Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The fall of Rabaul and the Montevideo Maru

By Elizabeth Thurston & Andrea Williams in PNG Attitude


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 tomorrow morning by Australian Ambassador to the Philippines, Rod Smith.

The Montevideo 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 arrived.

On neighbouring New Ireland, Kavieng was defended by the Commandos 1st Independent Company.

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.

The 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.


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