2011 marks the 69th anniversary of possibly Australia’s worst single wartime maritime tragedy, the loss of 1,053 servicemen and civilians/internees when the Japanese ship on which they were being transported, the 7,267 tons Montevideo Maru, was torpedoed and sunk by the US submarine SS Sturgeon before dawn off the Philippines coast on 1 July 1942. This was the sub’s fourth war patrol after leaving Fremantle on 5 June.
Montevideo Maru had left Rabaul the previous week and was on its way to Hainan Island in the South China Sea. It was packed with 849 Australian military personnel and 200 of our civilians/internees, all intended for use as slave labour. The former were mainly from 2/22 Battalion, 1 Independent Company, the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles (NGVR) and other detached personnel. About 80 of this total were from the NGVR, 34 who had been on full-time duty and 46 classified as part-time. Although 20 Japanese sailors survived the event, only two eventually arrived in Manila, the remainder, including the captain, being killed by guerrillas.
Watching it all unfold was Rudy Buckley, a Brisbane resident and member of the NGVR and PNGVR Ex-members Association, and part of a family not evacuated from Rabaul prior to the Japanese occupation during January 1942. It was during this period he watched the Australians board the ill fated ship, one of whom, a Corporal O’Neill threw him a handkerchief with his Service Number and name on it. Later Rudy found this man’s full name was Barry Richard David O’Neill, Service # VX 19523, who was born 30 March, 1920 in Ararat, Victoria. He enlisted 6 June 1940, was posted to the 2/22 Australian Infantry Battalion and, of course, died 1 July, 1942.
In 1994 the NGVR and PNGVR Ex-members Association erected a memorial plaque in the Shrine of Memories, Brisbane Cenotaph to those lost on the Montevideo Maru. Each year since a commemorative service is held here on 1 July, with relatives, friends of the victims and others invited to attend. For some time this was the only such memorial, however another was dedicated at Ballarat in Victoria on 7th February 2004, where many of 2/22 Battalion enlisted.
This annual service is open to the public and is always held on the morning of the 1st July at the Hall of Memories, Brisbane Cenotaph, followed by morning tea in nearby premises.
Association President, Phil Ainsworth is an executive member of the Rabaul & Montevideo Maru Society, one objective of which is to erect a National Memorial to the victims of the Montevideo Maru tragedy on the grounds of teh Australia War Memorial in Canberra. The dedication of the National Memorial is planned for 1 July 2012. Phil is the convenor with an immediate goal of raising $500,000 for the project. At 1 January 2011 approximately $160,000 has been raised. Donations are welcome.