Peter Tatterson, kiap & local government officer
A true PNGn dressed in a white man’s body

Menzies’ government knocked back POW offer


IN A SENSATIONAL development, it has come to light that in 1953 the Federal government refused a Japanese offer to provide documents that might have led to the disclosure of the identities of the men who died on the Montevideo Maru.

One of the last remaining great mysteries of Australia’s involvement in World War II involves the precise identities of the estimated 1053 men (although there could have been more) who died in Australia’s worst maritime disaster when the Japanese ‘hellship’ Montevideo Maru was sunk by the US submarine Sturgeon off the Philippines..

Eight years after the war, on 15 October 1953, ten Allied governments including Australia, received a communication from Japan, known as a note verbale, seeking a reciprocal program to exchange prisoner of war name cards (meimeihyou) in accordance with the Geneva conventions.

The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that, although it did not feel bound by the conventions, it desired to “deliver the records of individual prisoners of war … who were in the hands of Japan during the Second World War”.

The Australian government did not respond to the request for 15 months, and when it did – on 18 January 1955 - it put a dampener on the exercise.

The Australian Embassy in Japan said that all the information Australia had on Japanese POWs and casualties had already been sent to Japan and concluded with these extraordinary words: “No useful purpose would be served by a further exchange of information... [The] Australian government does not wish to receive the records concerned..."

Australia was the only one of the ten countries involved, including New Zealand, not to exchange records.

A sombre Japanese Ministry for Foreign Affairs responded on 28 January 1955, just ten days later, that “if the Australian government does not desire to exchange the PW name card relating to Australians, we recognize that we have fulfilled our obligation...."

End of story. Until now, when these critical documents have surfaced in Japan after much effort by a diligent Japanese researcher.

The unearthing of the documents raises fascinating questions. Why did Australia opt out of the document exchange program? Was our government thoroughly convinced it had acquired all the data on the missing men during its occupation of Japan? And why, as the original Japanese roll had disappeared after it was brought back to Australia, did the Menzies’ government knock back an opportunity to confirm the names of the prisoners on the ship?

The uncovering of these documents suggests there may still be more relevant papers locked away in the official archives of Australia and Japan.

This amazing twist in the Montevideo Maru saga comes at a time when there is a renewed focus on trying to determine exactly who was aboard the ship when it was sunk on 1 July 1942.

As more that is discovered about this mystery, the more it seems to deepen.


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James Oglethorpe

Thanks to Harumi, the embarrassing 1955 file is now available to public view:

James Oglethorpe

The Japanese Researcher Harumi Sakaguchi deserves a lot of praise for making this discovery in the Tokyo archives, and for bringing it to the attention of Australian POW researchers.

It is extraordinary that Australia was the only country out of ten Allied nations to refuse to take delivery of the POW cards. For instance, America received over 25,000 cards, Britain received nearly 57,000. I have seen one of the American cards and it includes details of name, address, family contact, the katakana characters used to represent the prisoner's name in Japanese, date of capture and name and date of POW camps where the prisoner was confined, and official stamps indicating details of movements between camps. They even provided a post-war English-translation slip for the card to assist family and other researchers.

It is unknown at present whether the cards for the Australian POWs still exist in the Japanese Archives, but Mr. Sakaguchi is hopeful that this may be so.

We should all be pressuring the Australian Government in this election year to reverse the 1955 refusal and to finally take delivery of these valuable POW records, if this is at all possible.

I can see two files in the National Archives of Australia in Canberra which appear to be relevant. The first of these has never been examined since the 30-year closure expired:

1) File Title: Prisoners of War - Japanese in Australia - Exchange of records.
Series number: A1838. Control symbol: 1496/3/8
Contents date range 1953 - 1955
Access status: Not yet examined
Location: Canberra. Barcode: 568197

2) File Title: [Australian War Memorial registry file:] War of 1939-45. Correspondence regarding the collection of enemy records - Japanese.
Series number: AWM93.
Control symbol: 50/2/3/1 PART 2.
Contents date range: 1952 - 1957.
Access status: Open.
Location: Australian War Memorial.
Barcode: 647675

It will be interesting to see whether the Australian Government refusal to accept the records was just an example of bureaucratic laziness, or whether this is related to the refusal of the government to hold a Rabaul Inquiry.

Or if there is some link to the 1946 public statements by the Montevideo Maru Investigator, Major H. S. Williams, that the records had been "burnt".

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