The Herstein men’s fateful decision to stay
19 July 2009
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
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
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.
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