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Dear Mr Rudd: re 'Montevideo Maru'

Liz Thurston

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.”

“Dear Frank,

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.

Yours sincerely,

Elizabeth Thurston


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Nancy V Ward [nee Shaw}

I find it hard to comprehend, but I understand the Commonwealth Government does know the true story of the "Montevideo Maru", and that the file on this subject has been "sealed forever".

If this is anywhere near the truth it is time for someone in Government to either confirm this as fact or cause these records to be made available, no matter the international ramifications with Japan. Surely I as a daughter of one of those missing from this military debacle have a right to know the truth after 60 some years.

Peter Connelly

Congratulations to Elizabeth Thurston for pursuing this matter. My mother Clare (nee Sullivan), 90, is a cousin of Henry Fulton, and I know she will be delighted by Elizabeth's article. I would feel honoured if there were some way in which I might be of assistance.

Gerri Nicholas

Congratulations on your election and I look forward to discussing your ideas about a PNG bibliography in the future. From the report of your first committee meeting you are up and running with some interesting challenges. I am following the Montevideo Maru issue with great interest. I wrote a short biography on one of the young soldiers who allegedly went down. Bert Speer must be delighted and relieved with the Rudd reaction.

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