Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce AC CVO, Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia

The 20th century was remarkable for advances in technology, education and social development, but we are sometimes also reminded that no century has been more destructive of human life. It began amid the last great colonial war, and ended just as the scourge of global terrorism was about to appear on the world stage. The twentieth century also saw the most terrible events in human history – the First and Second World Wars. In the first, Australia lost over 60,000 lives. And during the second, our nation suffered some of its greatest individual tragedies. There are already in these grounds memorials to the huge Australian losses in Bomber Command, and to the horrific Sandakan Death March.

We gather today to remember another such event. We are here to honour the memory of a group of Australian soldiers and civilians who lost their lives over a six-month period in 1942. Some of these Australians were killed in the defence of Rabaul or in other parts of the New Guinea islands; many others later died as prisoners when the ship transporting them, the Montevideo Maru, was sunk – seventy years ago today.

The centrality of the prisoner-of-war experience to Australia’s Second World War can be measured by the profound loss of life. Only two out of three survived the ordeal of three and a half years of captivity. These losses made up half of all the combat-related deaths suffered by Australian servicemen and servicewomen during the Pacific War. The suffering of the survivors continued long after their return home. And so did the grief of those whose loved ones did not return.

But there are other forms of grief, the kind that arise not from certain knowledge of loss, but from lack of knowledge, from uncertainty, from simply not knowing the fate of loved ones. With knowledge can come mourning and even acceptance. But uncertainty brings both inevitable dread and cruel hope. And sadly, this was true for the families and friends of so many of the men we honour here today. What had happened to all these missing Australians? It is a story less well known than it should be.

Located on the island of New Britain, Rabaul was the capital and administrative centre of the Australian Mandated Territory of New Guinea. Distinctive for its ring of active volcanos, Rabaul’s attraction lay in its airfields and natural harbour. For Japan, these were seen as keys to the advance into the south-west Pacific.

The value of these assets had been recognised well before the outbreak of war with Japan in December 1941. In March and April of that year, members of the 2/22nd Battalion, AIF, had begun arriving in Rabaul. They would later be joined by a detachment of the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, gun crews and batteries, and a detachment of the 2/10th Field Ambulance; they were known as “Lark Force”. Their job was to protect the airfields surrounding Rabaul, but they were ill-equipped to match the strength of the Japanese invasion.

Following days of aerial bombardment which had destroyed or led to the withdrawal of the handful of RAAF aircraft in New Britain, Japanese troops began landing in the early hours of 23 January. The Australians, numbering approximately 1,300, faced a vastly superior invasion force of over 5,300, which combined strong air and naval support. The Australian defenders put up what resistance they could, but with no air support they were forced to withdraw. Some 28 Australian soldiers died in the fighting that day. Of the survivors, 400 managed to escape New Britain and return to Australia. Those who remained, including 300 Australian civilians, were eventually rounded up and interned as prisoners of war. A grisly fate awaited those captured on New Britain after the fall of Rabaul. Shortly after their surrender, a group of 160 were bayonetted or shot in what has become known as the Tol Plantation Massacre.

Then on 22 June 1942 just over one thousand men, some 850 military prisoners and 200 civilian internees, were marched from their camps to Rabaul’s harbour. On other days they had walked the same route to work on the docks, but this time they carried whatever kit they possessed and were flanked by guards with machine-guns. Chinese and New Guinean dockside labourers saw them board a ship, the 10,000-ton Montevideo Maru. Before the war it had been a passenger ship on the China–Korea route, but the Japanese had commandeered the ship and were using it to transfer their prisonersto China’s Hainan Island, then occupied by Japan. The dockside labourers were among the last to see the Montevideo Maru’s human cargo alive.

Tragically, nine days later the ship – not marked as carrying prisoners of war –was sunk off the coast of the Philippines on 1 July 1942 by the American submarine USS Sturgeon. The lives of all 1,050 Australians on board were lost in what remains to this day the nation’s greatest maritime tragedy. A group of sixty officers, six army nurses and thirteen civilians aboard another ship were more fortunate. They arrived in Japan, where they would spend the rest of the war.

More than a thousand men lost – each a son, a brother, a father, or an uncle. Each individual story represented a special burden of grief for loved ones at home. Did they still live? Terrible as it must have been to receive the news one dreaded to hear, it was no less terrible to be constantly buffeted between hope and despair.

For the families of the men who had been on the Montevideo Maru there was never any news during the war, but Japanese authorities had known of the loss since shortly after the sinking. The ship’s owners were informed just three weeks after it happened – and in January the following year the Japanese Navy Department forwarded details of the sinking to the Prisoner of War Information Bureau, with a nominal roll of the prisoners and civilians on board. During the war the Red Cross made several enquiries concerning the men who had been captured on New Britain but received no answer.

Like many who waited in Australia for news of the men who had been lost in south-east Asia and the western Pacific in 1942, the families and friends of Lark Force and the civilians who had remained on New Britain, had spent years wondering and hoping. By the end of September 1945 lists of men recovered from Japanese prison camps were being published every day, but still more than 5,000 Australians remained unaccounted for – including those who had been imprisoned at Rabaul.

Stories suggesting the loss of a Japanese ship carrying many of the missing men from Rabaul first appeared in Australian newspapers in late September 1945. An Australian officer fluent in Japanese, Major H.S. Williams, was searching through records in Tokyo’s Prisoner of War Information Bureau when he found a list of 1,056 names. Many of these names were of servicemen, identified by name and serial number; the rest were civilians. Their place of capture was given as Rabaul, and many appeared to be Australians – but the names had been translated from English into Japanese script and then back again, and this created considerable difficulties. The Director of the Prisoner of War Information Bureau admitted that the Japanese had known the full details of what had happened to the men from New Britain since the beginning of 1943, and he expressed regret that no details had been transmitted to Australia.

The translated roll reached Canberra in late October 1945 – telegrams were sent to families across the country confirming what they had feared: few of the men taken prisoner or interned at Rabaul in 1942 had survived the year. The roll Williams unearthed later went missing; only very recently has what appears to be a copy of it re-surfaced in Japanese archives among other records of Australian prisoners of war. It was presented to the Australian embassy in Tokyo by the Japanese Minister for Foreign affairs.

As we stand here today, on the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru, and recall all who perished in defence of Rabaul and the islands or on that ship, we need to comprehend the sheer size of this loss. In one night in 1942, almost twice as many Australians lost their lives as did in the ten years of the Vietnam War. They, and the families and friends who endured years without knowledge of their fate, deserve to be remembered.

The men who died will of course always be present in the hearts and minds of their relatives and friends, of their children and their children’s children, but now, in this special place, there is raised a fittingly tangible reminder of their story in the form of this splendid new memorial by artist James Parrett. His sculpture marries abstract form and concrete loss. Its large sweeping curves convey both the power of the sea and the magnitude of the tragedy it recalls.

I officially dedicate this memorial ‘in memory of those killed in the defence of Rabaul and the New Guinea islands, and those who later died as prisoners in the sinking of the Montevideo Maru.’            

Today we re-affirm our promise to remember them, their achievements and their fate; we renew once more our pride in what they did, and we honour their profound sacrifice.

Format:  Transcript Date:  Sunday 1 July 2012 Speaker:  Quentin Bryce AC, Governor-General Tags:  Formal address