The Tragedy of the Montevideo Maru
1 July 1942: The worst maritime disaster to befall Australia as over 1000 POWs and civilian internees drown
Operating out of Freemantle, Australia, the USS Sturgeon was on patrol west of the Philippines when she spotted an unescorted Japanese freighter.
The patrol report1 completed by Lieutenant Commander W.L. Wright is one of the few concrete pieces of evidence known about the incident:
30 June 1942:
Patrolling northwest of Bojeador as before. Dove at dawn, surfaced at dusk. At 2216 sighted a darkened ship to southwest. At first, due to bearing on which sighted, believed him to be on northerly course, but after a few minutes observation it was evident he was on a westerly course, and going at high speed. He quite evidently had stood out of Babuyan Channel, headed for Hainan.
Put on all engines and worked up to full power, proceeding to westward in an attempt to get ahead of him. For an hour and a half we couldn't make a nickel. This fellow was really going, making at least 17 knots, and probably a bit more, as he appeared to be zig-zagging. At this time it looked a bit hopeless, but determined to hang on in the hope he would slow or change course toward us. His range at this time was estimated at around 18,000 yards. Sure enough, about mid night he slowed to about 12 knots. After that it was easy.
1 July 1942:
Proceeding to intercept target as before. Altered course to gain position ahead of him, and dove at 0146. When he got in periscope range, it could be seen that he was larger than first believed, also that his course was a little to the left of west, leaving us some 5,000 yards off the track. Was able to close some 1,000 yards of this, and then turned to fire stern tubes as:
i) Only three tubes available forward, and at this range and with large target four torpedo spread desirable.
ii) After tubes had 70D/ heads, while heads forward were small ones.
At 0225 fired four torpedo spread, range 4,000 yards, from after tubes. At 0229 heard and observed explosion about 75-100 ft. abaft stack.
At 0240 observed ship sink stern first.
0250 surfaced, proceeded to eastward, completing battery charge. Ship believed to be Rio de Janeiro Maru, or very similar type, although it is possible it was a larger ship, he was a big one.
A few lights were observed on deck just after the explosion, but there was apparently no power available, and his bow was well up in the air in six minutes. Dove at dawn, No further contacts.
Unfortunately Wright could not know that the ship was the Montevideo Maru and that she was packed with Australian Prisoners of War and Civilian Internees from Rabaul, New Britain. It is believed that 1056 Australian captives died plus over 70 Japanese naval personnel. It is now considered to be the worst maritime disaster to befall Australia.
The Montevideo Maru sank in just 11 minutes, some 20 miles off Luzon on the Philippines. Most of the prisoners went down with her but perhaps a hundred made it into the water where they clung to wreckage. Only two lifeboats were launched - taken by the Japanese survivors.
‘There were more POWs in the water than crew members. The POWs were holding pieces of wood and using bigger pieces as rafts.’
Japanese silence over the incident was to exacerbate the disaster and continues to cause controversy to this day. The facts only became known at the end of the war, when a list of Australians captured at Rabaul was discovered. Only then did the Japanese admit the prisoners had been on the Montevideo Maru, whose loss had been recorded by the Japanese in 1942.
A Japanese report of the incident stated:
About 20 miles west of Luzon, N18-40 E119-31, an enemy submarine torpedoed the ship, which listed and sank immediately. The dead were 11 security guard petty officers and 19 crew on board the ship. The survivors, including the ships captain, boarded two rescue boats. Following day, on 02/07, at 19:00, they drifted and landed near the lighthouse on the shore of Cape Bojeadore? on Luzon and managed to get some rest with the help of the natives.
However they were attacked by guerrillas on Luzon on the 3rd and 6th of July and it was thought that they were all killed, according to a radio report2 intercepted by the Japanese:
At their death, all shouted Long Live Emperor or Long Live. They were … heroic at their deaths. Their end was a very honourable one.
Only in 2003 did an eyewitness account emerge from a man claiming to be a Japanese survivor, Yoshiaki Yamaji, appearing on Australian ABC television3:
There were more POWs in the water than crew members. The POWs were holding pieces of wood and using bigger pieces as rafts. They were in groups of 20 to 30 people, probably 100 people in all. They were singing songs. I was particularly impressed when they began singing Auld Lang Syne as a tribute to their dead colleagues. Watching that, I learnt that Australians have big hearts.
It appears that all the prisoners who survived the initial sinking eventually perished at sea.
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Originally at https://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2003/s961016.htm