Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Memorial

75th Anniversary Commemorative Addrsss by the Honourable Dr Brendan Nelson, AO, Australian War Memorial, 1 July 2017

In our sleep, pain that cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart.
And in our despair, against our will
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God

Aeschylus, from Armageddon 458 BC

With awkward humility, abiding reverence and a pain that ‘cannot forget’, we pause here in the heart of the land they loved.

We do so as free and confident heirs to a legacy born of idealism, forged in self-sacrifice and passed now to our generation.

Veterans, descendants, families, Australians, friends: we gather here to remember, honour and above all, to recommit ourselves to one another, our nation and the ideals of mankind.

In this and with each passing year and annual act of remembrance, we penetrate further into the character of the events that bring us together.
In doing so, with each word, each wreath and each act of humility; ‘comes wisdom through the awful grace of God’.

By any standard the most important year is our history is 1788.

The arrival of the First British Fleet devastated millennia of rich indigenous custodianship and culture. But those events, and the 19th century pioneers who would follow, are the origins of the Australia we now are and the people we have become.

The next most important year was 1942.

Militarist, expansionist Imperial Japan landed on the Malay Peninsula in December 1941 as it attacked the US Fleet at Pearl Harbour. It moved with relentless, rapid brutality across South East Asia.

‘Fortress Singapore’ fell in February 1942 with 22,000 Australians going into captivity in five weeks.

Days later the bombing of Darwin heralded 68 attacks on the Australian mainland that year. The Japanese Navy finally suffered a strategic defeat in the Coral Sea by the US and Australia in May and was routed a month later at ‘Midway’.

The Japanese then had no choice but to get to Moresby across the Hinterland from the north.

Gripping struggles at Kokoda and Isuarva followed and finally repulsion of the Japanese at Milne Bay.

Three Japanese submarines in Sydney Harbour, Guadalcanal and the Bismarck Sea: these were desperate days.

On the stepping stones of courage and despair this, the nation’s greatest generation fought to defend our vital interests.

Yet, and to our shame, early in 1942 an ill-prepared and desperately under-equipped group of Australians fought a battle less known. Most of those who survived the Japanese invasion would perish in the sinking of the Montevideo Maru 75 years ago today.

Rabaul was the capital of the Australian mandated territory of New Guinea, on the Island of New Britain. Its strategic importance related primarily to its harbour and airfields.

In 1941, Rabaul was populated by an eclectic mix of public servants, plantation families, business people, missionaries, nurses, soldiers, Salvation Army bandsmen, Chinese and of course New Guinean nationals.

The 2/22 Battalion AIF began arriving in March and April 1941.

Although comprising the bulk of ‘Lark Force’, they were joined by the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, Australian Coastal Defence Battery, anti-Tank Battery, anti-Aircraft Battery and the 2/10th Field Ambulance.

Almost 1400 in total, on 23 January 1942 they were no match for the Japanese invading force four times their number with overwhelmingly superior air and naval support.

Whilst 400 Australians would flee across land and find their way back to Australia, 300 were rounded up and interred as Prisoners of War along with 900 already captured.

At the Tol Plantation, 160 Australians were tortured and then massacred: shot and bayoneted.

On 22 June, more than 1,000 prisoners were marched to the dock to embark the unmarked auxiliary transport ship Montevideo Maru. One witness wrote of them:

They were half starved and ill….with a smile and a cheery wave for those remaining, the stronger supporting the weaker; arm in arm.

Before boarding, 400 wrote what would be their last letters to loved ones which the Japanese airdropped in bundles over Moresby.

Lance Corporal William ‘Eric’ Dennis of the 1st Independent Company wrote to his mother in Claremont, Western Australia:

Dear Mother,

This will only be a short letter to let you know that I am a prisoner of war and am being held at Rabaul under the Japanese.

I am quite well, and the Japanese are treating us very well.

This is not the regular mail service under the Red Cross system that will probably start in a month or so…. then we will be able to write more regularly and also to receive parcels.

I will write every opportunity and will be looking forward to receiving mail.

Will you let Daphne know at once please and send her my love?

There is no need to worry - we are being very well looked after.

Love to all,

Sergeant Bob Hannah of 2/22nd Lark Force wrote to his mother at the Hotel Australia Arcade in Collins Street, Melbourne:

Dear Family,

It is with great relief that I can write this note to you - your anxieties over the last seven weeks must have been very heavy.

I can assure you that I am in good health and spirits and being very well treated, the Japanese [CENSORED] are going to great trouble to see that we all have the privilege of writing this note.

Would you please see that the office and friends are all informed that I am still in the land of the living and intend to stay that way?

I'm afraid that you won't be able to write to me for some time yet but you might be able to let me know how Mrs Kelly has fared.

Give my best regards to Jess and John and if you would not mind sending her a telegram when this gets through as this is the only letter I can write…..best to Jim Hervie and all the crowd.

Absolutely all I can say at the moment, except how glad I am to be able to write to you and it has been causing me great anxiety to have you at home worrying over me.

However all's well that ends well.

Very best love


Nine days later they were dead: Eric, Bob, every one of them.

One thousand and fifty one lives, almost all Australians, all dead.

Headed for Hainan Island, these malnourished men–845 soldiers and 206 civilians, many with disease–were crushed into the holds below deck.

For good reasons these were known as the Hellships.

The Montevideo Maru was in the South China Sea off the coast of Luzon, Philippines late in the evening of 30 June 1942.

Lt Commander William Wright commanding his submarine, USS Sturgeon, had been tracking the ship for four hours, unaware of her cargo.

Four torpedoes were fired at the Montevideo Maru at 2.29 am on 1 July.

Two struck the ship. She sank stern first, completely gone 11 minutes from impact.

One of the handful of Japanese crew who survived the sinking and subsequent march through the Philippine jungle, said:

The Australians in the water sang Auld Lang Syne to their mates below as the ship sank.

Sudden death, loss and inconsolable grief are hard enough. But none of this was known here in Australia.

As encouraged by Eric Dennis and Bob Hannah, families continued to write their letters in the hopeful belief they would arrive as repositories of love and reminders of home.

As the lists of recovered POWs were published at war’s end, research revealed the fate of these men and the magnitude of our loss. The bare truth would be finally be revealed in September 1945.

In homes the length and breadth of Australia, telegrams unleashed pain beyond our modern comprehension.

Around them the rest of the nation celebrated its hard earned victory.

It is tempting, human beings that we are, to settle for broad brushstrokes, headlines, mythology and popular imagery of our history.

Our comfortable 21st century lives breed easy indifference to sacrifices made in our name, devotion to duty and to our country. Neglectful indifference can allow the past to be a distant stranger.

We are Australians, not only or so much because we have a constitution, the rule of law and machinery of democracy given us by the British.

We are defined instead by our values and our beliefs, the way we relate to one another and see ourselves in the world.

We are shaped most by our heroes and villains, our triumphs and failures; the way as a people we have faced adversity and how we will deal with the inevitable adversities coming and respond to new, emerging and unseen horizons.

These events, this day this is who we are.

Much that is precious was lost. But something precious was also gained.

From their sacrifice and the anguished pain arising from it, we have gained a greater belief in ourselves and a deeper understanding of what it means to be Australian.

There is wisdom in this desolation.

Richard and Hilda Drew’s second son Ken was a member of the 2/22nd battalion regimental band. They had, like all families, held out hope for their son.

Shattered, Richard penned a poem of tribute:

Keep brave my boy in days of gloom
there are brighter days ahead.

And therein lays a powerful twin paradox.

The most fragile yet powerful of human emotions is hope.

We all have to believe in a better future, a better world. Hope less for ourselves than for those whom we love, our nation and its future.

Hope is most sustained by reaching out in support of one another, irrespective of the cost to ourselves.

That’s what they did.

Even in drowning, they offered their voices and last thoughts to one another.

We pause here at the place where we reveal our nation’s soul and the character of its people: the Australian War Memorial.

The paradox though is that it’s not about war.

This place instead is about love and friendship.

Love for friends and between friends.

Love of family and love of our country.

Here we honour men and women whose lives are devoted not to themselves, but to us, and their last moments to one another.

From here as we look to the Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Memorial, we are reminded of personal journeys and the magnitude of loss.

But from it also the liberating wisdom born of a pain that knows that what we need most-is one another.

We remember them.

We always will.

Lest we forget.


Copyright 2011-19
Papua New Guinea Association of Australia