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Release of war roll creates more confusion


IN A MOVE made without fanfare, not even an announcement, the Australian Army History Unit has published a direct translation of the Japanese roll that lists the names of soldiers and civilians captured in Rabaul and who died on the prison ship, Montevideo Maru.

We’ve got to thank reader Martin Hadlow for spotting the emergence of the list on the internet, probably last Wednesday.

But perhaps the Army should have consulted the Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society before publishing the roll, which is a very significant historical document.

In an introduction on the website – which it says is “a memorial to the Australians lost” – the Army says the roll, originally compiled by Japanese occupation forces in Rabaul and translated after the war, contains the names of 845 Australian soldiers and 113 civilians (including 16 missionaries) together with a further ten names added by Australian Army staff in Tokyo after the war.

By my calculation, that’s 968 names: 855 servicemen, 113 civilians. But the published roll contains 984 names: 818 servicemen, 166 civilians. The Army’s going to have to clear up those discrepancies for starters.

The figures also do not include 30 crew members from the Norwegian freighter, Herstein, captured in Rabaul and aboard the Montevideo Maru when it sank. These men, who should be counted amongst the civilians, would bring the Army's numbers to 998 (Army calculation) or 1,014 (my calculation).  Must do better, Colonel!

The number of prisoners who died on the ship has been estimated at 1,053 for many years, but the new list – if the numbers can be sorted out – should become the definitive record.

It is remarkable that the confusion that has surrounded who exactly was on the ship should be perpetuated nearly 70 years later by an act designed to throw more light on this matter.

The Army History Unit says the roll, retrieved from the Army archives last year and subjected to a process of rigorous authentication, is “the first translation of a Japanese roll that was sent to Australia by Major H S Williams of the Recovered Personnel Division on 3 October 1945.

“Major Williams had been sent to Japan after the surrender as part of the Australian effort to find out exactly what had happened to Australians captured by the Japanese.

“The Japanese Navy provided a roll of POWs in Rabaul which had been made in Japanese by transliterating the sound of European names into Japanese characters. This process was carried out in reverse by Major Williams' team. This gave the Service number of military personnel and a reasonable spelling of the name.”

“Once in Australia, this roll was compared to lists of people known to have been in Rabaul at the time of the Japanese invasion to confirm details of number and spelling of names.”

But the Army still needs to clear up the latest confusion about the number of men on the ship, and exactly who they were.


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Kurt Spehr

Growing up in Madang, I knew an old German Lutheran missionary wife who lost her husband who was a POW aboard a Japanese hospital ship that was mistakenly attacked by US Armed Force military aircraft.

Mama Welch, as I knew her, told my father that her husband was amoung many POWs who were told to lie down on the decks of the Japanese hospital ship while it was being strafed by US fighter aircraft.

Mr Welch was wounded and, like many other Australian, German and US missionaries and military POW wounded, were thrown overboard alive by Japanese naval officers.

This could explain for an unbalanced accounting of POWs.

Martin Hadlow

Keith - During a recent visit to Edinburgh Castle in Scotland, I had an opportunity to peruse some of the Rolls of Honour held within The Scottish National War Memorial.

The Memorial is located in Crown Square, the highest point within the Castle complex overlooking the city of Edinburgh, and is a dignified place of remembrance.

The Rolls of Honour, in easily accessible folders, contain the names of persons of Scottish heritage who have fallen in war all over the world.

Interestingly, the folder listing those who served with Australian forces during World War II revealed the names of military personnel and civilians of Scottish background lost in the sinking of the 'Montevideo Maru'.

Perhaps relatives and those with an interest in this wartime tragedy already know of these Rolls of Honour?

If not, they might wish to read the records should they have an opportunity to visit Edinburgh Castle.

Dorcas Emmanuel

I am so greatful for your reliable evidence as Nelson Tokiel is my loving grandfather. Thank you Keith.

Maxwell Hayes

What a revelation. At long last the bowels of Army archives are opened.

Preliminary observations. There is no page 124. HH Page is listed as being on the MvMaru, yet we have the disclosure of Nelson Tokiel (a NGPF policeman from 1938 until 1971 and on whom I would trust my life) saying in the article on his life in the Post Courier on his retirement that he saw Page and about 20 Europeans sent on the lead vessel (Ayatosan Maru) of a convoy leaving Rabaul and which vessel he saw bombed and beached at Gona.

There is also the evidence of Albert Speer that around 1951, he saw European graves at the high water mark at the same place.

It may be that the list was compiled some time before the MvMaru sailed and, for reasons best known to the Japs, that Page and other Europeans sighted by Tokiel, were being sent to the mainland. maybe as part of a prisoner exchange deal, or for political reasons related to the the Japs "greater prosperity" scheme.

Page as a/Adminstrator would have ranked at least equal, if not superior to, the Army officers on the Naruto Maru.

One thing is for certain, the jig saw will never be put completely together.

Jaymz Daash

Thank you Keith - efforts of you and others rewarded - giving closure to many, I am sure.

Martin Hadlow

I must say, Keith, that I was very surprised to come across the roll during some routine wartime historical research which I have been undertaking.

At first, I wondered if this might be the Holy Grail which Montevideo Maru Society members have been seeking over the years.

However, I quickly dismissed this thought as I just presumed that the Society would have seen this material in the past and, in fact, would have known that the AHU was publishing the details online.

As you say, it may not be the definitive document on the subject, but at least it is a fascinating and important piece in the jigsaw puzzle and I'm pleased that I brought it to your attention.

I was especially taken by the detail provided in the roll, not the least being the occupations of civilians interned in Rabaul and who also lost their lives when the ship was torpedoed.

It also occurs to me that if this is a translation of the original Japanese nominal roll, that key document itself might also be known to the AHU and could be lurking somewhere in their files or, at least, its whereabouts may be known to them.

Lest we forget.

This is a very important document. Unfortunately the Army has made some errors in its compilation. If the History Unit had consulted with the Society, as we had requested, I feel certain these would have been avoided.

That said, the document provides the most reliable current evidence of who was actually on the ship and it will provide a boon for researchers - KJ

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