Dear Mr Rudd,
The recent discovery of the HMAS Sydney has given Australians an overwhelming sense of collective relief and closure for what was a great wartime tragedy. For those families who lost loved ones, there is finally a sacred site to be honoured as an international war grave. Their long wait is now, thankfully, over and even though they will continue to grieve they have the comfort of resolution. That is not yet the case for the surviving families of those 848 troops and 208 civilians who are listed as missing on the Montevideo Maru after it was torpedoed off the Philippines on 1 July 1942. It was the greatest maritime disaster in Australian history.
With the finding of the Sydney there is now a passionate determination among those of us who have family listed as missing on the Montevideo Maru to experience a similar sense of closure. We have been extremely heartened by your positive response to requests to locate the vessel, and we are enormously appreciative of the dedicated effort of a few people to bring this great wartime tragedy to the attention of the Australian public. Mr Albert Speer, MBE, has been particularly outstanding in his efforts to find more answers than questions to the fate of those 208 civilians captured by the Japanese in Rabaul and, allegedly, taken aboard the Montevideo Maru He has worked tirelessly, and at his own expense, on behalf of the families and all Australians to try and reconcile the inconsistencies and discrepancies surrounding this tragedy. The prominent historian, Professor Hank Nelson has contributed years of scholarship to the topic and others have sought to publish their research. But, surely, it is now time for the government to step in and help shoulder the burden, carried to date by only the families and a committed few.
My uncle, Henry Fulton, crippled by polio as a child, was working in Rabaul for Burns Philp when captured by the Japanese. His name is on the nominal roll as missing on the Montevideo Maru. He had gone to New Guinea to join his brother – my father – in 1937 and to begin a new life in the beautiful town of Rabaul. The tragic irony is that because of his physical disability, Henry was unable to enlist with his three brothers, Ted, Jack and Frank. Yet he was the only brother never to return. My father, Ted, was on the first troop ship bound for the Middle East with the Sixth Division: after the desert and Greek campaigns, the Sixth was sent to New Guinea and Ted was transferred to ANGAU because of his pre-war knowledge of the country. He spent many months behind enemy lines unaware of Henry’s fate. Jack was on the Burma railway and in Changi and Frank was with the RAAF. Like many other Australian families, mine gave so much to the service of this great country.
They were part of a generation of men and women who made enormous sacrifices, suffered without complaint and harboured no sense of entitlement. The last poignant letter we have from Henry (addressed to his brother) was, we believe, written under Japanese instruction and came as part of a mail drop from the Japanese over Port Moresby. It was, writes Hank Nelson, “A strange act of chivalry in a brutal war.”
Just a line to let you know that I am safe and well and am still in Rabaul, and I hope that you and Mary have not been worrying about me.
I am in good health and am eating well and sleep well at night.
I hope that this will find you in good health, and that Chris and the children are all free from sickness.
Assure Mary that I am quite alright and also give my regards to Grace. I often think of you all, also Jack and Ted.
Love to all, old Scout – and I hope it will not be long before I am seeing you all again.
Cheers for the time Flip
Your fond brother Henry”
We have marked Henry’s too-short life by a plaque that sits on his parents’ grave at Waverley Cemetery and overlooks his beloved Bronte beach. We have his last letters, a telegram from the Australian government (dated 30 Oct. 1945) to my aunt, and a few black and white photos of a slight and wistful young man….
I realize that hundreds of Australians share unresolved and inherited grief of never knowing the true fate or final resting place of brothers, sons, husbands, fathers and uncles lost in the tragedy of war. While we will probably never know exactly what did happen to those 208 civilian Australians, most of whom considered themselves ‘Territorians’, it is accepted that the 848 troops from the 2/22nd Battalion were on the Montevideo Maru when it was torpedoed – and in all likelihood, many of the civilians were, too.
I believe it is the responsibility of the Australian government – and not just a few dedicated individuals - to pursue every avenue of enquiry about the fate of those 208 civilians and 848 troops. Locating the vessel would, at the very least, bring a sense of relief to all the families involved. Not only would it validate the final resting place of those believed to have been aboard, its symbolic importance as a place of remembrance for ALL whose fate was sealed by the Japanese in Rabaul cannot be under-estimated. Sixty-six years of rumour, mystery, uncertainty and obfuscation have not diminished our resolve to find some closure to this sombre chapter in our history.
I therefore urge you, Prime Minister, to support the following proposals:
1. Since we have the technology to precisely locate the position of the ship, it should now be given the same priority and funding as was given to the HMAS Sydney.
2. The dedication of a memorial bearing the names of those civilian POWs, who were listed as missing on the Montevideo Maru and whose families were notified accordingly. The Ballarat memorial lists the names of the members of the 2/22nd Battalion, but not those of the civilian POWs.
3. The enormousness of this wartime tragedy ought to be given its rightful place in our history books and due recognition in all future ANZAC Day commentaries. It is shameful that so few Australians have heard of the Montevideo Maru.