It was - and remains - Australia's greatest maritime disaster: the loss of 1053 soldiers and civilians in the sinking of the Montevideo Maru on July1, 1942. The men were captured by the Japanese when they invaded nw Britain and New Ireland - then part of the Australian-mandated territory of New Guinea. Among them were the uncle of Labor identity Kim Beazley, the grandfather of Midnight Oils singer Peter Garrett and the brother of Australian Prime Minister Sir Earle Page. They were being sent on the prison ship to Hainan, China, as slave labour, when the Montevideo Maru was sunk by an American submarine. The captain of the USS Sturgeon did not know Australian and Allied prisoners were on board. In eleven minutes on one night, twice as many Australians died as in the entire Vietnam War. However, the tragedy is hardly known to the general public. The Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society, in concert with the Papua New Guinea Association of Australian (PNGAA) aims to make the loss of the 1053 souls on the Montevideo Maru an important part of our national narrative -as it should be.
Montevideo Maru - Australia’s greatest maritime disaster.
Written and produced by Max Uechtritz.
Kylie Adams-Collier's grandfather Harry Adams was one of the 1053 men who died on the Montevideo Maru on the 1st of July 1942.
The Montevideo Maru sinking is Australia’s most devastating loss at sea but is a quiet part of public consciousness of World War II history. The soldiers of Lark Force were a product of the first desperate efforts of the Australian Government to defend our immediate approaches.
The Japanese occupation of Rabaul, Kavieng and the New Guinea islands produced many heroic Australian efforts at resistance and escape, and an enormous Australian tragedy, both from massacres on land and the huge loss of life at sea. Honouring those who made the supreme sacrifice by ensuring this story remains firmly in our national consciousness is essential.
The 7,266 ton, twin-screw diesel motor vessel, the MV Montevideo Maru, was a Japanese passenger vessel constructed in Nagasaki in 1926. It was operated until the outbreak of the Second World War by the Osaka Shosen Kaisha Shipping Line for its service between Japan and South America.
During the Second World War the Montevideo Maru was used by the Imperial Japanese Navy as an auxiliary vessel transporting troops and provisions throughout South East Asia. As a part of the Kure Naval District, the vessel participated in landings at Makassar in the Netherlands East Indies. After operating in the Japanese islands, the Montevideo Maru returned to Java before sailing for New Britain.
Early in the morning of 22 June 1942, members of the Australian 2/22nd Battalion, No.1 Independent Company, and civilian prisoners captured in New Britain were ordered to board the vessel. For the march to the waterfront, Japanese guards divided the prisoners into groups of approximately fifty men. Only the officers and a small number of civilians were left in the Malaguna Road camp. The Montevideo Maru sailed unescorted for Hainan Island, keeping to the east of the Philippines in an effort to avoid Allied submarines.
Eight days into the voyage, the Montevideo Maru was spotted by the American submarine USS Sturgeon. For approximately four hours the Sturgeon manoeuvred into a position to fire its four stern torpedoes. The USS Sturgeon’s log records an impact at 2.29 am, approximately 100 feet (30 metres) aft of the funnel. Survivors from the Montevideo Maru’s Japanese crew reported two torpedoes striking the vessel followed by an explosion in the oil tank in the aft hold.
According to both the Sturgeon’s log and the Japanese survivors, the Montevideo Maru sank by the stern in as little as eleven minutes from the torpedo impact. Although the Japanese crew were ordered to abandon ship, it does not appear they made any attempt to assist the prisoners to do likewise. The ship’s lifeboats were launched but all capsized and one suffered severe damage. Of the 88 Japanese guards and crew, only 17 survived the sinking and subsequent march through the Philippine jungle.
While the exact number and identity of the more than 1,000 men aboard the Montevideo Maru has never been confirmed, Japanese and Australian sources suggest an estimated 845 military personnel and up to 208 civilians lost their lives in the tragedy.
Considerable efforts were made by both the International Red Cross and the Australian government to seek details of the Montevideo Maru’s passengers from the Japanese authorities. Despite evidence that the Japanese navy forwarded information about the loss of the vessel to Japan’s Prisoner of War Information Bureau as early as January 1943, Australian authorities were not provided with a list of casualties until October 1945, when Major H.S. Williams of the Recovered Personnel Division in Tokyo began investigations into the loss of Montevideo Maru. Links to the report prepared by Major Williams, and the initial translation of the Japanese list, are provided below.
Bruce Gamble, Darkest hour: the true story of Lark Force at Rabaul, Zenith Press, St Paul, Minnesota, 2006
Don Wall, Heroes at sea, Griffin Press, Adelaide, 1991
Douglas A. Alpin, Rabaul 1942, 2/22nd Battalion Association, Melbourne, 1980
Peter Stone, Hostages to freedom: the fall of Rabaul, Oceans Enterprises, Yarram, Victoria, 1994
"Montevideo Maru 1942" awards:
2020- Songs Alive Australia National Songwriting Competition Top 10 Finalist for heritage Song of The Year.
2018-Tamworth Songwriters Salute Awards Semi Finalists for Best Heritage Song.
2018- Australian Independent Country Music Awards Festival AICMAF- Heritage Song of The Year.
Kylie Adams-Collier's "Montevideo Maru 1942'"official performances:
25/04/23 Pittwater RSL sub-Branch ANZAC Day Dawn service.