Finding Montevideo Maru
Japanese transport ship, MS Montevideo Maru, bound for a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, sank on 1 July 1942 carrying Australian troops and civilians, off the coast of the Philippines. It was torpedoed by an American submarine, the USS Sturgeon, which did not know it was carrying military prisoners of war and civilians captured in Rabaul by conquering Japanese soldiers just weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The submarine fired its four torpedoes at the Montevideo Maru. Lifeboats onboard the vessel were launched but capsized and the ship sank in less than 11 minutes.
In total, about 1,053 prisoners were lost—an estimated 845 military personnel, including the 2/22nd Lark Force Battalion, their band, 36 NGVR soldiers, members of 1 Independent Company and up to 208 civilians.
The location of the wreck has remained a mystery for decades—until now.
The ship was found on 18 April 2023, after 12 days of searching in the South China Sea, by a team led by not-for-profit Silentworld Foundation, deep-sea survey specialists, Fugro and supported by the Department of Defence.
The wreckage will not be disturbed, and no human remains or artefacts will be removed. The site, which sits deeper than the wreck of the Titanic, will be recorded for research purposes.
Features found on scans of the wreckage, including the hold, the foremast, and the curve of the bow, match those found on drawings of the Montevideo Maru.
The Search: Working around the clock on two separate ‘watches’, the crew used advanced technology on the ship to first carefully map the ocean floor to prepare for the next stage of the mission.
They then deployed Fugro’s unmanned underwater vehicle that carried both a multi-beam echo sounder and high-fidelity side scan sonar and sent it on its pre-programmed search pattern, flying 100 metres off the ocean floor and operating at depths in excess of 4,000 metres.
The 12-day mission was also hampered by heavy weather caused by a small cyclone near the Philippines, which made it temporarily impossible to operate the sensitive deep-sea equipment, so the team briefly paused their activity to reassess and refine the search area. Then, as the team neared the end of completing a sweep of their third survey area, the AUV happened to pass over the Montevideo Maru wreckage.
The Discovery: Silentworld Foundation director, John Mullen, said there were mixed emotions on board the ship when the discovery was made, ‘The discovery of the Montevideo Maru closes a terrible chapter in Australian military and maritime history,’ Mr Mullen said. ‘Families waited years for news of their missing loved ones, before learning of the tragic outcome of the sinking. Some never fully came to accept that their loved ones were among the victims. Today, by finding the vessel, we hope to bring closure to the many families devastated by this terrible disaster.’
The ‘Find the Montevideo Maru’ Silentworld team, and as many crew of Fugro Equator as possible, gathered together on the foredeck for a special service at sunset, after the discovery, to remember all those who lost their lives when Montevideo Maru sank. Sitting over the location, the extractor vents were cut and there was silence. Silentworld leader, John Mullen, provided solemn and caring words of reflection, before a minute’s silence was observed, as the vast blue ocean stretched around. Having seen only an occasional petrel in three weeks on board, out of the sky three pigeons appeared, settling on the deck nearby. As the sun lowered on the horizon, a golden path flowed between it and the boat, the colours glowing and softening with the ripples. Magnificent floral wreaths, kept incredibly fresh in the vessel’s cool room, were then dropped overboard to float over the gentle waves into the sunset.
This was followed by a short Tsuito Shiki ceremony and casting a beautiful Senbazuru—on this occasion 50 paper cranes, a symbol of peace—into the water.
On Anzac Day the team held a private Dawn Service on the bridge.
PNGAA’s Max Uechtritz was on board when the wreck was discovered. A founding member of the Rabaul & Montevideo Maru Group, he is working on a documentary about finding the Montevideo Maru. Accompanying the team as cameraman was Neale Maude. Spine-tingling images and videos of the $15 m AUV both entering the water, and being recovered from it, were produced, along with images of life on board this world-class search vessel, which had previously located AE1 at the Duke of York Islands and also searched for MH370.
The Families: Chair of the Australian War Memorial, Kim Beazley, who in 2009 joined relatives urging the Federal Government to launch a search for the wreck, described the discovery of MS Montevideo Maru as ‘… a monumental moment in history and for the families who have agonised and grieved about what happened to their loved ones.’ The former Federal Opposition Leader’s uncle, Sydney Uwin Beazley, was among those on board the Montevideo Maru and was lost in the tragedy. ‘Finding the site of Australia’s most devastating loss at sea will help heal Australia’s collective memory for generations,’ Mr Beazley said. ‘This has solved a Second World War mystery and my family’s history. The discovery is connected to an enormous Australian tragedy, both from massacres on land and the huge loss of life at sea.’
Former Labor minister, Peter Garrett, was in his mid-20s when he learned of his grandfather’s fate, which inspired the Midnight Oil frontman to write the song ‘In the Valley’. Born in England, Tom Garrett had served in World War I with the 6th Light Horse Regiment and later worked in the New Guinea plantations, where brutal massacres occurred.
Other families lost multiple members of their family, including the Turners of NSW, whose three young sons, Sidney, Dudley and Daryl, all enlisted together in Australia’s first commando group. The youngest civilian to perish was 15-year-old Ivor Gascoigne while many others were aged in the 60s.
On board the search vessel when the wreck was discovered was Andrea Williams, who lost both her grandfather and her great-uncle in the disaster.
Andrea, former PNGAA president and long-standing committee member, is also a founding member and present chair of the Rabaul & Montevideo Maru Group, formed in 2009 by then PNGAA President, Keith Jackson, to represent the interests of descendants. Along with Max Uechtritz, who was also on board, other founding members include Phil Ainsworth, Elizabeth Thurston and Rod Miller, who have all continued to work on acknowledgement of this disaster. ‘Today is an extraordinarily momentous day for all Australians connected with this tragic disaster,’ Andrea said.
‘Having had a grandfather and great-uncle as civilian internees on Montevideo Maru always meant the story was important to me, as it is to so many generations of families whose men perished. I could never understand why it was not a more powerful part of our Australian WWII history. Being part of the Silentworld team that has found the wreck has been both hugely emotional and also fulfilling.’
Andrea said it was important to remember the captives had been held by the Japanese in Rabaul for five months before they boarded the Montevideo Maru. ‘We want to make sure the men are remembered and not forgotten. What they went through was horrific. By telling their story and by finding the Montevideo Maru the families will know they’ve not been forgotten.’
Last Post Service—Montevideo Maru Anniversary
On 1 July 2023 the Australian War Memorial in Canberra will be remembering the Montevideo Maru at its Last Post Service commencing 4.40 pm. Additionally, a lunch is being planned prior at Pavilion on Northbourne, Canberra. More information from firstname.lastname@example.org, PNGAA website and Facebook.
This is an edited extract from the Special Feature published in the June issue of PNG Kundu. A full, pictorial account of the momentous discovery of the wreck of the Montevideo Maru will be available later as an eBook, which will be able to be downloaded from the website at www.pngaa.org/e-books