Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Memorial


75th Anniversary Commemorative Speech for the loss of the Montevideo Maru, Rabaul, East New Britain Province, 22 June 2017. His Excellency Bruce Davis, AM, Australian High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea

Thank you for inviting me here this evening to address this 75th anniversary commemorative service to mark the loss of the Montevideo Maru.

We gather to mark one of the most infamous and profoundly sorrowful tragedies to befall Australia in wartime; and indeed Australia’s largest single maritime disaster.

On this day, seventy-five years ago, a prison ship bearing over a thousand Australian prisoners of war and civilian internees departed the port behind me, bound for Japanese labour camps in occupied China.

Those aboard had been rounded up by Japanese Imperial troops following the capture of Rabaul in January 1942.

They were the ones who stayed behind–or were left behind–after the gradual evacuation over the preceding months.

Some had stayed to ensure that administration and commerce could continue and to avert panic among local workers, who would otherwise have nowhere to go.

There were also numerous Chinese settlers who had not been evacuated to Australia that remained in Rabaul as well, a reminder that we were living in very different times only a few generations ago.

The residents, like so many others throughout the Pacific and Southeast Asia, had become hostages of a brutal occupying force.

Shortly after the invasion, the Australian survivors were the target of one of the war’s most barbaric acts, when soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army brutally bayonetted or shot up to 160 Australians in what became known as the Tol Plantation Massacre.

Rabaul–known to Australians as the Pearl of the Pacific–then quickly became a major military base and launching point for the Japanese advance further south.

Of course, the survivors of the initial attack cannot have known what awaited them as they boarded a cargo ship on 22 June 1942, but many no doubt thought–perhaps hoped–their fate could not possibly be worse than life in occupied Rabaul.

Others would have known what their captors were capable of, and feared never seeing their loved ones again.

All would have been terrified. And as we know, the worst was yet to come.

Nine days after they departed, in the early hours of 1 July, all prisoners aboard the ship lost their lives when an American submarine, on patrol in the northern Philippines, torpedoed it.

The American sailors had orders to intercept and destroy all enemy shipping they encountered.

The ship bore no markings to indicate it was transporting civilians or prisoners of war. For the Americans to ignore a marked enemy vessel would have been unthinkable.

Contemporary naval reports said the ship sank within minutes. Only twenty of the 220 crew survived. The remainder perished along with all of the prisoners below decks.

The event remained unknown to Australians until the end of the war, when after the surrender an Australian military officer went to Tokyo to investigate the fate of the Rabaul internees and discovered archival records revealing the extent of the catastrophe.

Families–some of whom are represented here today–had waited years for news on the fate of their relatives in Rabaul and were heartbroken when the totality of the loss was revealed.

The fact that the sinking remained relatively obscure in Australia for many decades afterward only compounded the sorrow for families and friends of the victims.

The sinking of the Montevideo Maru truly was one of the great tragedies of the war for Australia.

In this year of commemoration, as we mark 75 years since the New Guinea and Papuan campaigns, I also hope that we–as Australians–can cast our gaze wider than the traditional focal points of Kokoda and the Papuan battlefields to remember the trauma and sacrifice endured in other parts of this country.

It is one of my personal priorities during my time in this country to ensure that we build a more mature and sophisticated relationship with Papua New Guinea: a strengthened partnership if you like.

An important part of this has meant giving equal weight to commemorating Papua New Guinea’s experience of the war.

We must never forget that, despite this being Australian trust territory in 1942, it has always belonged to the people of this remarkable country.

When the Japanese army took Rabaul in 1942 with a view to advancing further south, captured New Guineans from Rabaul were conscripted as labourers, carriers and servants to power their war machine.

I pay tribute to those untold thousands whose dignity was snatched; whose lives were cut short; and whose families were denied the promise of their safe return.

I am also conscious that many people believe the historic failure by the Australian Government to commemorate adequately the fall of Rabaul–compared with the major commemorations surrounding the anniversaries of the fall of Singapore and the attacks on Darwin–represented a betrayal of the victims’ memory.

The unveiling in 2012 of a permanent memorial to the dead in Canberra was a timely and welcome recognition of a tragedy that had remained in the shadows for too long.

The loss of the Montevideo Maru and the atrocities which followed the fall of Rabaul were shocking and tragic events.

As was the loss of thousands of Papua New Guineans in a war that was not their own.

They are stories that should be told to every Australian and Papua New Guinean schoolchild.

I commend the sustained efforts of the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia over many years for your dedicated leadership.

Lest we forget.

 


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Papua New Guinea Association of Australia