- Wright, Ken
- History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2009 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Vessels sunk by Allies
The Montevideo Maru was the first of 15 vessels sunk by the Allies that had POWs onboard. Lt. Commander Wright commanding Sturgeon was unaware of the ship’s human cargo when he ordered the firing of the four torpedoes which was to result in Australia’s worst maritime disaster. Historical figures vary but at least 20,000 prisoners lost their lives being transported to various destinations by Japanese ships unmarked as carrying prisoners of war during the war in the Pacific. The most tragic was the sinking of the Junyo Maru on 18 September 1944 by the British submarine HMS Tradewind, with a lost of 5,620 allied lives, possibly more as historical figures vary. As Japan was not a signatory to the Geneva Convention, they did whatever they liked with their captives and marking their ships as carrying POWs was not an option. Had they marked their ships accordingly, not only the ships but the POWs would have, in most cases, arrived at their destinations safely. Japanese arrogance and the fact that the Allies were able to decipher major Japanese naval codes contributed significantly to victory in the Pacific. Nowhere where was this more evident than in the submarine campaign in which submarines could be directed to intercept Japanese ships almost anywhere in the vast reaches of the Pacific.
After the American submarine had sunk the Montevideo Maru, the Japanese deliberately maintained a silence about the sinking. It was not until after the war that documents were uncovered in the records of Japan’s Prisoner of War Information Bureau revealing the loss of the ship. This information arrived in Canberra late October 1945 and finally the Commonwealth was aware of the terrible tragedy that had taken place and what had happened to those missing from ‘Lark Force.’
The combined elements of Lark Force were the first Australians to face the Japanese on Australian territory and sadly, their final resting places are the sea or the jungle at the Tol Plantation. Telegrams were immediately sent to relatives of the 1,050 military and civilian POWs who perished with the ship. Before the telegrams arrived, the family members and friends of the soldiers and civilians who perished had to endure just over three agonising years of not knowing the fate of their loved ones.
The military version of the telegram reads:
‘It is with deep regret that I have to inform you that [number and name] became missing on 1st July1942 and is for official purposes presumed to be dead and desire to convey to you the profound sympathy of the Minister for the Army.’
The civilian version:
It is with deep regret that I have to inform you that the transmission of the nominal roll of the Japanese vessel Montevideo Maru which was lost with all personnel after leaving Rabaul in June 1942 shows that [name] was aboard the vessel and I desire to convey to you the profound sympathy of the Commonwealth Government.-Minister for External Affairs.’
Because the Montevideo Maru sank without any Allied survivors, conspiracy theories abound about cover ups, government neglect, massacres and so forth. The tragic sinking of HMAS Sydney, also without survivors, is still the subject of debate by theorists even now after the ship has been found and an accurate assessment of her demise has been presented. Finding the Montevideo Maru and exploring her holds may give final closure to friends and loved ones of those who perished and may silence some or all of the doubters. Because of the publicity surrounding the expedition that set out to find and discovered the Sydney and her adversary, Kormoran, Australians are more aware of their WW II maritime history. Hopefully the same awareness will manifest itself if and when the Montevideo Maru becomes more of a subject of interest than it is now and understand the heartache of those ‘We regret to inform you’ telegrams.
- Gamble, Bruce. Darkest Hour. Zenith Press. USA. 2006.