The MV Montevideo Maru was a Japanese Naval auxiliary vessel of 7,267 tons operating prewar as a passenger cargo vessel owned by Osaka Shosen Kaisha.
On 22 June 1942 she was at Rabaul where approximately 1,053 prisoners of the Japanese embarked. They were mainly Australian Military personnel from the 2/22nd Battalion and Garrison troops captured at the fall of Rabaul on 23 January 1942 with about 133 men of the 1st Independent Company caught trying to escape by sea from Kavieng which was invaded on the same day as Rabaul. There were about 200 civilians including about 26 from Kavieng and about 30 Scandinavian seamen from the MV Herstein, the last vessel to enter Rabaul before the invasion.
Local villagers, Rabaul Chinese and a few European residents of Rabaul who survived the war witnessed the departure as well as Australian officers who were to embark themselves on 5 July on another ship, the MV Naruto Maru, to go to Japan from where they returned after the war.
The Montevideo Maru proceeded unescorted, heading for the large island of Hainan south of mainland China when at 2200 hours on 30 June she was sighted off Luzon in the northern Philippines by US submarine Sturgeon on patrol, captained by Lt. Commander W.R Wright.
For several hours the Sturgeon was unable to get into a position to attack as the Montevideo Maru was proceeding at about 17 knots, but at midnight speed was reduced to 12 knots. The Sturgeon was then able to manoeuvre into a position so that at 2.25am she fired four torpedoes from her stern tubes at a range of 4,000 yards, two of which hit the starboard quarter.
The location was reported as Lat.180° 37N, Long.119° 29E and at 2.40am on 1 July 1942 the ship was observed to sink stern first.
After the war on 20 October 1945, Osaka Shosen Kaisha stated that the ship was carrying a considerable number of prisoners and a total crew of 88. Only 18, under Quartermaster Katsuishi Shozo, were saved and finally arrived on 25 July at Lavao where they were admitted to a field hospital where one died.
The Japanese Navy Dept. had reported the sinking to the owners on 20 July 1942 and on 6 January 1943 to the Prisoner of War Information Bureau in Japan with a 'complete nominal roll of 848 POWs and 208 civilians who were on board and presumed lost'. The Bureau had, despite many requests for information made by the International Red Cross and the Swiss Legation acting on behalf of Australia, through the Japanese Foreign Office, failed to communicate the information it had, and admitted it had, since January 1943. The roll was discovered by Australian officer Major H.S. Williams in the files of the Bureau on 28 September 1945 and reported on 6 October 1945 and the first telegrams notifying the bereaved were sent on 30 October 1945.
The roll discovered presented its own problems in satisfying the questions of who had died in this tragedy, which could have been avoided had Japan requested safe passage for the ship on a voyage carrying POWs.
The roll must have been, as reported by survivors, the Roll taken by the Japanese in Rabaul 4 weeks before the sailing of the Montevideo Maru, or at least based on it. All POWs, military and civilian, had been mustered and the recording team asked names, age, nationality, occupation and place of work through an interpreter and it was recorded by the scribe phonetically in Katakana Japanese characters.
The roll had apparently been necessary when the Japanese Army in Rabaul, perhaps anticipating its thrust at the New Guinea mainland, handed over responsibility for the POWs in Rabaul to the Navy.
Translation back to English and then matching the phonetically written names against the many missing persons in New Guinea was difficult, frequently confusing and haphazard, even if the roll was accepted as being a genuine article, which it often wasn't. In addition the roll as such was not proof that the prisoners were on the ship when it sank.
This latter opinion gained credence when after the war people working on the wharf said that the day after the Montevideo Maru sailed it returned to Rabaul minus the prisoners. Missionaries telling the story of the Montevideo Maru after the war, and the fate of the missionaries on board, were given stories of certain people being 'sighted', as late as 1945, and at least two books added to the doubts.
Bishop Scharmach in This Crowd Beats Us All in 1960 says the ship never existed and was a fabricated story by the Japanese. Rabaul 1942 by Douglas Aplin in 1980 (he escaped through southern New Ireland) published a list of names of 210 civilians lost on the Montevideo Maru without any reference to whether or not they were on the roll. It included nearly all the Europeans in New Ireland, except the German missionaries, so that the massacre of over 30 people on the Kavieng wharf in 1944 would have been impossible. Included in his list were New Ireland names which immediately after the war were known to have died in New Ireland and been buried there e.g Lightbody and Herterich. It also appears the 30 or so seamen from the Norwegian ship Herstein were not included in the calculation.
More recently in 1998 Masked Eden by Anne McCosker makes a case against the Montevideo Maru story and includes five names as wrongly on a Montevideo Maru list, two where bodies were recovered in Rabaul post war and three who were sighted after the Montevideo Maru sailed. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission roll however, presumably based on officially provided information, shows them not on the Montevideo Maru but as dying in Rabaul.
These conflicting accounts, combined with the undoubted conspiracy by Japanese officers in Kavieng to cover up the massacre on Kavieng wharf by telling the false story of the civilians transfer to Japan on the Kowa Maru, subsequently sunk, confirmed many people in their distrust of the Montevideo Maru story.
As the story of the Montevideo Maru returning to Rabaul the next day was generally not accepted, and also did not fit in with the other accounts of later 'sightings', serious attempts were made to locate mass graves after the war in Rabaul. Nothing was ever found however which could have been on the scale needed to account for the Montevideo Maru people.
Most opinion 60 years on seems to accept the fact of the Montevideo Maru and the fate of the 1,053 mainly Australian lives, perhaps the greatest single tragedy at sea suffered by Australia. It seems that no survivor of the Montevideo Maru was ever reliably located and interviewed so that there will never be conclusive evidence of POWs being on the ship when it sank.
As for the alternative stories not disproved, they will probably pass into the folklore of the families involved, so that the 'truth of the matter' will always spark debate.
Jim Ridges P.0 Box 86 Kavieng 26th June 2002
Online edition created by J & J Evans, August 2002