Elizabeth Thurston & Andrea Williams
A memorial to the sinking of the Montevideo Maru, Australia’s greatest disaster at sea, will be
unveiled at a ceremony at Subic Bay at 11am this morning by Australian
Ambassador to the Philippines,
Maru left Rabaul on 22 June 1942 with 1053 prisoners of war, all of whom tragically
died when the ship was torpedoed on this day in 1942.
The establishment of the memorial has
been coordinated by the Montevideo Maru Memorial Committee supported by the
NGVR/PNGVR Ex-Members Association, Lark Force, the PNGAA and Greenbank RSL. The
site is part of the Hellships Memorial dedicated to prisoners of war who
suffered on Japanese vessels.
With the outbreak of World War 2, Rabaul
became of strategic importance. The Army authorised the formation of the New
Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR), a militia unit formed from Rabaul’s white
residents. A detachment of young Chinese men, determined to contribute, formed
an Ambulance Brigade which became part of the NGVR.
In March 1941, with the threat of Japanese
invasion looming, the Australian Government sent Lark Force to Rabaul - 1400
men from the 2/22nd battalion and other units. Their band comprised the
Brunswick Salvation Army band from Melbourne.
Soon after, the 2/10th Field Ambulance, which included nursing sisters, also
On neighbouring New Ireland, Kavieng was defended by the Commandos 1st Independent
Most European women and children had been
evacuated from Rabaul on the Macdhui
and Neptuna by Christmas 1941. The hospital
nurses were offered evacuation but remained. The army nurses were not offered
evacuation. Some civilian and missionary women stayed in the Rabaul area.
Because they were not Australian citizens,
Chinese and mixed-race women and children did not qualify for evacuation. The
civilians who remained in Rabaul consisted of administration officers,
planters, businessmen and traders. Most of the women and children evacuated
never saw their husbands and fathers again.
On 19 January 1942, the Norwegian cargo
ship Herstein arrived in Rabaul to
load copra. When it was bombed in a Japanese air raid, the civilian population
suspected it had lost its last opportunity to leave. Although no one knew it
then, the Australian Government had already made the decision that the men in
Rabaul were ‘hostages to fortune’.
When the Japanese invaded with 5000 troops
on 23 January 1942, Lark Force had little chance. The men of the 2/22nd put up
a gallant fight but were overpowered.
The order “Every man for himself” was
given and the men who had survived the battle tried to escape to the north and
south coasts of New Britain.
Without food in gruelling tropical conditions they faced great difficulty.
Japanese dropped pamphlets declaring they would be treated as prisoners of war
and many surrendered. Most returned to Rabaul and about 150 were executed at
Tol Plantation on the shores of Wide Bay. Most of the civilian
men were captured early after the invasion and interned for five months in a
camp at Rabaul.
On 22 June 1942, 845 members of Lark
Force and 208 civilians were marched aboard the Montevideo Maru. The ship set sail for Hainan Island.
On the night of 1 July, about 30 km west of Luzon, the US submarine Sturgeon torpedoed the ship which listed
and sank immediately.
The captain of Sturgeon, Commander Wright, had no idea the Montevideo Maru was carrying allied POWs. The men from Rabaul were
all lost. The sinking of the Montevideo
Maru became the greatest maritime disaster in Australian history.
A statement by the Minister for External Territories in the Australian House of Representatives on 5 October 1945 said: “These
servicemen and civilians who have lost their lives in such a tragic manner have
undoubtedly given their lives in defence of Australia just as surely as those
who died face to face with the enemy. To their next of kin the Commonwealth
Government extends its deepest sympathy.”
Lest We Forget.