The forgotten deaths of 1,000 Australian prisoners of war

Bundaberg RSL sub-branch president Graham Crowden wants the community to know about and commemorate the sinking of the Montevideo Maru. Picture: AARON GOODWIN

By Aaron Goodwin

The 1 July will mark 80 years since the sinking of the Montevideo Maru vessel, which led to the deaths of over 1,000 Australian soldiers and civilians in bizarre circumstances.

The worst maritime disaster in Australian history, the sinking of the Montevideo Maru is likely unknown to many Australians, as it was to Bundaberg RSl sub-branch president Graham Crowden, until the 22 June when one of his staff members happened upon it.

On 23 January 1942 Japanese forces attacked Rabaul as part of thier Pacific War campaign and defeated the Australian forces there.

About 1,400 Australian military personnel were in Rabaul before the attack.

400 eventually escaped to Australia, while most of the remaining personnel became prisoners of war (POWs).

845 Australian POWs and over 200 civilian internees left Rabaul on 22 June 1942 on the Montevideo Maru, a freighter requisitioned by the Japanese navy, for Hainan, off the southern coast of China.

On 1 July this vessel, which was not marked as a POW carrier, was torpedoed and sunk by the submarine USS Sturgeon close to Luzon, resulting in the deaths of all prisoners and internees on board.

The deaths on the Montevideo Maru were not fully revealed in Australia until after the end of the war.

”It was sunk by an United States submarine not knowing they were killing over 1,000 Australian veterans and allies,” Mr Crowden said.

”As far as the US thought, they may have thought it was a cargo ship that was probably providing weapons and supplies.

”All the anomalies and the circumstances they were involved in makes this a historical and commemorative event to let the community know about.

”Let’s keep it in our minds and let’s pray for those people that lost their lives and their families who were left behind, for many years not knowing where they were.

”I’m sure they are very few people in Bundaberg who know anything about it.”

Mr Crowden wants the community to reflect on the lives lost aboard the Montevideo Maru on 1 July.

If there’s enough support from the community, Mr Crowden is happy to have a wreath laying service in the future.

”My job is to let people know about these commemorative moments in time that we haven’t known about for so long,” Mr Crowden said.

”Here we are 80 years later and I’ve just found out about it.

”Unfortunately I’m bogged down with administrative tasks and having care for veterans still with us.

”That ties me down, I’m not a historian, I like to look after those who are here but I do feel for those who have been taken.

”It’s almost been forgotten but we got it now.”