BY NORMAN AISBETT
“I CAN’T UNDERSTAND IT,” says Grace Lovell, indignantly. “I want the government to get the cards, very much so.”
The plucky 89-year-old has just learned that Japanese record cards for more than 21,000 Australian soldiers taken prisoner during World War Two have surfaced in Tokyo.
And that Japan offered the same cards to Australia in October 1953 in a proposed, reciprocal exchange of information – only to have Australia refuse after two years of secret deliberations.
The offer has been revealed in official documents that only recently became accessible in the Australian National Archives.
Japan made an identical offer to the United States, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand and all agreed to the exchange.
“If these cards were available, they should have taken them,” adds Mrs Lovell, who was born in Victoria (Horsham) but has spent most of her adult life in Perth.
She hopes that a POW card for her late brother, Frank Vale, is among those stored in a government department in Tokyo and contains information that could end her decades of wondering about his precise fate.
Frank was 27 years old when he was one of 1053 captured Australians presumed drowned when a U.S. submarine sank a Japanese ship - the Montevideo Maru – taking them to Hainan in Japanese-occupied China in July 1942.
The submarine’s crew did not know the ship was carrying the 845 Australian soldiers and 208 civilians who had been captured in Rabaul, New Britain. None of them survived. It was Australia’s worst sea disaster.
Born in Ararat and one of five siblings (their father was a railwayman whose job moved the family a lot), Frank was an engineer in the army’s Lark Force.
Mostly comprised of Victorians, the small force had the hopeless task of trying to defend Rabaul, New Britain, with inadequate weaponry, no sea support and only small and antiquated air support against a massively superior Japanese force..
Many family members of those presumed lost with the Montevideo Maru have, like Mrs Lovell, lacked confidence in the officially-accepted version of events. Some doubt the Australians ever made it on board.
The president of the Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society, Keith Jackson AM, said yesterday the POW cards in Japan could end the doubt if, as he understood, they contain details of prisoner transfers from camp to camp.
“This would establish whether men had died with the ship, or on land; and precisely who was on board the ship when it sank – their names,” he said.
Mr Jackson met recently with the Minister for Veterans Affairs, Warren Snowdon, and won an assurance that Mr Snowdon would look into the matter of the POW cards and a lingering mystery surrounding the Montevideo Maru’s “nominal roll” of all who were on board.
The roll was given to an Australian army investigator in Tokyo immediately after the 1939-45 war but was lost after being brought to Australia.
Mrs Lovell, who receives regular newsletters from the society, and studies them closely, is pleased with the late flurry of action on the matter.
“It’s a little confusing, all this information coming out now, so long after … 68 years I think,” she said.
“But I think they owe it to those men to see what’s on the cards.
“Many people have died in between times without knowing for sure what happened.
“It’s still a bit of an open book, so if these cards have all the names and the details of where and when the men were being taken, that could finalise it.”
The newly available, national archive documents show that cards were created and kept by Japan’s Prisoner of War information Bureau.
And, that Australia declined the Japanese offer because the Department of the Army and Department of External Affairs questioned the “value and reliability” of any of the records of Australian POWs that might have become available.
A March 18, 1955 Department of Army memorandum noted there had already been about five years of post-war information gathering on Australian and Allied POW servicemen and civilians. Any attempt to re-open investigations would be unnecessary and possibly “confusing and misleading”.
“How could they know that there was nothing new that until they had seen the POW cards?” said one respected Japanese researcher, Mr Harumi Sakaguchi, yesterday.
The national president of the Ex-Prisoners-of-War Association of Australia, Cyril Gilbert, said from Brisbane said he was “very surprised” to hear that Australia rejected the offer of the POW cards.
“If all the other Allied countries approved, Australia should have approved,” said Mr Gilbert, 90, and a former army sergeant, who was captured in Singapore in February 1942 and later suffered badly on the Burma-Thailand railroad.
He said the cards were important for ex-POWs and their families and for the Australian historical record.
Returned Services League (RSL) national secretary, Derek Robson said he would have thought the cards automatically fell under an existing Australia-Japan relationship with the Australian War Memorial for exchange of research information.
Canberra should “absolutely” request possession of the cards or copies of them, he said.