80th anniversary of the sinking of Montevideo Maru, Australia’s worst maritime disaster, commemorated on the Australian War Memorial

Descendants and families of those killed in Australia’s worst maritime disaster have gathered at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra to mark the 80th anniversary of the tragedy.

More than 1,000 Australians, including soldiers and civilians, died at sea on 1 July 1942 when the Montevideo Maru was sunk.

The Japanese POW ship was carrying Australians and others to Hainan Island when it was sunk by the US Navy’s submarine USS Sturgeon.

The Sturgeon fired its four torpedoes at the Montevideo Maru. Lifeboats aboard the ship were launched, but all capsized. The ship sank in less than 11 minutes.

All 845 Allied POWs and 208 civilian prisoners on board died, and barely 20 of the Japanese crew survived.

It became Australia’s greatest loss of life at sea.

Many loved ones of those who died in the disaster were not told of their deaths for years.

Some of those family members were among those gathered at the Australian War Memorial on Friday, as well as Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, who laid a wreath on behalf of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

An elderly woman, holding an umbrella and looking serious.
Laloma Puls, whose father was on the Montevideo Maru, said the memorial touched her more than she expected.ABC News: Chantelle Al-Khouric

One such relative was Loloma Puls, whose father died on the Montevideo Maru.

She was born in Rabaul, but her family was evacuated to Melbourne in 1942, leaving her father behind. She said her mother found out her father had died by reading it in the paper.

“She later got a telegram from the secretary of defense or someone else.”

She said the three years she lived in Melbourne while her father was in Rabaul had been difficult for her family, not knowing if he was still alive.

“Mom got a little frustrated at Christmas because an aunt and uncle liked to listen to a lot of music on the radio and wanted to hear news,” she said.

Ms Puls said marking the 80th anniversary of the disaster had touched her more than she expected.

“I was much more affected than I thought I was. I just wish Mommy was here,” she said.

“Those people commemorate if their name is not on memorials”

A woman wears a poppy brooch as she stands in front of the Stone of Remembrance at the Australian War Memorial.
Andrea Williams, president of the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia, said the opportunity to remember her grandfather and great-uncle who died in the disaster was a very special one. ABC News: Chantelle Al-Khouric

Andrea Williams, president of the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia (PNGAA), delivered the memorial address.

In addition to her position in the PNGAA, Ms. Williams is a descendant of two men who were aboard the Montevideo Maru. Her grandfather and great-uncle both died in the disaster.

She said the 80th anniversary of the disaster in Montevideo Maru was about all those who lost their lives in the disaster, not just the soldiers.

“Australia has also lost an echelon of people, and it remembers those people when their names aren’t on memorials.”

She also used her address to acknowledge all those who helped Australians at the time and said they would not be forgotten.

“We remember the many Papua New Guineans who have so loyally helped our Australians…and we remain grateful to them,” she said.

“We know that all those 1053 men who died on the hellship Montevideo Maru — including the 33 from the Norwegian ship the Herstein — those who had extremely severe escapes lasting weeks and months, the coast guards, the men and women who suffered war years in prison camps in the New Guinea Islands, the families evacuated, the fathers, grandfathers, uncles and great-uncles.

A group of people, some in military uniforms, sit in the rain at a service.
The Australian War Memorial held a service commemorating the 80th anniversary of the sinking of Montevideo Maru.ABC News: Chantelle Al-Khouric

A tragedy locked in the collective memory

Brian Dawson, the Assistant Director National Collection at the Australian War Memorial, delivered the opening address at the memorial.

He told the story of the ship’s sinking and reminded the assembled crowd that many families had believed that their loved ones were still alive and held as prisoners of war.

“According to the handful of surviving Japanese crew members, the Australians in the waters chanted Auld Lang Syne to their mates who were still trapped inside the ship as it sank beneath the waves,” he said.

“The families of those on board the ship were unaware of their fate until after the war.

Dawson said he believed the Montevideo Maru disaster was one that would remain in the collective Australian memory.

“The story of the Montevideo Maru is short. The facts and events are clear. But the speed of the disaster, the loss of all Allied prisoners at sea and the delay in the families receiving the news close this tragedy in our collective memory on.” he said.