National Archives of Australia

Issue 7 August 2012

The Montevideo Maru tragedy: the missing link?

Seventy years ago, more than 1000 Australians died in the sinking of the Montevideo Maru. A new website created by the National Archives makes available a recently received list that is believed to be the most complete known record of those on board. This list has provided a missing link for the families of the lost.

On 1 July 1942 the Japanese ship Montevideo Maru, carrying 1054 prisoners, was sunk by an Allied submarine. Most of those on the ship were Australian.

They had been captured in January 1942 by Japanese forces in Rabaul on New Britain, in the former Australian territory of New Guinea, and were being transferred with interned civilians to Hainan, off southern China.

All prisoners on board died when the Montevideo Maru was torpedoed by the USS Sturgeon¸ which was unaware the ship was carrying Allied prisoners.

Montevideo Maru. Australian War Memorial, 106138 (detail)

Names on rice paper

Montevideo Maru is a new website featuring what is considered the most complete list of those on the ship when it was sunk. It was among prisoner of war records presented to Australia by the government of Japan early in 2012.

Front cover of the document.

Written in a combination of Japanese scripts – Katakana (phonetic), Kanji and Hirakana, the front cover of the booklet reads ‘Montevideo Maru: Serial Name List of Prisoners of War and Internees who Perished’. It contains 41 folded pages of handwritten Japanese script on rice paper, bound together with a separate 48-page typewritten list in English.

Dr Ta-Yan Leong translated the list from Japanese to English.

For Dr Leong, accurately translating foreign names in phonetic Katakana to English was painstaking work. ‘The Japanese scripts usually do not differentiate between the letters R and L, C and K, B and V, and H and F’, Dr Leong explains. ‘As the Japanese source document was a handwritten copy of another document, there were a number of possible transcription errors – like crossing “t” and dotting “i” in English.’

Dr Leong’s translation reveals that the Japanese part has the names of all prisoners of war (POWs) and civilians on the Montevideo Maru when it was sunk. The English part is not a translation of the Japanese list; it contains different information and lists only POWs.

‘It is a great honour to translate this list from Japanese to English, knowing that it might help victims’ families to confirm the fate of their loved ones’, says Dr Leong.

Both the Japanese and English lists have been digitised and are available on the website, with Dr Leong’s translation of the Japanese list.

Translator Dr Ta-Yan Leong working on the translation of the Montevideo Maru list. Photographer: Samantha Birch

The origins of the list: a mystery remains

The Archives, with the assistance of historian Dr Keiko Tamura, has investigated the origins and significance of the list in a search that has, perhaps, raised more questions than definitive answers.

The extent of the Montevideo Maru tragedy was not fully revealed in Australia until after the end of the war. The Australian Government sent Major Harold S Williams to Tokyo to investigate POW matters. In a meeting the day after his arrival with Huryo Joho Kyoku (Prisoner of War Information Bureau), Williams demanded and was given access to files that showed the Montevideo Maru had been carrying Australian prisoners. He located a mimeographed 48-page nominal list in Japanese of those on board when it sank.

Williams translated the names to English and sent the translated list to Australia. At the end of 1945, he returned to Australia with the Japanese list and delivered it to Army Headquarters in Melbourne.

The location of the document Williams viewed in Tokyo is now unknown. It is likely that the list acquired by the Archives is a copy that contains the same information, making it the most complete known record of those who died on the Montevideo Maru.

Section of the list.

Commemorating the lost

Australians can search for family members on the list, and pay tribute by adding their own photographs and stories. The website has links to individual service records and other material in the Archives collection about the people who died on the Montevideo Maru.

Tributes posted on the site have shown the personal side to the tragedy. Photos added by relatives portray weddings, family groups, mates at the beach, sweethearts, and men posing proudly in their uniforms before they left.

For some families, the list has provided further certainty about lost loved ones. One visitor has written: ‘at last we have answers’.

Want more?

Visit the Montevideo Maru website

Fact sheet 266 – The sinking of the Montevideo Maru

The Archives holds other records about the Montevideo Maru, and many are digitised and can be viewed via RecordSearch. Simply enter the keywords ‘Montevideo Maru’ in the basic search window.

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