WAR MEMORIAL MARKS MONTEVIDEO MARU TRAGEDY
Seventy years ago this Sunday, a US submarine torpedoed a Japanese transport ship crowded with 1054 mostly Australian prisoners, an appalling tragedy which touched lives across Australia then and has ever since.
That event, Australia's worst ever maritime disaster, will be remembered with the dedication of a new memorial located in the grounds of the Australian War Memorial.
In Canberra on Saturday, more than 600 relatives of those lost on the Montevideo Maru, plus others linked to these dark events, gathered for a luncheon, addressed by, among others, Federal Minister Peter Garrett.
Mr Garrett, whose grandfather Tom Garrett was lost on Montevideo Maru, said this memorial was righting a wrong in recognising the sacrifice of those lost in 1942 and of family members who knew nothing of what occurred until after the war.
"The delay in formal notification both of those who lost their lives in the event itself and the subsequent response by Australian governments in the post-war period had a paucity about it which is still puzzling," he said.
Guest speaker Army Chief Lieutenant General David Morrison said this was one of the most tragic events of Australian military history and was the culmination of a chain of disastrous strategic and tactical decisions.
"Far too many brave young Australians paid the ultimate price for it. The dead of the Montevideo Maru silently rebuke Australia and remind us some 70 years later of the consequences of neglect of the nation's defence," he said.
All those aboard Montevideo Maru were captured on New Britain when Japan invaded on January 23, 1942. Vastly outnumbered and poorly equipped, defences crumbled in hours. Some 130 soldiers fleeing Rabaul were captured and massacred at the Tol Plantation.
More than 1000 prisoners, including soldiers and detained civilians, were loaded aboard Montevideo Maru for transport to Hainan Island.
Cruising west of the Philippines on July 1, 1942, the 10,000-tonne vessel was stalked and torpedoed by the submarine USS Sturgeon.
Battened in the holds, the prisoners went down with the ship, vanishing into the depths of the South China Sea.
Compounding the tragedy, Japan neglected to inform the Red Cross of the ship's loss. For three and a half years, those back at home believed their loved ones would return home at the end of the war.
But there were some who managed to escape, eventually making their way back to Australia.
Dick Dunbar-Reid, of Sydney, then aged 16 months, departed Rabaul aboard a ship the day before the Japanese arrived.
"My father waved goodbye to us from the wharf," he said. "He eventually got back to Sydney six months later. He went by canoe from New Britain to the mainland and walked again to Port Moresby."
One successful escapee was soldier Peter Figgis, who subsequently returned to New Britain as a coastwatcher, operating behind enemy lines. He died in 2009 aged 92.
Hugh Figgis, of Sydney, recalled how his father was contacted throughout his life by relatives of those lost on Montevideo Maru, asking if there was any chance their loved one had managed to escape.
"Dad always told them that the holds were closed and therefore unfortunately they would not have survived," he said.
Similarly, he had to tell relatives of those murdered at Tol that there was no memorial.
"I am sure my father would never have thought that those who went down on Montevideo Maru and those killed at Tol Plantation would receive the kind of recognition they are now receiving," he said.
"It's taken 70 years. It's very gratifying to my family and I know dad would absolutely have loved to be here today."