Montevideo Maru  questions


Since the publication of a book ‘Japanese Merchant Ships at War,’ by Hisashi Noma in which is given the story of one Japanese seaman who survived the sinking of the Montevideo Maru in 1942, there has been renewed interest in the fate of that ship and the missing men of Rabaul.

As I have not been privy to any interviews conducted by any Australian - expert one hopes in the fall of Rabaul - with the Japanese seaman, Mr Yamiji, I have only a rough translation to work on. However as the writer of ‘Masked Eden, a History of the Australians in New Guinea’, which contains primary source material on the fate of the men of Rabaul and the Montevideo Maru, perhaps the following pages will be of interest.

The Montevideo Maru was built in 1926.  She was diesel driven.  In 1942 she was still a comparatively modern ship. Had she not been taking a long time to get to the position where she sank?

Immediately one reads Mr. Yamaji story one wonders where his number for the POW on the ship - 1,157 - comes from. Did he really know this number, as a 20 year old seaman? And does one remember such figures for the next 60 years? It is a different figure from the several mentioned over the years.

Mr. Yamaji would not have known at the time that the submarine sinking his ship was the Sturgeon. Surely also other snatches of information given by Mr. Yamaji regarding the Montevideo Maru were discovered after the event. This, naturally, makes one wonder if any of the information, other than that relating to Mr. Yamaja's own personal survival story can be regarded as primary source material.

Mr Yamaji states that at the sinking of the merchantman, he heard POW singing "Auld Lang Syne" as they floated past on bits of wood, a few having been thrown lifejackets by the Japanese. Perhaps they did. But questions arise.

One would like, for example to know more about the "firewood", and "tree roots." This wood was also mentioned at the beginning of the seaman's story. Where did this wood come from, Rabaul, some island off New Britain? Where? Was it only for cooking on the ship, or was some of it at least being taken elsewhere for use in cooking? Was it perhaps being used as "ballast". see ‘Masked Eden’. P.166.

The seaman states that the two life boats left the area at sunrise. One official Japanese record states that the life boats remained in the area until "1000".

There is no mention in my translation of any given number of POW the seaman saw in the water. The captain of the Sturgeon is quoted as saying he saw "not a lot of people only a few which he presumed were crew". See ‘Masked Eden’. P.266.

Mr. Yamaji's story of his survival once on land, makes it very clear that there was plenty of opportunity for a "sister unit", as John Gilmore called all Allied men fighting behind enemy lines, to have captured Japanese from the Montevideo Maru. see ‘Masked Eden’. p.266.

The seaman finished his account by saying that it was a long time afterwards he heard that some POW had been rescued by a destroyer and taken to Kobe. This of course immediately makes one ask several more questions. What was the name of the destroyer, how many men were rescued, which POW camps were they sent to, why did none survive the war?

It is certainly interesting that a seaman has been found who witnessed the sinking of the Montevideo Maru. However if it is now deemed important to question and accept what is said by a Japanese seaman, aged 81, why do establishment historians not question any surviving PNG men and women from the areas around Rabaul and Kavieng? It was these people who witnessed at first hand the Japanese occupation.

In my book ‘Masked Eden’ I give accounts, some from my own primary source records, some from archive material, of statements made by PNG men regarding the fate of the Europeans after the fall of Rabaul. Since its publication I have collected more material supporting this information.

There is a remarkable consistency in all these independently collected reports from different people at different times after 1945. They relate stories from PNG people from widely different areas and backgrounds, surely seldom known to each other. As I state in ‘Masked Eden’, these reports fit in with archival material as reported from AIB men working behind the enemy lines in New Britain.

There is also archival material in which John Gilmore stated how reliable the New Guinea men were as witnesses. Native witnesses in other areas under Japanese occupation were questioned and their statements checked out and at times accepted, by allied intelligence after WWII.  New Guinea natives however were largely ignored. Why?

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the New Guinea mens’ eyewitness evidence of the various atrocities carried out by the Japanese, is their accounts of how POW were executed. They describe exactly how the Japanese - we know from unimpeachable reports in other areas - did execute men. Surely it was most unlikely New Guinea natives would have known of such a method of killing unless they had actually witnessed it.

A curious aspect of the whole affair is the fact that whereas pre war European residents of the Mandated Territory, those - said by establishment historians not to have had good relationships with the natives - give credence to the New Guinea mens’ reports, those arriving after the war usually do not.

I wonder if this is why Stan McCosker's close friendship with Rombin has been, and still is, unacknowledged by most of the establishment. For once one accepts that men like Rombin supported the white man behind enemy lines, were prepared to risk their lives for them, surely then one must take the whole subject of native witnesses seriously. And these witnesses have constantly stated that the men, certainly the men they knew, the civilians, were not on the Montevideo Maru.

The above are a few of the questions, thoughts, that came into my mind after reading a translation of Mr Yamiji's yarn. I am sure other people have questions and thoughts of their own.

Anne McCosker 2003


Here is a rough translation by a Japanese student of English, of the story of the seaman on the Montevideo Maru, as published in the book 'Japanese Merchant Ships at War' by Hisashi Noma. There are four pages dealing with the Montevideo Maru. This includes two pictures of ships plus a list of seaman missing after the ship sank.

I start the translation at the place where it is said the ship left Rabaul with POWs on board.

On the 22nd June, 'Montevideo Maru' left Rabaul with 1,157 Australian prisoners, 27 guardians, and tree roots which staked on deck for cooking purpose. 1 airplane to San-a of Kainan Island. On the 30th June in the evening an escort vessel returned without waiting as escort from San-a because it was not their area .A captain decided to sail alone. The ship went along the east coast of Luzon. At the Luzon Strait the bow turned for west. The sea was calm with only 3- 4 metres wind.
1st July, 03:26, just after parting with the escort ship, the ship was hit by U.S. torpedo sub Sturgeon. According to the US operation record, U.S. sub didn't get an advance intelligence that transportation of prisoners at the time.
2 torpedo pierced right side of the stern, and exploded in a tank of heavy oil with big sound. The heavy oil overflow the engine room and the engine stopped soon. The seawater came into the ship, waterproof walls has broken. The ship made big inclination and there was a command to get out from the ship. 3 lifeboats could went down, but one of them broke down.
03:34 the ship sank by the stern and finally it stand vertical. A flame spout from a chimney with a big sound. It was 3 or 4 min after Mr. Yamaji throw away into the sea. He swam with all his heart the sea that great noise and big splash. Prisoners were singing Auld Lang Syne floating by with firewood and tree roots. Some seaman gave their lifejacket to prisoner.
At sunrise 2 life boats with 50 each sailed. Next day they arrived at Bojeadol, Luzon. and stayed a house in Bubon and took rest.
4th, when they're making sandals with palm leaves to leave, suddenly attacked by the remnants of a defeated U.S. army and natives. The captain Keiichi Kasahara wearing white costume and stick, was preparing for that, shouted 'Run away, don't care me'. Everyone ran to the beach but the boat didn't move on the sand. The report of a gun is coming. Some ran away along the beach, some disappeared. Mr. Yamiji escaped into the jingle over stretch wire entanglements. An enemy fired a gun, natives chased him with dogs. He didn't feel like he's alive. He lay on his face with shrink his body, he wanted to go underground. In the daytime strong sunshine made him very thirsty. no rain, he couldn't satisfy with drops from leaves. He wanted to drink Nunobiki water, in his home town, Kobe. its first time to drink his urine. When its getting dark he went to the beach and drink seawater a lot. He found some pile of sand. Later he notice that there was his colleague's body under the sand.
He kept walking for three days with wood and stone in his pockets for self defence. With a coincidence he met Mr. Matsuura. They walked encourage each other. Only they can eat was Jew's ear. He couldn't walk long time because of injure of his foot. They walk short, take a rest, walk again, take a rest.
Few days later they arrive at a village. Village people let them into their house. They sleep with exhausted and feeling safe. When they wake up Mr. Inoue second lieutenant and 6 soldiers, (seamen as guardians who worked in the ship) came by horse to save them.
This is Mr.Yamaji's runaway trip. Mr.Yamiji and Mr. Matsuura went into hospital at Raoagu. They wandered Luzon for 8 days. There 18 seamen in the hospital. All of them survived alone, escape from the enemy and hide in the mountains within injuring and enduring hunger and fatigue.
9 seamen lost in action at the time of sinking. 55 were missing after landing. Survivor is only 17 except 1 who died at Kure hospital after he went back to Japan.
The captain Kasahara died after landing Luzon.
It was a long time after that Mr. Yamiji knows that Australian prisoners were rescued by a destroyer and arrived at Kobe before seamen arrive there.