When the wreck of the Montevideo Maru was discovered on April 18, 2023, Canberra-based author Margaret Reeson breathed a huge sigh of relief.
The discovery of the Japanese prison ship came 81 years after it set sail from the then Australian Territory of New Guinea and was torpedoed by American submarine, the USS Sturgeon. The attack took an estimated 979 Australian troops and civilians to their deaths off the coast of the Philippines in July 1942.
Margaret’s relief was (and is) for the families of the Australian men who died in what is our nation’s greatest maritime disaster. She’d first empathised with these families more than 30 years ago after a snap decision to attend a special memorial service honouring the men who’d disappeared with the Montevideo Maru.
Her interest in the ship’s disappearance had been piqued the week before the service by a newspaper article by Alan Gill who was the Sydney Morning Herald’s religious affairs writer. Before this, she’d known only sketchy details of the incident, gleaned due to her longstanding involvement in Papua New Guinea (PNG) with the Uniting Church and also having served with the United Church of PNG during the 1960s and ’70s.
After the service, Margaret met several of the widows, an Anglican minister who had been a chaplain at the time in the islands to the military, some retired military people who’d been in Rabaul and others who’d been part of the Methodist missionary group in the islands, pre-war.
Two older men, who knew she was a published author, took her aside and said, “You have to write about this.”
The more she thought about it, the more important it felt that this story should be recorded.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Margaret was able to visit and interview a number of the women who’d lost loved ones, including two of the women who’d been imprisoned in Japan.
“I found meeting these women quite moving. And we usually set up with a cup of tea and a box of tissues.
“I think I interviewed about 150 households [women, children and grandchildren] and also gathered written information from people as well as searching government war archives.
“It turned into something I think was maybe one of the most useful things I’ve ever done, because it was both Christian women, and some men and women right across the community, who had an opportunity to share their grief, and feel that they were heard.”
Margaret listened to wives and family members who had anxiously awaited word of what had happened to their loved ones during the three-and-a-half year period from early in 1942 until October 1945 when they were cut off from letters and reliable news. She listened to stories of the women having to find employment to survive, to move in with extended family, to plead for government help, and to mourn their loved ones silently and alone.
Much of what Margaret heard from these women and children is gathered in her books Whereabouts Unknown (1993) and A Very Long War (2000), which also probe the persistent and troubling question “How could such a tragedy, with a loss of Australian life twice that of the whole Vietnam War, be left forgotten and unresolved?”
Margaret said everyone who’d lost somebody in the Montevideo Maru incident had told her, “‘Nobody’s ever heard of this. They’ve heard about Tobruk, they know about Kokoda. And yet, we lost more people in our disaster; twice as many as Vietnam died in that one incident.’ And they said, ‘Nobody’s heard of it.’ And so, even the fact that somebody [Margaret] was going to write their story and have it published meant, ‘Oh, at last.’”
One woman she interviewed said she was “almost jealous of people who lost their father at Gallipoli or Kokoda” because they did not have to explain the most elementary aspects of the story to anyone who asked about their father.”
Another recalled that, “At school as a small child … other kids would say, ‘Where’s your Dad?’ and I’d say, ‘He was killed in the war,’ and they’d say, ‘How do you know he was killed?’ Well, good question. I don’t. ‘You get quite a bit of teasing and tormenting as a child. I can remember crying quite a bit.’”
Why is the sinking overshadowed?
Margaret believes one reason the sinking of the Montevideo Maru was overshadowed by other wartime incidents is that there were so many other huge things happening internationally in the war.
“At the time those women were being evacuated [from Rabaul] and their men were being transported away to disappear … it was all concurrent with the fall of Singapore, Pearl Harbour, the east coast of Australia was expecting to be invaded any minute.
“There were so many men who’d been captured and were in a prisoner of war camp somewhere, and they just blended in with the thousands of others.”
Another reason, she said, was that, unlike Kokoda, the Montevideo Maru disaster involved no journalists or photographers.
“You’ve got these iconic images of Kokoda, for example, that we’ve all seen. And the same images keep recurring every Anzac Day. But there was nothing of that kind with the Montevideo Maru, nothing visual that people could pin their memory to.”
Margaret said affected families were scattered across Australia and easily lost touch, which contributed to the lack of visibility. However, the work she did in meeting and interviewing people and then publishing her two books meant people started to connect again and purposefully, to work together.
She explained, “When you have something like a mine disaster, a huge bush fire, a terrible flood, you can identify a community and say, ‘This is where it happened. These are the people who need help.’
“But for these women – the army women whose men had been sent overseas and also the civilian women – they were just scattered everywhere from Perth to Queensland. And they kept in touch with each other, but they certainly weren’t highly visible.”
The connections forged through Margaret’s work were taken a step further by Andrea Williams who worked with like-minded others to set up The Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society in 2009. The society represents the interests of the families of the soldiers and civilians captured in Rabaul and the New Guinea Islands after the Japanese invasion in January 1942, many of whom are believed to have perished on the Montevideo Maru.
Andrea’s grandfather and great uncle were two who lost their lives.
The society’s achievements have included being invited to Parliament House for the story to be heard in parliament, the commissioning and unveiling of a memorial sculpture in the grounds of the Australian War Memorial in July 2012, and a service for the 80th anniversary of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru in July 2022.
“I attended the 80th anniversary service,” Margaret said. “And by then, it was a small group of people, very old and frail people in wheelchairs, people on walkers. And, so, a smaller group, but still there.”
Andrea Williams spoke at the 80th anniversary service and reminded people that the day wasn’t just about remembering the soldiers of Lark Force battalion, it was also about the civilians who had been living in Rabaul.
Ms Williams was also was on board the exploratory ship that discovered the wreck in April – one of only two people outside the scientific group on board.
It was the Sydney-based Silentworld Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to maritime archaeology and history, that discovered the wreck in the South China Sea, and its director, John Mullen, has said, “The discovery of the Montevideo Maru closes a terrible chapter in Australian military and maritime history.
“Families waited years for news of their missing loved ones, before learning of the tragic outcome of the sinking. Some never fully came to accept that their loved ones were among the victims.”
Margaret agrees the discovery should bring some comfort to families.
“I was so pleased for the families because it’s been such a painful, difficult, endless time of waiting. There’s just never been that resolution, and there’s even been – as well as the grief and the hurt and the uncertainty – people who’ve denied the existence of the ship, saying, ‘Oh no, they [the men] were all executed somewhere in New Guinea, and the ship is a myth.’
“And I think for people who’ve never had an answer, even to that question, this is really helpful just to say, ‘This is the vessel that was reported torpedoed by the American submarine, reported lost by the Japanese ship owners, and remembered by people who travelled on it as tourists in pre-war years. Yes, it was a ship. It was where they thought it would be, more or less.’ And I just think that discovery is going to be so meaningful for lots of families now.
“Even the youngest of the children of the people who would’ve been on board are in their 80s, because they had to have at least been conceived by the end of 1941.
“So, the people who are really appreciating this discovery now are the surviving children and the grandchildren. And others for whom it’s been a family legend that father, uncle, grandfather was on board that ship.
“For many of the next generations, it’s been observing the impact on the mother, the grandmother – and many of the women told me they never really recovered their pre-war joy in life or sense of confidence that things could be all right for them. They fell into deep depression, mental health issues, all sorts of things.
“It was an invisible wound for so many of them.
“And so, for their children, and grandchildren, there’s this family legend that is very deep, very painful, very meaningful, and the impact of it has been witnessed by the next generation of people over the years.
“I’m just so glad for them.”
Margaret Reeson was Moderator of the Synod of NSW&ACT from 2000-2002 and maintains a continuing connection with Pacific communities. She has published 11 books and numerous academic conference papers, studies, liturgical material and private family histories.