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Montivideo Maru - Australia's Greatest Shipping Disaster

The Disaster

Montevideo Maru 540
The Montevideo Maru was an island hopping ship and had be able to land and load cargo in places where there were no cranes, consequently it had to carry its own cranes. The network of ropes radiating out from each mast were to lift the long wooden 'arms' lying on the deck fore and aft of each mast. These arms could be swung over the side of the ship to pick up cargo and load it into the ship's holds. The reverse process allowed cargo to be landed on shore.

Our speaker at the February meeting of the Chermside & Districts Historical Society was Gary de Vere whose great uncle Bill Box drowned in the greatest marine disaster in Australian History, the sinking of the Japanese Motor Vessel Montevideo Maru on the night of 30 June/1 July 1942 during the Second World War.

The Montevideo Maru was a merchant vessel transporting goods from port to port and when operating in and around New Guinea it was also a Spy ship gathering information for the Japanese military machine. The suffix, Maru meaning Circle, was often applied to Japanese Merchant ships but the meaning is obscure.

1053 souls perished that night but how many were actually on the vessel at the time is still a matter of conjecture. The only thing that is certain is that none of those people named in Japanese records survived the war and never saw family or loved ones again.

Interwar Period - 1919 to 1939

After World War I the Japanese government secured a League of Nations mandate over various Pacific Islands. They had sought a mandate over German New Guinea but, opposed by Australia, they failed and Australia gained the mandate. However the Japanese did gain a mandate over the Caroline Islands to the north east of New Guinea and established a military installation on Truk Island which worried Australia.

World War 2

Map of Bismark Sea

The Japanese invaded China in the early 1930s and when World War Two broke out they joined with Germany/ Italy and headed south. On 23 January 1942 they invaded New Ireland and New Britain landing at Kavieng and Rabaul, the first invasion of Australian territory by Japanese troops many of whom had been involved with the massacres of Chinese since 1937.

The route of the Japanese invasion in 1942 follows the red line by sea and the black dotted line by land to Finschhafen in New Guinea.

No proper arrangements for evacuation were made in the event of invasion so escape especially under tropical conditions was very difficult. Some escaped by boat but many were caught and instead of them being treated as POWs, they were summarily murdered as at Tol Plantation on New Britain.

On 22 June 1942, members of Lark Force (No.1 Independent Company, 2/22nd Battalion AIF) who had become POWs and civilians such as planters and their families, some as young as 11-12 years old, missionaries, German Catholic priests were herded on board M V Montevideo Maru in Rabaul where they were held. The ship set sail without lights or any sign that it carried prisoners. On the night of 30 June 1942 when it was off Luzon in the Philippines at about midnight it was torpedoed by a submarine, the USS Sturgeon. 88 Japanese guards and crew made it to shore in the Philippines and when questioned after the war, they said the vessel sank in 11 minutes and that all prisoners on board had been locked below and no attempt had been made to save any of them.

Exactly how many Australians were on board has never been confirmed though the number of people who did not survive the war is 845 members of Lark Force (including the whole Salvation Army band which enlisted as medics) and 208 civilians including British, German and Norwegian civilians.

Of the Australians captured at Kavieng, a small number, about 44 men, were kept to maintain essential services, motor vehicle repairs, etc. Two years later, when it became obvious that the Allies were winning the war, they were taken to the Kavieng wharf, blindfolded, garrotted and their bodies dumped in the Nusa Channel.

Post World War 2

During the war, relatives of the missing inundated the government to find out what had happened to their loved ones. Sent to the Red Cross, referred to the Japanese Red Cross through Geneva but there was no response. Families just assumed or hoped that their loved ones would all surface after the war. Alas that was never to be.
Although the M M sank in mid-1942, the Japanese made no effort to inform us through the Red Cross of the loss of the ship with prisoners on board.

In 1945 after the war ended, Australian soldiers spread through the islands and gathered information from the surviving Japanese forces about what they say happened. They also spoke to natives and relatives of surviving Chinese traders and heard stories of atrocities not only against prisoners but also against natives and the Chinese.

It was not until October 1945 that an Australian liaison officer, Major Harold Williams, went to UNHQ in Tokyo and demanded that the Japanese hand over records concerning our lost souls. Eventually they provided a list of what they said was the manifest of passengers that was in the records of the shipping company that owned the M M. The original list was then lost but the National Archives in Canberra has a copy.

My Great Uncle is No. 205 on the list.

Bill Box

Bill BOX
Bill was born 3 September 1894 at 7 Kent Road, London to Jim and Jenny Box (nee Charnock) both Leather Goods Manufacturers. Bill came to Australia in 1910 to seek his fortune, aged 16 or 17.

In early 1915 he and a friend, Bert Spacey, selected a Prickly Pear lease at Tara. Later that year, he enlisted in the AIF, trained in Egypt and as the troops were withdrawn from Gallipoli by that time, he was sent on to England for re-training and eventually served with the 15th Battalion in France. Wounded, he was repatriated back to Australia.

In 1920, he selected a plantation on New Hanover, off the west coast of New Britain. Over the next 20 years he selected two more plantations and was deeply in debt to W. R. Carpenters.

In the period 1937 to 1939, despite the news from China of Japanese treatment of Chinese, including the huge death toll in Nanking where about 300,000 Chinese were slaughtered, the planters chose to remain on their plantations, assuming, as it turned out wrongly, that the Japanese would leave them in peace to work their plantations.

In December 1941 the Australian government ordered the evacuation of white women and children from New Guinea and islands. A few nurses and a group of German Catholic priests and nuns remained.

In January 1942 the Japanese from Truk Island began bombing Kavieng and Rabaul airports but the planters remained in place.

On 23 January 1942, at dawn, the Japanese simultaneously invaded Kavieng and Rabaul, overwhelming the few Australian troops that opposed them. Bill Box was captured a day or so later in the Albatross Channel sailing his pinnace with a group of 4 friends in their pinnaces trying to escape the invading Japanese, but all too late; at least he was with his mates.

His actual fate and that of the other 1052 named on the Japanese list is unknown, except he never returned at the end of the war. The families tried to find out what happened but the Japanese remained silent because they had to as they used the sinking of the ship to cover up the monstrous atrocities they inflicted upon captive civilian and soldier alike.

Rabaul and Montivedio Society

In recent years, the Rabaul and Montevideo Society formed by members of the Papua and New Guinea Association of Australia placed memorials at Rabaul, Kavieng, Bita Peks and many other sites of Japanese atrocities.

Over the years, the Society struggled to raise funds to build a memorial in Canberra for the New Guinea victims.

On a brilliant but frigid Canberra day the 1 July 2012 I attended the dedication of this memorial at the Australian War Memorial to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru and all the victims of Japanese aggression in the then Territory of New Guinea and Islands.

On 1 July 2017, to commemorate the 75th Anniversary, the PNGAA published a collection of tributes from family members of those who were lost. I wrote a tribute to my great uncle, Bill Box, which is published in this book.