Death cries in a ‘sea of indifference’

*An adaption and update of an article first written by Max Uechtritz in 2017.

Their end is ghastly. A thousand Australians screaming as oil smothers and scalds them, seawater gushes into their lungs and flames steal their oxygen and does what fire does to bodies.

Many are teens. Little Ivor Gascoigne only 15. There are granddads. Fathers and their sons. Brothers. The three Turner boys: inseparable in life – now death.

A witness is haunted.

“People were jumping into the water.

Thick oil was spreading across the sea.

There were loud noises…metal wrenching, furniture crashing, people screaming.

“I have not been able to forget the death cries.”

The witness tells of spirit which sears the soul. A few Australians in the sea clinging to bits of firewood from their doomed vessel started singing.

“I was particularly impressed when they began to sing Auld Lang Syne as a tribute to their dead colleagues.

Watching that I learned that Australians have big hearts.”

The ship heaves upright, vertical. Its bow points briefly toward the stars. A flame spouts from a chimney with a loud bang. The giant metal coffin slides quickly beneath the water. It’s gone in eleven minutes. 

It takes with it the brother of an Australian prime minister, the uncle of a man who nearly became prime minister, the grandfather of an international rock star, six Australian government administrators and a famous Wallaby rugby player.

They are but a few of the nucleus of an Australian capital and community that disappears without trace. 

It’s nearly four years until their families are told. Yet Australia’s officialdom and political classes turn their collective back on entreaties for more information. Even then the list of the dead is incomplete. Decades of formal indifference follow and doubt torments the bereaved. They can’t get facts let alone recognition.

Three quarters of a century on, that recognition is still sparse.

So far fetched it all could be – must be – a move script. Surely?

It’s not. It happened in WW2 – and 1053 Australians perished. Most of them were entombed on the bottom of the South China Sea off Luzon in the Philippines.

In fact it was – and remains – Australia’s greatest maritime catastrophe.  The greatest loss of Australian lives at sea in war or peace.

It happened more than 80 years ago, on July 1 1942. (*updated)

Twice as many Australians died in this one incident than were killed in the entire Vietnam War. Significantly more were lost than in the sinking of the HMAS Sydney (645) and the hospital ship the Centaur (268). 

The losses accounted for 15% of all Australian POWs who died in captivity in WW2. 

Perhaps the only thing more remarkable than this tragic saga is that most Australians have never heard about it or the name of the death ship.

Montevideo Maru. There. I’ve finally introduced it. Doesn’t have that familiar, clear conventional ring to it like the HMAS Sydney does it?

Granted, it is initially confusing: a Japanese ship carrying the name of the Uruguayan capital carrying Australians from New Guinea to China, sunk by an American submarine off the Philippines.

That’s why after years of writing about it, this time I’ve reversed reportorial convention and concentrated firstly on the raw basic fact: more than one thousand Australians died horrifically in our worst disaster at sea – and most Australians don’t have a clue about it.

The Montevideo Maru was a Japanese prison ship carrying 845 Australian soldiers and 208 civilians (from 16 nations) from what was then the capital of Australian New Guinea, Rabaul. They’d been captured when Rabaul fell to a massive invasion fleet that took New Britain and New Ireland five months earlier in January 1942.  

Their destination was occupied Hainan Island, China. Their fate meant to be slave labour. That changed when an American submarine, the USS Sturgeon, sank the Montevideo Maru. The Sturgeon’s skipper had no way of knowing that the target in his periscope carried a thousand helpless allies.

As inferred earlier, one of them was the uncle of former Australian Opposition leader Kim Beazley. Reverend Sydney Beazley was a Methodist missionary who’d devoted his life to helping others and had been building houses for the natives in Rabaul when war broke out.

Also on the doomed ship was plantation owner Tom Vernon Garrett, grandfather of Midnight Oil singer-turned-politician Peter Garrett. Like the younger Beazley, Peter Garrett grew up with the family loss and even penned a song for the Oils which opened with the soulful line “My grandfather went down with the Montevideo…the Rising Sun sent him floating to his rest…”

The brother of Australia’s former prime minister (1939) Sir Earl Page was also in the shuffling, hungry and tattered group roused at bayonet point from their Rabaul internment camp nine days earlier. Harold Page was the acting Administer of Australian-mandated New Guinea. Five other administration officials were herded along the foreshores of the town previously known as the Pearl of the Pacific then shoved into the putrid hold of the moored prison ship. The cousin of former Senate President Kerry Sibraa was another who embarked that fateful day.

In the group, too, was Kenelm “Mac” Ramsay, a tough and talented rugby star who’d scored the only try in the last pre-war Test against the NZ All Blacks in the third Bledisloe Cup match on the 1938 Test series.

Of course the lives of these men, whose blood connections or status, then or now, resonate in the public realm, were no more precious than the others and they were grieved no more or less by loved ones. But their very presence among the victims reinforces the oddity and frustration that the disaster has left such a faint footprint on our national narrative and psyche.

There could not have been more of an eclectic mix of Australians. The POWs were variously members of the 2/22nd Infantry Battalion, 1st Independent Company, New Guinea Volunteer Rifles along with civilian internees – officers of the Australian Administration, businessmen, bankers, planters, missionaries and merchant seaman.

Cyril Gascoigne was a Rabaul auctioneer. In late 1941 – post Pearl Harbour –women and children were being evacuated and the Gascoigne family packed. Ivor Gascoigne, 15, begged to stay behind and continue his first job as an office boy. He’d be safe with his Dad, he said, and his mother finally relented. But to the Japanese, Ivor was an enemy adult. Ivor’s mum lived with the decision the rest of her life. His sister sill does.

The Turner brothers of Willoughby, Sydney had always been inseparable. The two eldest Sid and Dudley had always been protective of the youngest brother Daryl who was barely 17 and had just left school in 1940. The older boys had promised their father they’d always look out for Daryl. So, when they enlisted, they all falsified their birth dates so they’d be inducted together into 1 Independent Company. They embarked for New Ireland where they later tried to escape the Japanese on a small yacht but were rounded up by the invaders. They died together. 

Jesse Turner received a government-issue small silver badge with three stars, one for each son killed, and wore it each day till she died.

Rex Wythe and John William Hayes went down on the Montevideo Maru

The first eyewitness account of how the Gascoignes and Turners, Syd Beazley and Tom Garrett and all those others died finally came six decades later. An old Territorian and amateur historian Bert Speer had put me in touch with the author of a book on Japanese merchant ships who said he knew where we could find the last surviving crew member of the Montevideo Maru. More than 100 of the Japanese crew and guards had escaped on lifeboats. Most were subsequently killed by Philippines insurgents.

As then Director of ABC News and Current Affairs, I was able to assign Tokyo correspondent Mark Simkin to the story and he tracked down and interviewed Yoshiaki Yamaji.

Yamaji’s poignant recollections were aired on The 7.30 report in 2003.

Though his description of the “death cries” of the men caught in the hold was heartrending, it gave some sense of closure to families to finally know what had happened.

The men in the water singing Auld Lang Syne for their mates still chills all these years later. Yamaji said while the bulk of prisoners were caught in the hold, some had been travelling on deck presumably to manage the ship’s firewood. They were never heard of again.

The Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society was formed in 2009 with Keith Jackson as its indefatigable initiator and campaigning president and equally energetic member Andrea Williams who lost a grandfather and great uncle on the ship. I was privileged to be on the founding committee of the Montevideo Maru Memorial Committee with my cousin Chris Diercke and other committed folk including Andrea Williams and Liz Thurston. Kim Beazley and Peter Garrett successively became our patrons.

The Society was formed to represent the interests of the families of the Montevideo Maru families and its purpose was to gain national recognition and greater understanding of the tragedy. 

There was an historic breakthrough on June 21 2010 when the Australian parliament for the first time debated then offered its regrets for the Montevideo Maru tragedy. It was a hugely emotional day for some 350 attendees.

The 67thanniversary of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru was marked by the unveiling of a memorial plaque at the Hellships Memorial, Subic Bay, the Philippines

A major objective was to have a national Rabaul and Montevideo Maru memorial erected in memory of those lost, and that happened at the Australian War Memorial on the 70th anniversary on July 1, 2012.

Guest speaker Army Chief Lieutenant-General David Morrison said this was one of the most tragic events of Australian military history and was the culmination of a chain of disastrous strategic and tactical decisions. 

”Far too many brave young Australians paid the ultimate price for it. The dead of the Montevideo Maru silently rebuke Australia and remind us some 70 years later of the consequences of neglect of the nation’s defence,” he said.

Now the 77th anniversary approaches (*written in 2019) Monday, July 1. The Last Post ceremony at the Australian War Memorial that day will feature a Montevideo Maru victim. 

By coincidence it is the day that many of our politicians will attend the Last Post, to mark the resumption of parliament with a mark of respect for Australia’s war dead. The gathering has become a new tradition after being introduced some years ago.

Descendants of victims, all those others who lost family friends or those who simply know and care about this dreadful, massive loss of Australian lives, hope the parliamentarians will take the opportunity to learn more about it – and help inculcate the tragedy into our national narrative.

Because the institutions of parliament and the media in Australia have many decades of neglect and apathy to redress. Even the large and moving 75thanniversary commemoration at the AWM in 2017 received a paucity of attention from most pollies and media.

Ditto for a 75thevent in Rabaul. A large number of family descendants – many elderly and frail  – made the pilgrimage to PNG for the moving ceremony organised by the Rabaul Historical Society. Australia’s High Commissioner to PNG Bruce Davis was one of the guest speakers. Singer Kyle Adams-Collier, whose grandfather was on the ship, performed her original dedication song to the Montevideo Maru.

Not one Australian media organisation thought it worthwhile to cover on the day. Yet again, a sea of indifference.

Little Ivor Gascoigne and 1052 other Australians deserve better.

Lest We Forget

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