Deathly silence

Patrick Ferry
Friday, 1 July 2022

80 years ago, on 1 July 1942, a Japanese ship, the Montevideo Maru, was torpedoed off the Philippines. All 1,053 Australian Prisoners of War (POWs) and civilian internees onboard drowned. Back in Australia, their fate remained a mystery, veiled in deathly silence...

Lark Force

In April 1941, rising tensions with Japan prompted Australia to despatch 'Lark Force' to Rabaul, New Guinea. Most of Lark Force's 1,500 military personnel came from the 2/22 Battalion, Australian Imperial Force (AIF).

A newly wed in the ranks

Among them was Private Robert ('Bob') Begg (VX47276) of Pakenham Upper, south-east of Melbourne. Bob had enlisted on 9 September 1940, aged 25. Shortly afterwards, in November 1940, he married his sweetheart, Marjorie Jackson. On his 'big day', Bob proudly wore his army uniform. Bob’s best man was a fellow member of the 2/22 Battalion, Private Duncan Thomson (VX24140) of Colac, Victoria.

By the time Bob left for Rabaul in April 1941, Marjorie was pregnant. She gave birth to their son Gordon on 6 December 1941, just a day before Japan attacked Pearl Harbour.

'Every man for himself'

On 23 January 1942, the Japanese launched their long anticipated invasion of Rabaul. The Australian defenders were outnumbered and outgunned. Within hours, Lark Force’s commanding officer, Colonel John Scanlan, gave the order 'every man for himself'.

Groups of Australian troops and civilians now began arduous escapes. Some eventually made it to safety, but Bob’s group were captured at Lassul Bay, 100 kilometres from Rabaul. They were sent back to the town as prisoners, unlike another group of Australians captured at the Tol Plantation, who were brutally executed.

A last letter home

Back in Australia, sketchy press reports about the Japanese attack on Rabaul must have terrified Marjorie, and Bob was not officially reported as being a POW until late April. Around this time, Marjorie miraculously received a letter from Bob, telling her that he was OK. It was the last time Marjorie heard from Bob. For the next 3 years, Marjorie heard nothing more.

Perished at sea

Unknown to the Australian authorities, Bob was amongst the POWs and internees who boarded the Montevideo Maru at Rabaul on 22 June 1942. They were being sent to Hainan Island, off the Chinese coast, where the Japanese would have forced them to work in slave-like conditions.

However, they never made it there. An American submarine, USS Sturgeon, sighted the Montevideo Maru off the Philippines. The Sturgeon torpedoed the ship, which had no markings indicating it was carrying POWs. In what became the worst maritime tragedy in Australian history, all of the Australians onboard perished, including Bob and his best man Duncan Thomson.

A mystery finally solved

Marjorie only learned of Bob's fate after the Japanese surrendered 3 years later. Australian investigators in Tokyo searching for evidence of missing POWs found a nominal roll of those on board the Montevideo Maru when it sank. Bob's name was on the list.

When the news of Bob's fate became public in October 1945, Marjorie received the heartfelt sympathy of her local community. She remained a widow for many years, working as a midwife at Dandenong Hospital while raising Gordon.

In 2012, the National Archives of Australia received a number of documents from the Japanese government relating to Australian POWs, including a list of those on the Montevideo Maru.

The National Archives acknowledges the assistance of Bob Begg's niece Joan Talbot in the preparation of this blog.