People - Norm Furness

Corporal - A.I.F. 2/22 Battalion

A Tragedy of War - Norm Furness VX23557 2/22 Battalion - July 2002

Sixty years ago this month one of the biggest single loss of lives of Australian servicemen and civilians was occurring in the ocean near the Philippines north of Australia. It is a story all Australians should know as it is part of our history.

I would like to share this true and sad happening with you and explain the lead up to events that changed so many lives forever. In March 1941 the 2/22 Battalion was sent to Rabaul which is on
a small island, part of Papua New Guinea. Over a period of months other smaller units arrived, bringing the total force up to 1350. We became known as Lark Force. We served as a garrison force until December 1941 when Japan entered the war.

It was not long before Rabaul was under air attacks, until, on 23 January 1942, a very large Japanese force with air and naval support stormed ashore in the early hours of the morning. It was only a matter of time before this vastly superior force overran the gallant but greatly under-powered defenders, who ran out of ammunition and any means of communication.

The order 'Every Man for Himself' was given as all organised resistance collapsed. Many of our troops were killed, and others died in the jungle over the next weeks while trying to escape. Approximately 135 were executed after surrendering at Tol Plantation, and many more small groups were captured along the coast and taken back to Rabaul as POWs.

The number of POWs grew as soldiers and civilians captured on other islands were also brought to Rabaul. The women and children had been evacuated to Australia in December 1941, but the men left had to fend for themselves.

The whole group in Rabaul were used as labourers till 22 June 1942 when they were awakened in the early hours of the morning. All officers were taken away and all POWs and civilians were marched to the wharf and loaded onto a cargo ship of about 7500 tons. It was the Montevideo Maru. They were put in the ship's holds and battened down. This was to be the last time any of these men were ever to be seen again. They just vanished off the face of the earth. The total number of men was 1053.

The only report known stated that the ship was headed to Japan. Meanwhile Allied submarines were now becoming active and were on the prowl in the Pacific Ocean and the China Sea. At about 2200 hours on 30 June 1942 a darkened ship going at high speed was sighted and followed. About midnight the ship slowed down and a submarine closed in for the kill. I might add that the sub crew knew that it was a Jap ship as we had none in this dangerous area, but they had no idea that it was carrying POWs. At about 0300 hours the submarine fired 4 torpedoes into the ship, which sank in four minutes. No survivors were seen. All this happened just off Luzon, a hostile area, particularly for Allied craft of any description.

A ship was reported sunk to Allied headquarters, but Japanese authorities disclosed nothing, and it was not until September 1945 that Australia got the terrible news that the ship was the Montevideo Maru and that it had been lost over three years earlier with no POW survivors.

The relatives of these men were then notified of their tragic loss. These families were waiting to greet their loved ones whom they thought were just POWs. They endured more suffering than most in waiting so long for so little.

The blame for all this lay solely with the Japanese headquarters in not marking ships with prisoners on board or not seeking a safe passage for this ship. Many other ships carrying POWs were also sank but nearly all had some survivors.

Of the crew of 88 on the Montevideo Maru 17 got ashore near Luzon only to be met by hostile natives who had no time for them, and most were killed or wounded. Only a handful ever got back to Japan.

The captured Australian officers and nurses had been put on another Japanese ship, the Naruto Maru, which safely reached Japan, and they were all returned to Australia when peace was declared.

Finally, I was a lucky man. I escaped off the island of New Britain in late March 1942 after missing capture several times by small margins. I was and still am proud to have been a member of Lark Force and have vivid memories of the Rabaul tragedy and the loss of so many of my mates.

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© Norm Furness VX23557 2/22 Battalion 2002

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Created by Joanne and Jenny Evans, July 2002. Updated 29 May 2011