Monday, June 08, 2009

Montevideo Maru tragedy remembered 67 years on

The ill-fated Montevideo Maru. Picture supplied by KEITH JACKSON
Artist's impression of the Montevideo Maru. Picture supplied by KEITH JACKSON
USS Sturgeon, the US sumbmarine which torpedoed the Montevideo Maru. Picture supplied by KEITH JACKSON
Members of the Rabaul-based Lark Force, many of whom perished on the Montevideo Maru. Picture supplied by KEITH JACKSON

Australia’s worst maritime tragedy, which intimately involves Papua New Guinea, is the sinking of the Montevideo Maru off the Philippines coast on July 1, 1942.
Japanese hospital ship Montevideo Maru was carrying 845 troops from Australia’s Lark force and 208 civilians – 1,053 men – taken prisoner of war after Japan invaded the beautiful town of Rabaul, East New Britain province, in Jan 1942.
These civilians included men who may have helped build pre-war Rabaul, capital of then New Guinea until the volcanic eruption of 1937, and included administration workers and missionaries.
There were even members of an Australian Salvation Army band.
The unmarked Japanese ship left occupied Rabaul on June 22, 1942, but nine days later on July 1, American submarine USS Sturgeon torpedoed it off Luzon in the Philippines.
The saddest thing is that the wreck has never been found to this day, and both Australia and PNG do not know the names of those killed, as the official nominal (katakana) roll – which might give a clue to the identities of those on board – has not been located
Now, 67 years later, Australian families who lost loved ones in Australia’s worst maritime tragedy, want the shipwreck to be found and made a war grave by the federal government.
Relatives of men onboard the ill-fated ship have set up the Montevideo Maru Memorial Committee to mark the tragedy they say has been overlooked by officials.
Former Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Kim Beazley has accepted the role of patron of the committee.
A plaque to commemorate the sinking of the Montevideo Maru will be unveiled at Subic Bay in the Phillipines on Wednesday, July 1.
A powerful new documentary film, ‘The Tragedy of the Montevideo Maru’, produced by Australian filmmaker John Schindler, is due to be released in November and promises to shed more light on this calamity of Australian and PNG WW11 history.
Committee member and former PNG kiap Keith Jackson provided documents and pictures of the Montevideo Maru tragedy as the anniversary of its leaving Rabaul and tragic sinking near.
After the Japanese invasion of Rabaul in Jan 1942, an early decision was by the Australian government to evacuate women and children from Rabaul and the islands, but to leave behind the male (and Chinese and mixed-race civilians), and a small garrison of Australian troops, known as Lark Force.
"Lark Force was the bastion against the Japanese advance,” Mr Jackson says.
“The bulk of these troops comprised the 2/22nd Battalion of the Australian Army.
“Amongst their number was the Brunswick Salvation Army band from Melbourne.
“In January 1942, Rabaul was overwhelmed by a far superior Japanese force.
“Disaster ensued.
“Precious few of the troops and but one bandsman, Fred Kollmorgen, escaped alive.
“The Japanese executed many more.
“Of the many men taken prisoner – 1,053 troops, civilians and the bulk of the Brunswick Band – died when the Montevideo Maru was torpedoed off the Philippines on July 1, 1942.”
Jackson stressed in no uncertain terms that the tragedy of the Montevideo Maru must never be allowed to fade away.
“Firstly, there are the victims’ relatives and their thirst for knowledge and need for closure,” he said.
“Because there remain so many questions about the tragedy, it is impossible for these people to assure themselves that the full story has been told.
“In the dishonouring of the rights of the relatives to official recognition of this tragedy, there is an implicit dishonouring of the memories of the 1,053 men who died.
“Second, there is much that is unknown about political decisions made in Canberra in January 1942 that left just 1,400 Lark Force troops to defend Rabaul against a strong Japanese invading force supported by overwhelming air and naval power.
“Third, there was the discreditable official silence, for the entire duration of the war, surrounding the fate of the 1,053 (it is thought) troops and civilians loaded on to the Montevideo Maru.
“And then there was the unsolved puzzle of who exactly was on board the vessel.
“There was a roll kept by the Japanese that apparently fell into Australian hands after the war.
“It went missing.
“Fourth, there has been the unfathomable official reluctance to give due recognition to the Montevideo Maru tragedy, which is at least as significant as the sinking of the light cruiser Sydney (645 deaths) and the hospital ship Centaur (268 deaths).
“Fifth, there are stories that Australians should know about our history.
“This is surely one of them.
“These are the reasons why this matter must be pursued.”
Keith Jackson can be contacted on email or visit his PNG Attitude blog

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