148. The Montivideo Maru

If you have no interest in Naval/military history and would prefer to skip over a rather tragic story then this is not the blog post for you and I recommend you give this one a miss. I started writing this in Subic but never got around to publishing it before we left for Seattle.

Some years ago, for reasons I wont bore you with now, I wrote an MA thesis for King’s College London about the qualities and characteristics required by senior military commanders in peacetime, in “total” war and “limited” wars. Leaving aside, for the purposes of this blog, my belief that the academic characterisation of “limited” war is of no practical relevance when YOU are the one being shot at, the only thing you need to know about that work is that I chose General Douglas MacArthur as my illustrative case study. Deliberately non Naval. Deliberately non British. A man who saw active service on the Western Front during WW1; rose to be peacetime head of the US Army in the early 1930s; retired in 1937 and who was recalled at the beginning of the war in the Pacific. For various reasons he served in the Philippines from 1935 to May 1942 and famously kept his “I will return” promise 2 years later. He went on to be the de-facto ruler of Japan during the Allied occupation 1945-1951 and commanded UN forces during the Korean War. A character as flawed as he was brilliant, it is no surprise that the title of William Manchester’s biography of MacArtur is entitled “American Caesar.”

But I digress. The net result is that I know quite a bit about what was going on in these ‘ere parts in 1942. This, however, is a story I am saddened to say I knew nothing about until Clipper brought me to Subic Bay.

The Montevideo Maru was a 7766 ton twin screw diesel motor vessel built in Nagasaki in 1926. She was operated by the Osaka Shose Kaisho shipping company for service between Japan and South America – hence the name. During the early moths of the war in the Pacific she was used by the Imperial Japanese Navy as an auxiliary transporting troops and provisions throughout SE Asia. After taking part in landings in the Dutch East Indies and operations around Java, the Montevideo Maru was ordered to New Britain.

Early on the morning of 22 June 1942, members of the Australian 2/22nd Battalion No1 Independent Company and civilian prisoners of war, including women, captured in New Britain were ordered to board the vessel in Rabul. The Montevideo Maru then sailed, unescorted for the Hainan Islands routing via the Philippine Islands in an effort to avoid Allied submarines. She was displaying no markings (Red cross for example) indicating she was carrying prisoners of war.

Eight days into the voyage she was intercepted by the USS Sturgeon. For 4 hours the Sturgeon manouvred into a firing position to fire from her stern torpedo tubes. Sturgeon’s log records a torpedo hit at 2.29am on 1st July. Japanese survivors reported two torpedo hits followed by a fuel tank explosion. The Montevideo Maru sank by the stern in as little as 11 minutes. According to the official Australian version of events, it does not appear that the Japanese crew made any attempt to release the prisoners although as recently as 2003 a Japanese survivor claimed that there were Australians in the water singing ”auld lang syne” as the ship sank. Of the 88 Japanese guards and crew only 17 survived the sinking and the subsequent march through the Philippine jungle.

Although the exact number and identity of the more than 1000 men and women onboard the Montevideo Maru has never been confirmed, Japanese and Australian sources suggest an estimated 845 military personnel and up to 208 civilians lost their lives in the tragedy. There were no Australian survivirs.

I came across the Subic Bay memorial during one of my ”fitness walks” prior to the start of Leg 6 and the clipper fleet sailed close to the position of the sinking during our week long refresher/level 4 training.

It remains the worst maritime disaster in Australian history.

3 thoughts on “148. The Montivideo Maru

  1. Very sobering Keith

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  2. My uncle serving with the Middlesex Regiment in Hong Kong was captured by the Japanese and after many months in a prison camp, was (with hundreds of others), put onboard a ship named LISBON MARU and sailed for Japan. The ship was sunk by a US submarine. He survived and was eventually taken to Japan where he was forced to work in the shipbuilding industry. As so many died and were killed, he managed to exist. Returned to the uk via Australia, he remained in the army until 1952. He became active in education and the British Legion, settling in East Sussex.
    He died at 11:00 at a Remembrance Day service at the Airman’s Grave – an RAF memorial in Ashdown Forest.


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