

Rabaul town itself was undefended, but fighting was soon heard, particularly near Raluana Point. As dawn broke, the Australians could see the harbour and the Channel dense with Japanese shipping. Any sign of Australian resistance or movement attracted low flying Japanese aircraft and naval fire. The Australians had been told that their would be no retreat, but overwhelmed by numbers and firepower, groups cut-off and communications breaking down, the order was changed to ‘Every man for himself’.

Within hours the battle for Rabaul was effectively over. Groups of troops made their way south, into the rain forest and mountains of the Bainings hoping to reach the north or south coast. Most had no maps, few rations or medicines and no plan of escape. Only about 400 of Lark Force escaped, and they did so by their own determination to keep travelling. When they were given assistance it was from people already in Papua and New Guinea before the war. Little help came from an Australia facing the loss of over 20,000 servicemen who became casualties in the first months of the war with Japan.

The Japanese gathered over 1000 prisoners of war and civilian internees in Rabaul. Many were held in the old Lark Force camp at Malaguna.

Apart from knowing that Rabaul had ‘fallen’ the Australian public knew almost nothing of what had happened in Rabaul and then in April newspapers began publishing reports from the men who had escaped. These were alarming as they made public the killing of over 150 Australian prisoners of war at Tol plantation, south of Rabaul. Then the Australians were surprised when Japanese aircraft over Port Moresby dropped bundles of letters from prisoners in Rabaul. Most of the prisoners – including the nurses and civilians – said they were being treated reasonably. The Australians now had contradictory information: some men had been killed and because of a strange act of enemy chivalry others were known to be alive. That was all most Australians were to know for another three years.

On 22 June 1942 the civilian and military prisoners in Rabaul, except the officers and nurses, were loaded on the Montevideo Maru. Just before they left they were able to tell the officers that they were on their way to Hainan. Off Luzon, early on the morning of 1 July she encountered the torpedoes of the Sturgeon. Not one of the 845 prisoners of war or the 208 civilians survived. Most of the crew and guards reached the shore in the Philippines where many were killed by Fiipino guerrillas. Only three Japanese guards and seventeen crew survived

The officers and eighteen women (seventeen military, mission and civilian nurses and one planter) sailed separately to Japan where all survived imprisonment.

Through the war captured Japanese prisoners, New Guineans who had been in Rabaul and reached Australian forces and other sources gave the Australians scraps of information. At the end of the war, the Japanese in Rabaul, civilians who had survived the war in Rabaul, and the officers returning from Japan said what they knew. Convinced that all on the Montevideo Maru were lost, but unable to make a clear public announcement without confirming evidence, the Australian authorities sent Major Harold Williams, a long-term pre-war resident of Japan, to Tokyo. He quickly found the evidence and on 5 October – nearly two months after the end of the war – the Minister of Territories, Eddie Ward told parliament of the terrible toll. It had been a long wait for news of tragedy.

The list of the lost included six heads of department in the pre-war administration in New Guinea, leading planters and businessmen and sixteen missionaries. There were a surprising number of Axels, Gustavs and Gunars among the dead: they were the crew of the Norwegian freighter the Herstein sunk at Rabaul. Among the soldiers were many members of the much-praised 2/22nd battalion band, nearly all having been Salvation Army bandsmen before volunteering for another army. Added to the soldiers were 133 men of the 1st Independent Company who had been stationed on New Ireland and captured at sea.

Doubts about the numbers on board and particular names on rolls add the anxiety of uncertainty to loss for many families.

The search for an appropriate memorial and recognition of the men who died on the Montevideo Maru continues. This year a privately funded plaque in memory of the 1053 lost at sea was unveiled at Subic Bay in the Philippines and there was media and formal recall of the tragedy on 1 July. The enormity of the disaster – the result of the carriage of so many on an unmarked ship in dangerous seas – may be penetrating general Australian consciousness sixty-seven years after the event.

History of the Montevideo Maru, In the Media

About the author

Hank Nelson is Emeritus Professor and Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University's Division of Pacific and Asian History.

7 Responses to “The Montevideo Maru – Lost at Sea, Lost from Australian History”

  1. Janet RossDykgraaff. says:

    Some polite proof-reading of this article is as follows:
    In Para. 3: surely it should be 1941 NOT 1942 !

    The “smoking” volcano was called Matupi pre-war by the residents of Rabaul ; after Independence in 1975 it was renamed Tavurvur.

    In Para. 5:: again, it should be 1941.
    In Para. 6: the term “white” was usually only applied to the clothes worn by the European men. All Australians were called “Europeans”, not white.
    The Baining Mtns are north of Rabaul, we could see them from our home at Nonga. So the men would’ve gone up Tunnel Hill and turned left to go down the North Coast following the beach.

    Sincerely, Janet Ross born Rabaul 1941, evacuated south, returned after the war was over.

  2. brendan says:

    Prof Nelson is correct – 1942 is the year. Several months after the sinking of this vessel another bound for Hainan, the Taiko Maru, with 263 Australian and 267 Dutch POWs left Ambon, docked also at Manila en route, though made it safely through the south China seas to Hainan landing early November 1942.

    • J M Dykgraaff says:

      Brendan, I have to insist on this !!
      I’m referring to the 3rd Para. in this article, re Lark Force arriving in Rabaul, TNG…. It was then April 1941.
      The women and children, me included, [& some men] were evacuated on the ” McDhui” to Australia Dec. 1941.
      [This is my family Harold J Ross history. My maternal Grandfather, E A Hawnt, was one Head of Dept. left behind to their fate.]

      The Japs invaded Rabaul 23rd January 1942.
      The MvM was sunk July 1942.

      We didn’t know this until after the war had ended.
      Sincerely, JMD

  3. mike guilfoyle says:

    I have only very recently read about the tragic story of the ‘Montivideo Maru’ and greatly appreciated the informed and sensitive presentation of this episode of WW2. Having researched some of those lost at sea in both World Wars as well as the sinking of the SS Yongala, off Queensland in 1911( cyclone) whose family headstones lie in Brockley & Ladywell Cemetery in SE London.

    Mike Guilfoyle
    Friends of Brockley & Ladywell Cemetery-Foblc

  4. j larkins says:

    yep it definately was 1941 that lark force arrived in rabaul – my mother was born 2nd jan 1942 shortly after my grandmother arrived back in australia having been evacuated from rabaul (leaving behind my grandfather who was a methodist missionary and who later died on the montevideo maru… we believe…)

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