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July 28th 2010 print

Anne McCosker

Montevideo Maru controversy

There is a deal of evidence confirmed from a variety of sources which states that all those Europeans – well over a thousand – were not on that ship.

Unanswered questions about the Fall of Rabaul

Public money has been committed – $100,000 – to an ‘ongoing search, as part of an ongoing commitment’, Steven Ciobo MP for Moncrieff, to bring closure to families involved in the Fall of Rabaul. Veteran Affairs Minister Alan Griffin stated it was to assist in the building of a ‘national memorial’ to the Montevideo Maru dead. (Hansard, 21 June, 2010)

Will NOW some independent person with intelligence and integrity demand answers as to why published, primary source material and questions dealing with this disaster are systematically ignored while confused, sometimes nonsensical material endlessly repeated?  Is this money to help find the Montevideo Maru hoping then somehow to discover how many POWs were on that ship? Is a professional dig around Rabaul planned? Or will yet another memorial be erected to remember the Montevideo Maru regardless of how many POWs were on that ship?

For far too long there has been a manipulation of facts surrounding not only the debacle at Rabaul, January 1942, when the Japanese captured the town but events in the months, years after and  little attempt made to fit the tragedy into its historical context. 

The idea for example that the locals gloated to see the way the Europeans were mistreated by the Japanese dishonours the suffering and loyalty of most of the New Guinean and Chinese populations. It also shows how politically correct opinion since WWII was determined to despise European colonials and deny the possibility that any good relationships existed between these groups. There is evidence of concerned locals trying to help their old ‘mastas’. After Rabaul fell New Guineans were tortured, killed, many went bush. The Chinese suffered horrible mistreatment. A few, some of mixed race, worked with the Japanese but the population as a whole did not.

The misunderstanding of the bonds between the races is one reason why the Montevideo Maru controversy exists. Also it explains why people with pre war connections to Rabaul disagree with others interested in the subject. There is a deal of evidence confirmed from a variety of sources which states that all those Europeans – well over a thousand – were not on that ship. Some of this material is quite specific as to how a particular man died. However this material, as it comes from New Guineans often via Old Timers is ignored. Ignored too are statements from European and mixed race men and women living during WWII in the Rabaul area which say the men were not on that ship. Statements though are accepted as fact if made by men who, having survived the POW camps, signed the Official Secrets Act.

Detached, clinical questions can be asked regarding the Montevideo Maru. Two are; with such a large number of POWs on board why did not one man survive the ship’s sinking? Many men from other POWs ships did.   And why have the human remains found in the Rabaul area since WWII never been fully investigated?  

In my opinion national pride is the main reason why there are still so many unanswered questions and ignorance of material in regard to the Fall of Rabaul and subsequent events. The Curtin Government and the higher echelons in the Civil Service and Military were incompetent before – and after – Rabaul fell. The Rabaul Garrison’s behaviour as a fighting force was dismal. The Chifley Government in 1945 found the Montevideo Maru a convenient scapegoat for the overwhelming proven disaster at Rabaul.  It refused a request by the Opposition for a public inquiry when there would have been much first hand evidence available and brushed aside any suggestion that all the men were not on that ship. In 2010 It still seems easier for many Australians to believe the Americans unwittingly were the cause of so many deaths, turn the Montevideo Maru sinking into the greatest maritime disaster in Australian history, than face their own nation’s failures.

I personally think the greatest tragedy in this national denial is that the wonderful heroism and sacrifice shown by individual civilians and soldiers against such appalling odds – caused by that bugbear of pioneering Australians – officialdom stupidity – is so little known. Here is the true soul of Australia.

Anne McCosker is the author of  Masked Eden, a history of the Australians in New Guinea.