The sinking of the Montevideo Maru – Fact sheet 266
In December 1941, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor and Malaya, launching the Pacific war. On 23 January 1942, as part of the same thrust that was targeting the Philippines and the Netherlands East Indies, they attacked Rabaul, at the northern tip of the Gazelle Peninsula of New Britain, and defeated Australian forces there.
About 1400 Australian military personnel were in Rabaul before the attack. Approximately 400 eventually escaped to Australia, while most of the remaining personnel became prisoners of war (POWs). In addition, over 200 civilians in the area were interned. Two attempts were made to transfer these prisoners to Japanese territory. The second group, comprising 60 Australian officers and 19 women, including 8Army nurses, left Rabaul on 6 July and arrived safely in Japan.
The first group, which was made up of 845 POWs and over 200 civilian internees left Rabaul on 22 June 1942 on the Montevideo Maru, a freighter requisitioned by the Japanese navy, for Hainan, off the southern coast of China. On 1 July this vessel, which was not marked as a POW carrier, was torpedoed and sunk by the submarine USS Sturgeon close to Luzon, resulting in the deaths of all prisoners and internees on board.
The deaths on the Montevideo Maru were not fully revealed in Australia until after the end of the war, when Major Harold S Williams of the No. 1 Australian Prisoners of War Contact and Enquiry Unit, a pre-war resident of Japan, was sent to Tokyo to investigate this and other POW matters.
Nominal lists of POWs and internees on the Montevideo Maru
In Tokyo in September 1945, Major Williams accessed Japanese files which showed that the Montevideo Maru had been carrying Australian prisoners when it was sunk. One of the files included a copy of a 48-page nominal list handwritten in Japanese. He translated the names into English, sent the translation back to Australia in parts, and brought the Japanese list with him when he returned. The current locations of these are unclear.
In early 2012, the National Archives received from the government of Japan a substantial number of original records relating to Australian POWs, including two lists – one typed in English and the other handwritten in Japanese characters – of the 1054 Australians and others (178 non-commissioned officers, 667 soldiers and 209 civilians) who, reportedly, had boarded the Montevideo Maru. Professional historical opinion is that this Japanese list most likely contains the same information as the list found and translated by Major Williams.
Material on Australians and others taken prisoner or interned in Rabaul, and on the ship’s sinking, can be found in Department of External Territories correspondence files.
These include many partial nominal lists of missing military and civilian personnel from Rabaul and elsewhere in New Guinea. Official and legal correspondence concerning particular missing individuals, reports of investigations, press clippings, and government statements on missing personnel and the loss of the Montevideo Maru, as well as descriptions of the sinking are also included in the National Archives holdings.