A significant maritime mystery has been solved with the wreck of Japanese merchant vessel SS Montevideo Maru, discovered after more than 80 years in the dark depths.
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The unmarked prisoner of war transport represents Australia’s largest loss of life at sea after it was sunk with more than 1,060 prisoners, including 850 Australian service members from Rabaul, during World War II in the Pacific.
The ship set sail from the former Australian territory of New Guinea with the prisoners, including 209 civilians, New Guinea officials and missionaries on 22 June 1942 for Hainan Island.
It was later torpedoed by the US Navy submarine, USS Sturgeon, off Luzon in the Philippines on 1 July 1942.
A search led by not-for-profit Silentworld Foundation, deep-sea survey specialists Fugro, and supported by Defence announced that the Montevideo Maru had been discovered at a depth of over 4,000 metres on 22 April.
Silentworld director John Mullen said the discovery of the Montevideo Maru closes a terrible chapter in Australian military and maritime history.
“Families waited years for news of their missing loved ones, before learning of the tragic outcome of the sinking. Some never fully came to accept that their loved ones were among the victims,” he said.
“By finding the vessel, we hope to bring closure to the many families devastated by this terrible disaster.
“I would like to express my gratitude to all of the dedicated Silentworld team involved in this expedition, to the outstanding Fugro crew and technical team on board the Fugro Equator, and to the Australian Department of Defence for their unwavering support.
“I am proud to be the citizen of a country that never forgets or stops looking for those lost in the course of duty, no matter how many years may pass.”
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the news brings a measure of comfort to loved ones who have kept a long vigil.
“At long last, the resting place of the lost souls of the Montevideo Maru has been found,” he said.
“The extraordinary effort behind this discovery speaks for the enduring truth of Australia’s solemn national promise to always remember and honour those who served our country. This is the heart and the spirit of Lest We Forget.”
Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles acknowledged the generous support from the Philippine authorities in permitting the search.
“For 81 years, hundreds of Australian families have waited for news of this shipwreck. It is my great privilege to confirm their loved ones have been found,” he said.
“Finding the Montevideo Maru has been a remarkable effort by a passionate team of researchers and the Silentworld Foundation, supported by dedicated Defence personnel.
“These Australians were never forgotten. Lost deep beneath the seas, their final resting place is now known.
“This remarkable discovery is a reflection of who we are as a nation and remarkably close to our day of national commemoration, Anzac Day. We will remember them.”
Chief of Army Lieutenant General Simon Stuart said the country remembers the service of those lost aboard including the 20 Japanese guards and crew, the Norwegian sailors, and the hundreds of civilians from 14 different nations.
“The Australian soldiers, sailors, and aviators who had fought to defend Rabaul had enlisted from across the country to serve, met a terrible fate at sea on the Montevideo Maru,” he said.
“I want to thank the Silentworld team and the dedicated researchers, including the Unrecovered War Casualties team at Army, who have never given up hope of finding the final resting place of the Montevideo Maru.
“A loss like this reaches down through the decades and reminds us all of the human cost of conflict. Lest We Forget.”