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Thursday, 25 June 2009
Page: 7240

Mr GRIFFIN (Minister for Veterans’ Affairs) (3:53 PM) —War brings many tragedies and next week we commemorate one of the greatest tragedies of the Second World War. On 1 July 1942, a United States submarine patrolling the Babuyan Channel leading from Luzon in the Philippines into the South China Sea torpedoed and sank what it believed to be a Japanese merchant vessel. It was in fact the Montevideo Maru carrying Australian prisoners of war. Its sinking is the greatest single maritime tragedy in Australia’s history, with the loss of 1,053 Australian lives. The Montevideo Maru carried no markers identifying it as a POW transport and was indistinguishable from legitimate targets of Allied aircraft and submarines. The prisoners were locked in the hold with no means of escape once the ship was struck. The Montevideo Maru took 11 minutes to sink. No prisoners survived.

What we know of this tragedy comes from Japanese survivors who eventually reached Manila and reported the sinking. By the time searches were launched, it was too late. No trace of the vessel or any survivors could be found. On board were 1,053 Australian prisoners of war and civilians who had been captured and held by the Japanese at Rabaul on the island of New Britain in what is now Papua New Guinea. Among those aboard was former member for Brand Kim Beazley’s uncle and the current member for Kingsford Smith’s grandfather.

Through the war, Australian authorities sought information on the whereabouts of those captured at Rabaul. However, they were never informed that the Montevideo Maru was sunk with the loss of all prisoners during the war. It was not until after the war that Australian authorities discovered the tragic story. With 1 July this year being the 67th anniversary of the sinking of the ship, we will pause to remember the loss. The servicemen lost on the Montevideo Maru are among the 12,104 casualties of World War II who have no known grave.

On 1 July this year, the Australian Ambassador to the Philippines, Mr Rod Smith, will unveil a plaque commemorating those on board the Montevideo Maru on behalf of the Papua New Guinea Volunteer Rifles Association at the Hell Ships Memorial established in memory of all the ships that carried POWs. Later in the year, under a grant made by the Australian government to the RSL Angeles sub branch in the Philippines, commemoration of the Montevideo Maru at the Hell Ships memorial will be further enhanced and an interpretation will be placed in a nearby museum.

The families and associations with connections to the Montevideo Maru have never lost sight of the tragedy that occurred 67 years ago. That it is still shrouded in mystery must also add to their sense of loss. It is something that we as a nation should never forget, as I am sure all members would agree.