Montevideo Maru—New evidence on Austrealia’s greatest maritime loss: Rod Miller

In 1941, with war against Japan threatening, the Menzies government dispatched “Lark Force”, (nearly 1500 men) to garrison Rabaul, in the Australian Protectorate of New Guinea.

On 1 July 1942, around 800 of these soldiers, along with 250 Australian civilian internees, died when the 7000-ton Japanese freighter Montevideo Maru was torpedoed by the American submarine Sturgeon.

The currently-accepted historical explanation of what happened to the men of Rabaul can be summarised as:

The garrison of Rabaul were abandoned to their fate by the Australian government. Those captured were removed on the Montevideo Maru on 22 June 1942, and later sunk by “friendly fire”. nThe Japanese crew saved themselves, but none of the prisoners. (Most of the surviving Japanese were later murdered by Philippine guerrillas.) The Japanese POW Information Bureau [PWIB] did not respond to enquiries about the fate of the prisoners. The Allies had intelligence which indicated the true story, but kept it secret. The scale of the disaster, and the desire of the Australian Government not to rake over their original military mistakes, led to later bureaucratic corner-cutting.

The terse news released post-war by the Australian Government drove an unfortunate contagion of rumour and innuendo amongst the grieving families (often amplified by publications pushing massacre conspiracies). Many were unable to accept their loss.

The only official investigation was compiled by a lone Australian officer, Major Harold Williams, relying (officially) on only one source, the Japanese PWIB. In 1946, this drove calls for a further inquiry in the Australian Parliament, but Prime Minister Chifley staunchly refused. This fed suspicions of a cover-up.

Although today there is no doubt that more than 1000 Australians died when the Montevideo Maru was torpedoed, there is still scope for researchers to add to the history. Possibly, the Japanese sent the Rabaul civilians to Hainan Island in China specifically for exchange with Japanese citizens then held in Australia. Also our National Archives reveal that individuals in the Australian Government knew much more about the fate of the Rabaul men than was ever admitted in the official investigation process.

In 2009, Harumi Sakaguchi was the first historian in 68 years to view the single extant Japanese file on this tragedy. It contains a memo noting that the Japanese advised International Red Cross delegate, Dr Fritz Paravicini, of the sinking in August 1942:

Confidential Memo.  18 August 1942
Research Department, 5th Section, Chief (Choukai);
America Bureau, 1st Section, Deputy (Takeuchi);
South Pacific Bureau, 1st Section Chief.
Treaties Bureau Chief
Treaties Bureau 3rd Section Chief

RE: Sinking of our Ship (While Transporting Australians) by a US Submarine
On 17 August, the PWIB’s Captain Yamazaki conveyed by phone the following to the Treaties, 3rd Section, Officer.

“In early August, during a party hosted by Japan-based International Red Cross Committee Representative Dr Paravicini, PWIB Director Murakami informally conveyed to him (Dr Paravicini) that while the Imperial Force was transporting Australian Prisoners of War to the rear, aboard a Japanese ship, a US submarine attacked and sank it. This confidential information was given with the intention of having Dr Paravicini transmit it in an open cable to the Geneva-based International Red Cross Committee so that it would:
(a) Suppress attacks by US submarines; and
(b) Act as propaganda on the inhuman act of the US submarine on sinking a ship with POWs from an Allied country aboard; but which would avoid a formal announcement of the details on this sinking.

At that time the Navy Ministry also made a broadcast on the sinking by short-wave.

The Japanese Red Cross Society however prevented Dr Paravicini from transmitting the cable on this matter, which is contrary to the intention of the [Japanese] PWIB and such should be told to the Japanese Red Cross Society. This is for your reference.”

The opinion of the Treaties, 3rd Section, on this matter:

To use the International Red Cross Committee Representative for the purpose of making anti-enemy propaganda out of such ambiguous information, as in this case, is an inferior tactic, which would risk having the enemy side doubt if this sinking might not have been of the making of the Japanese with their own hands; and also lead to the questioning of the overall trustworthiness of the Representative’s cables. Therefore, we intend to give guidance to Dr Paravicini, through the Japan Red Cross Society, that a cable, which is both unclear and lacking in details such as on this matter, may result in the loss of credence in the Representative’s cables in future, and that such a cable should be prevented from being sent as an independent cable but transmitted as an annex (a supplementary item) when sending reports on other matters.

This document raises more questions than it answers. In 1945 the Pacific Islands Monthly mentioned the Japanese radio broadcast:

The Montevideo Maru was torpedoed—presumably by an Allied submarine off the coast of Luzon (Philippines) … An announcement to that effect was made by the Japanese radio. Two people have reported to us that they heard the announcement: Captain Bertie Hall, a well-known New Guinea shipmaster, who was in a prison-camp in Amoy, China, and who has just arrived in Sydney; and a brother of Mrs Peadon, of Rabaul, who heard it on short-wave when he was in the Morobe district of New Guinea. This report from Tokio in 1942, and a statement recently obtained in Tokio, said that the vessel was lost with her entire company.

Although Australia was monitoring radio broadcasts from Japan from the opening of the war, strangely no official record of this broadcast has survived. It was at this time that some of the officers of Lark Force (taken to Japan on a separate ship) broadcast messages to their families. Despite numerous requests for information from Allied governments and the Red Cross, the Montevideo Maru men were never heard of again.

At the end of the war, Major Harold Williams was rushed to Japan to investigate the fates of missing Australian POWs from the Pacific region. Although his report stated that the Japanese had destroyed many documents, he managed to locate the nominal roll of the POWs (written in Japanese phonetic Katakana script) and a separate roll of the civilian internees held in Rabaul in 1942. (Williams also extracted a few index-cards of POWs who had broadcast for the Japanese. Sensationally, nearly 20,000 similar cards survive today in the Japanese archives: potentially invaluable for understanding the dates of captivity and movements of most Australian POWs of the Japanese. The Australian government secretly declined to receive these cards in the 1950s.)

The Japanese rolls were translated by Williams (with Japanese assistance) and reportedly retained by him. Although several (inconsistent) translations of the rolls survive today in Australia, the original Katakana version cannot now be found.

Williams’ final report in December 1945 closed the case on the greatest loss of Australians in a single maritime event. His report blamed the Japanese PWIB for concealing the loss. He surmises that this was due to the “bureaucratic ineptitude” of a “notoriously inefficient” agency. He then, surprisingly, notes:

It is however necessary to report that both the Swiss Legation and the IRC officials have unofficially, but in no uncertain terms, stated that in their opinion the information was deliberately withheld.

Considering the Japanese evidence in the memo above, it is surprising that Williams didn’t investigate this matter further.

So, what did the Australian Government know of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru? There is fragmentary evidence that they knew during the war that the ship had sailed and its destination, when it sailed, how many men were aboard—and that it had been sunk. There is also evidence that this information was “secret” (possibly sourced from Allied codebreaking). Frustratingly, the Admiralty Intelligence Report for the exact week of the Montevideo Maru’s departure and sinking is missing from the files. Also many Rabaul files which may have shed light on the state of Australian Government knowledge have been removed or culled.

Before he arrived in Japan, Major Williams probably knew that the Rabaul men had been torpedoed. His “task” was probably to obtain a piece of Japanese paper that could be publicly revealed. (The relatives of the lost men waited in hope for nearly two months after the Japanese Surrender before the sinking was publicly announced.)

Although Williams’ account of the Montevideo Maru sinking has been accepted by historians for many years, the files being declassified and new evidence emerging make it time to re-evaluate what actually occurred.

Rod Miller is the author of Lost Women of Rabaul, the inspiration for the recent ABC-TV drama Sisters of War.


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