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‘Montevideo Maru’ – Australia’s biggest maritime tragedy

Montevideo Maru
Montevideo Maru - the freighter's sinking was Australia's worst ever maritime disaster

GRANTLEE KIEZA | The Courier-Mail (Brisbane)

BRISBANE - They were herded onto the cargo vessel and into the hot, dark, airless hold. Beaten, bullied and bedraggled, they were slaves of the merciless Japanese army during the darkest days of Australia’s history and were treated worse than animals.

It was 22 June 1942 at the tropical outpost of Rabaul, a port on New Britain, part of the Australian mandated territory of New Guinea.

The great volcano there had erupted five years earlier but that disaster was nothing compared with the man-made carnage as Japanese soldiers thrust bayonets toward their prisoners or beat them with bamboo rods.

Soon these men — numbering more than 1,000 and including at least 49 Queenslanders — would become casualties in Australia’s worst ever maritime disaster.

Half-starved, they were marched to Rabaul’s docks and forced aboard the Japanese ship Montevideo Maru. Some gave strained smiles or a farewell wave to those left behind, the strong supporting the weak as they stumbled up the gangway, arm in arm.

It is believed there were 845 prisoners of war and 208 civilians, including Tom Vernon Garrett, a cocoa planter, whose grandson Peter Garrett became the front man for Midnight Oil and a federal government minister. 

Peter Sydney Beazley, a builder and teacher at the local Methodist mission, was among the prisoners too. His nephew Kim became federal Labor leader.

Four hundred of the men had been allowed to write letters home, but the Japanese coached them in what to say.

Sergeant Bob Burrowes, 24, told his mother and siblings in Melbourne:

Dear Folks,
Just a short note to let you know I’m all right. I am a prisoner under the care of the Japanese.
I can only write one letter so will you let [his girlfriend] Heather know.
I hope you are all OK and haven’t been worrying too much.
Keep the old bike in good nick as I will need it again.
Don’t worry.
Love, Bob

Jim Burrowes OAM  now 95  was a Coastwatcher. His brother Bob died on Montevideo Maru
Jim Burrowes OAM

He asked his family to “get Jim out if you possibly can”, but it was too late to stop Bob’s baby brother enlisting and Jim Burrowes OAM, now 95, became one of the heroic Coastwatchers, secreted in mountains around the New Guinea islands reporting on Japanese troop movements.

Speaking from his home in Melbourne’s south, Jim Burrowes revealed the trauma the war brought to his family and especially to his mother Alice.

“We started out as a family of seven but there were only three of us at the end of the war,” Burrowes says.

“We lost Bob and my other brother Tom who was killed on his first flying mission in 1943. He was only 20. My father died during the war, too, and we lost a sister in childbirth. It was very hard on poor old Mum.”

The Australian government had refused requests to evacuate troops from Rabaul in December 1941, effectively sacrificing them to the Japanese tsunami as it headed southwest after devastating the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.

Rabaul was guarded by 1,396 soldiers of Lark Force, mostly young Victorians, but they were overrun as 5,000 Japanese stormed the harbour port on 23 January 1942.

Resistance was futile and Lark Force commander Colonel John Scanlan issued his famous order, “Every man for himself”.

Those troops not captured in the first few hours retreated through the jungle, hoping to make their escape. About 400 made it after a horrendous trek across crocodile-infested rivers, battling malaria, dysentery, malnutrition, exhaustion and a murderous army on their heels.

Dickie Manson
Dickie Manson, the 11-year old boy shot by the Japanese alongside his mother accused of being spies

About 160 Australians reached Tol Plantation expecting salvation. Instead five barge-loads of Japanese soldiers were waiting on the beach. The Australians were tied together with fishing lines and, two or three at a time, were shot or used for bayonet practice as their mates sat terrified, knowing they were next.

In May 1942, Japanese soldiers lined up 11-year-old Dickie Manson — a former student of Fortitude Valley Boys’ School — and shot him as a spy beside his mother.

Then, on 22 June, the Montevideo Maru left Rabaul taking the 1,053 Australian captives as slave labour bound for the Chinese island of Hainan.

USS Sturgeon sank Montevideo Maru
USS Sturgeon sank Montevideo Maru not knowing it carried Allied soldiers and civilians

Eight days into the voyage an American submarine, USS Sturgeon, not realising Australian prisoners were on board, began stalking the ship.

Off the northern coast of the Philippines at 2.29am on 1 July 1942, two US torpedoes set the Montevideo Maru’s oil tank on fire. It sank in just 11 minutes.

In a final act of mateship, some of the young Australians, who had already endured so much, clung on to debris in the black ocean and sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’ in memory of their comrades floating dead nearby.

None of the Australians survived, though it would be years before their families learned of their fate. Of the 88 Japanese guards, only 17 lived to tell the tale.

Brisbane businessman Phil Ainsworth, 80, president of the Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society, was instrumental in erecting a monument to the Maru victims at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra six years ago.

The 76th anniversary of the sinking was commemorated at a service on Sunday at the Brisbane Cenotaph.

Jim Burrowes became a mining executive after the war, regularly doing business with the Japanese. He thinks often of his brothers and of his mum but says that, unlike many veterans, he holds no ill will towards Japan.

“Most of the Japanese people did not want war any more than we did,” he says.


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Lindsay F Bond

Location of the prison ship Montevideo Maru has been found:

Kevin Summers

Many thanks for the work. My uncle, Ted Cummins, was a captive in the Montevideo Maru.

Question: how long before families were officially told of the sinking? Clearly the government had concerns about public morale but do we know the details of the suppression?

The families were not advised about the sinking until after the war, a delay that caused great distress. Until, in 2009, I established the Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society to ensure national recognition of the fall of Rabaul and Australia’s greatest maritime disaster, the sinking of the Montevideo Maru.

PNG Attitude has a section dedicated to the Montevideo Maru. You will find this of great use in dealing with any questions you may have about the tragedy - KJ

Garry Roche

Among the list of internees on the Montevideo Maru is “John Motley Atherton”, with occupation listed as “Administration Pharmacy Bureau”. (See link to translated copy of Japanese list on

Mr Atherton’s wife and their son John had already departed for Australia before the Japanese came and they survived the war.

The son John, who had been born in Rabaul, later returned to PNG. This John Atherton owned pharmacies in Lae (Huon Gulf Pharmacy) and also in Goroka and Mt. Hagen.

He later returned to Australia and became a successful cattle farmer owning properties near Torrens Creek, Hughendon and Longreach. John was a keen golfer. He died in Australia late in 2017.

Tom Vernon Garrett also is listed and his occupation is given “Toma Plantation Owner”.

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