The Montevideo Maru

The Japanese ship Montevideo Maru was used as a troop carrier, cargo ship. The On 22nd June 1942, prisoners held in Rabaul New Britain were placed aboard this ship. Nine days later, on its way to Hainan island it was torpedoed and sunk by the American submarine Sturgeon.

At the end of the war in 1945 most of the families of the missing POWs and internees, due to the letters they had written in 1942, expected them to be liberated in Rabaul. However on the arrival of the Australian troops in Rabaul, other than the four civilian survivors and the missionaries from Vunapope mission, no trace could be found of the military and civilian prisoners who were in Rabaul three years earlier.

When investigations started in Rabaul in September 1945 prisoners such as civilian survivors Gordon Thomas and Bishop Scharmach told of the sailing of the Japanese Ship Montevideo Maru with prisoners on board.

Gordon Thomas wrote:
And then one morning towards the end of June (1942) one of the other Australian technicians, who lived in the general camp, but went around the town repairing pumps and such-like work, arrived and breathlessly informed us that all prisoners from the camp, except the officers, had been removed, marched out and placed on board a ship for Japan. Later we learned from a native that the white masters had trudged along the road towards the wharf, carrying their burdens, while machine-gun units were posted every here and there lest the men should break ranks. We received the same news from some of the local Chinese, employed as cooks in some of the Japanese messes. When we heard that some of the men still remained in camp we feared we might still be called for and shipped away.

Thomas goes on to state that there were about a dozen other civilian engineers in Rabaul after the sailing of the ship.
No trace of them seems to have been found at the end of the war, although there were unidentified bodies.

Bishop Scharmach in his book "This Crowd Beats Us All" states that he was informed by Japanese officers in 1942, that the men were on the Montevideo Maru and it had been sunk with the loss of all aboard.

As the investigations in Rabaul were beginning a Japanese-speaking Australian officer Major H.S.Williams was ordered to investigate the overall casualties, movement and disposal of all Australian POWs by the Japanese. Williams had lived and run businesses in Japan for many years prior to the war. The history of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru as we know it today is basically written from Major Harold S.Williams investigations. Major Williams was sent from Melbourne Australia under orders from General MacArthur on the 25th August 1945. He arrived in Manila on the 31st August from where he travelled to Japan arriving on the 27th of September. He completed his investigation in late November and left Japan on the 5th December. (AWM 54 779/1/1)

On the 6th October 1945 Major Williams filed a "Report re Japanese steamer "MONTEVIDEO MARU" torpedoed off Luzon, 1 July 1942". ( The Australian War Memorial has made available Major William's document on-line Supporting document (The document is in PDF format and will require Adobe Acrobat to read or print it.)

On his arrival in Japan Major Williams gave priority to the investigation into the missing POWs from Rabaul. He first contacted the Japanese Navy and Army departments, Foreign Office and Prisoner of War Information Bureau (PWIB). He states:

Although the PWIB at first insisted that no information was available, the matter was pressed and a letter dated 6 Jan 43 from the Japanese Navy Dept to the PWIB was then discovered, stating that 845 PW and 208 civilians who were embarked at Rabaul on "Montevideo Maru" on 22 Jun 42, had been lost when that ship was torpedoed off Luzon on 1 Jul 42. A Mimeographed nominal roll of about 48 pages in Japanese of the PW and civilian personnel who were lost was attached.
(AWM 54 779/1/1 "Report on Investigation In Manila and Japan Re Aust PW and Civilians By Maj H.S.Williams, LO1 Aust PW Contact & Enquiry Unit 31 Aug. 45 to 6 DEC 45)

It is clear from the above that the Prisoner of War Information Bureau insisted that it had no information about the POWs from Rabaul. It must be remembered all this took place in the first seven months of the war. The Japanese Navy had just taken over from the Army at Rabaul and were establishing a base, planning for the invasion of mainland New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. POWs were a hindrance, having to be guarded and fed.

After the war Gordon Thomas listed the people who were in Rabaul after the sailing of the ship. He notes the ones who had died of natural causes and those who he suspected were executed.

List written by Gordon Thomas post war.


Thomas, McKechnie, Ellis and Creswick were housed outside the main camp at the Rabaul ice works. So this letter confirms eight other civilians remained in Rabaul after the sailing of the ship.

There are also the stories of the Japanese ships Akikaze and the Kowa Maru. In both cases, at the end of the war the Japanese claimed that POWs were being transported and had died when these ships were sunk by the Allies. Both these stories were proved to be false and in fact the POWs had been massacred. Which begs the question, if there was enough suspicion in the Australian War Crimes section in 1947 to reinvestigate the case of the Kowa Maru and the death of 32 men from Kavieng, surely the disappearance of over 1000 people, which the Japanese maintained was caused by the sinking of Montevideo Maru needed to be reconsidered.

Williams received a report from the O.S.K [Osaka Shosen Kaisha] Line, the owner of the Montevideo Maru on 20th October 1945. This report states that 17 crew members of the Montevideo Maru survived the sinking. Unfortunately Williams didn't interview any of these survivors. Historian and one time resident of Rabaul Albert Speer has never believed the official story of the Montevideo Maru. After a trip to Japan in 2002 he discovered Mr Hisashi Noma's book "JAPANESE MERCHANT SHIPS AT WAR" . The book revealed that a Japanese survivor of the sinking was still alive in Japan. With the kind assistance of Mr Noma, Albert was able to contact Mr Yohiaki Yamachi the survivor. After 60 years some of the questions about this ship and the Australian prisoners on board were able to be answered. Albert then alerted the Australian Broadcasting Commission and with the aid of his research it was able to interview Mr Noma and Mr Yamachi for Australian Televisions 7.30 Report of 6/10/03.

Mr Yohiaki Yamachi
Survivor of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru.

The Montevideo Maru was sunk by the USS Sturgeon skippered by Lt. Cdr Wright on the 1 July 1942. Cdr Wright's Log states: 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."

Mr Yamachi states that the Montevideo Maru slowed as it was meant to rendezvous with two destroyers which were to escort it to Hainan. When the destroyers weren't at the agreed position, the captain of the Montevideo Maru slowed to wait for their arrival. Thus the Sturgeon was able to catch the Montevideo Maru and sink it. He also states that the Montevideo Maru was loaded at a dock via a gang plank.

Photograph of Simpson Harbour Rabaul
(Source Mitchell Library Sydney)

Mr Yamachi states that when the Montevideo Maru sank there were some Australian survivors. They were clinging to pieces of wood which had been deck loaded to fuel cooking fires. On his return to Japan in 1942 he states he was told that some of the Australians were rescued when the destroyers finally arrived at the agreed position and that they were taken back to Japan. This is of course hearsay evidence and as yet there is no evidence of Japanese destroyers being in the area.


So why did the Australian Government disregard and not investigate all of this information? Was it because the Army had accepted the 48 page nominal roll given to Major Williams by the Japanese as being the people on board the Montevideo Maru at the time of its sinking? A form letter communiqué to the three officers recovering in Manilla after their liberation, dated 29th Nov. 1945 states:

There is no doubt that there was a total loss of prisoners of war aboard the transport named (Montevideo Maru). There is, however, always a possibility (remote though it may be ) that some one named on the nominal roll did not embark on that particular vessel and was therefore not lost with it.

It is thought from Comparison of the newspaper picture with official photographs of the members named, that identification has not been established. Furthermore the men in the group are not wearing Australian pattern uniform, and there is nothing in the caption to suggest that those in the group are Australian. (National Archives Australia B3856/0)

Williams endeavoured to get the nominal roll translated in Japan and he forwarded part lists to LHQ Manila on a near daily basis. This in itself caused confusion as the following document shows:

(National Archives Australia B3856/0)


The following is an extract from his final report written by Major Williams in January 1946:

(AWM 54 779/1/1)

With all the confusion after the war many of the relatives of the people lost in Rabaul didn't accept the story of the Montevideo Maru and believed the true story was covered up. Many families received letters saying that their relations had been on the Montevideo Maru. The Ashby family received a letter stating that Stan Ashby was on the Montevideo Maru even though his name doesn't appear on any lists or nominal rolls. He was last seen alive on New Island and appears never to have been in Rabaul after the Japanese invasion.

Most of the information above is from Australian archives.Montevideo Maru. One mention is in the published diary of Prince Takamatsu Mia (brother of Emperor Hirohito) which was published in 1995. On the 8th of July 1942 he attended a briefing where he diarised the war news. The following is a rough translation of the Montevideo Maru item from that day.

At 1800 Hours on the 7th, the Army in Northern Luzon reported to Navy 3rd Fleet that the ship Montevideo Maru, on passage from Rabaul carrying POWs to Hainan Island, was sunk by the Allies on 1 July at 0000 Hours. The Captain, Sergeant Major Kawakami and 100 survivors landed at POUPON and went south to LAOAG.

One other document I have located is from the Japanese National Institute for Defence Study.

The following is a translation of the 4 page document.













Departed Surabaya on 28/05

Bound for Rabaul.










Passengers land.

Received continuous air-raids (2-5) all day and all night everyday. Luckily, no damage was inflicted despite the number as many as 13 of attacks.

Total of 27 prison guards and petty officers boarded the ship.

Prisoners (1157) were put on board on 22/06.










Bound for South Sea islands










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.

At 06:30 next morning, discovered sailing equipment inside the craft had been stolen.

At 09:00, were attacked by about 100 of surviving enemy soldiers and 50 treacherous natives.

Decided to request rescue missions from our army and Manila naval base force. Meanwhile survivors, to the last man, to take   greatest care. Bravely and brazenly, made a narrow escape from the enemy.

On 06/07, requested aid from Manila Army Northern Guard Unit  (Watanabe unit), as well as Manila Naval base force. Immediately, 100 retaliatory soldiers arrived in vehicles.

Most of the Montevideo crew came to heroic deaths from this battle.

 Army Commander Watanabe reports.

A radio message was found on an enemy radiotelephone-operating soldier captured by our unit on 08/07. It reads in part as follow.

We seized and destroyed a hundred Japanese marines at Bubon?. There were a few ?.  At their death, all shouted Long Live Emperor or Long Live. They were ? and  heroic at their deaths. Their end was a very honourable one.



There are a couple of interesting things to note from this document. Firstly after arriving in Rabaul and unloading it's troops and cargo on the 9 June 1942 it suffered continuous air raids and didn't depart till two weeks later on the 22 June 1942. Why?
Who were the 100 surviving enemy soldiers? It's possible that they were Americans fighting with the native guerrillas.
The last part of the document seems to be pure propaganda.

This only leaves the investigations carried out by Major Williams in Japan. I again emphasize it is extremely important to remember that the Montevideo Maru was sunk only seven months after the beginning of the war for at this time the Japanese were wining the war and the American State Department's Special Division were making numerous enquires about internees in Japan. Williams had a difficult job being only one man in Japan in September 1945. Incredibly in this short three month period, September to November 1945, Major Williams managed to complete and close 14 various investigations including the Montevideo Maru.

The American Special Division had been in contact with the Japanese Prisoner of War Information Bureau via the Swiss since the beginning of the war. As the war went against the Japanese in late 1944 they decided to replace the head of the POW information Bureau General Hamada with a hardliner, General Tamura. (American archives Huddle to Hull, December 2 1944 Box 219, RG 59) In his report 11 October 1945 Williams names the former heads of the bureau, so he must realize Tamura wasn't in command of the bureau when the Montevideo Maru was sunk:

(AWM 54 779/1/1)

From the document above it is obvious that Major Williams possibly didn't understand the function of the POW Bureau. Of course the Bureau was disseminating false information. The Allies had units doing exactly the same. It is out side the scope of this web page to go into the workings of the Japanese POW Bureau, but needless to say it served an important purpose for the Japanese.

The following extract from Major William's report of 10 October 1945, seems to suggest that he had concluded that the reason the Montevideo Maru sinking hadn't been reported to the Red Cross was because of the inefficiency of the POW Bureau even though the International Red Cross and Swiss Legation firmly state the opposite.

(AWM 54 779/1/1)

Major Williams knew of the Rabaul nurses and officers being in Japan but the nurses had left Japan before his arrival and he didn't personally interview the officers. What is ironic is that if Major Williams had interviewed theses people he would have known that in July 1942 when they first arrived in Japan the Japanese Foreign Office was very concerned for their well being. The nurses having spent 10 days in the hold of a ship were put through a customs inspection on arrival in Yokohama and then put up at a modest tourist hotel by the Japanese Foreign Office. They were taken for a walk in the nearby Yamashita park and were well fed. The officers who had arrived on the same ship were at this time also well treated. The reason for the good treatment was because the Japanese wanted reciprocating treatment for the Japanese civilians and diplomats held by the Allies. Australia held many Japanese internees from the near east Indies [Indonesia] and the South Pacific islands which were valuable due to their knowledge of the oil and rubber industries. Is it any wonder the Japanese didn't release the information about the death of the Australians, which included all the civilian men from Rabaul? Considering the diplomatic negotiations taking place for the return of their internees from Australia, from a propaganda point of view, the loss of the Montevideo Maru would have been a disaster for the Japanese Foreign Office! Was it incredible muddle and inefficiency that the Japanese never informed the IRC or Swiss of the sinking or simply good diplomacy? Is it possible that the Foreign office instructed the PWIB not to release the information of the sinking?

The next extract is from the 6 Nov. 1945 final report on the Montevideo Maru from Major Williams in Tokyo. Although Williams states that the PWIB was still being deceptive and evasive he, after 3 attempts, manages to get General Tamura to write a statement which is acceptable to his interpretation of the evidence. This was done even with the knowledge that General Tamura wasn't at the PWIB when the Montevideo Maru was sunk.

(AWM 54 779/1/1)

So to the present day the accepted history of why Australia wasn't informed of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru, the greatest single loss of Australian life in WW2, is from a Japanese hard-line Lt General who is head of what was described by the Australian investigating officer as " a Bureau for the dissemination of false information", after being instructed to rewrite his statement three times.

After completing his tour with the Australian war crimes unit in Japan Major Williams returned to Japan and re-established his businesses.

As part of my research into the sinking of the Montevideo Maru I wrote to Greg Michno author of "Death on the Hellships" (Naval Institute Press, 2001) about the sinking of the Montevideo Maru. Here is his interesting reply:

Rod, I know there were survivors from the Montevideo--at least there were supposed to be about 18 Japanese who made it to land on Luzon, although a number of them were killed on land. I never heard that there might have been Australians that made it ashore. I went to look up the Montevideo Maru in my lists. I have sailing lists, naming all the POWs on board every hellship that was sunk during the war. There are orders from the US military demanding the lists from the Japanese. The order was complied with, and the cover sheet/index, supplied by the Japanese, lists 14 ships, with about 10,000 names, and the last listed is Montevideo.

I have used these lists before when American and English survivors or descendents called me and wanted to know if a particular person was aboard a certain ship. No one has ever asked about Montevideo before. Now that I look, I find lists for every ship but number 14, the Montevideo!

Now that is strange, and I never noticed it before. The lists came from the US National Archives and were quite expensive. Everything seemed in order, but I never noticed that Montevideo was missing. Evidently it was never copied for me, or it was lost previously (not by me), or it was never submitted to the military in the first place. Did someone try to hide something?


From this information we can only assume that the Americans never received a copy of the nominal roll.

So the question remains why did the Military and the Australian Government accept the Japanese version of why we weren't informed of the sinking? On this point we can only speculate. Sunk by friendly fire was possibly an acceptable reason for the loss of so many considering the men of the 2/22nd and civilian men had been left as hostages to fortune by the Australian Government in 1942.

To this day there are still a few unanswered questions.

Is the official history correct?
You have to decide for yourself.


Rabaul Nurses taken to Japan. Dora Wilson and Lorna Whyte.
Sister Beranice Twohill remained in Rabaul until the end of the war, Rod Miller.

Copyright Rod Miller 2003.

If you're interested in reading about Rabaul and the Montevideo Maru follow this link to my suggestions.

The Rabaul Nurses