The March of Death

Prologue: Rabaul, 22 June 1942

They trudged, heads down, the march of death – a never ending line of over 1,000 Australian military prisoners-of-war and European civilians.

They would never be seen again!

The soldiers of the ill-fated Lark Force at Rabaul had suffered defeat by an overwhelming Japanese naval invasion force, followed by capture and five months of maltreatment and slave labour as prisoners. They bore the evidence of poor condition, with rationed food and no medical support; many with tattered uniforms or substitute clothing and some without boots.

They were barged out into the holds of a Japanese freighter, destined for the Japanese-held (Chinese) island of Hainan.

Montevideo Maru. Photo: Australian War Memorial.

Montevideo Maru. Photo: Australian War Memorial.

Unfortunately, the unmarked Japanese prison-ship Montevideo Maru was torpedoed and sunk in six minutes, by the submarine USS Sturgeon, off the north-west coast of Luzon, nine days later, on 1 July 1942, with the total loss of 1,053 POWs. It was the largest Australian maritime loss of life in World War 11, greater than the 645 victims on the HMAS Sydney on 19 November 1941. (You can see, at this link, a complete list of soldiers who were POWs on the Montevideo Maru.)

Prior History

As mentioned elsewhere, it is a little-known fact that the Australian Government had established its ‘Malay Barrier’ strategy of military protection from any Japanese threat in early 1941, ten months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour to launch the Pacific War. This ‘Malay Barrier’ consisted of outpost perimeters of ‘Bird’ Forces deployed around the islands north of Australia. The contingents were named ‘Sparrow Force’ at Timor, ‘Gull Force’ at Ambon and ‘Lark Force’ at Rabaul in New Britain.

The strategy was an utter disaster as the soldiers were overrun and soundly defeated by the vastly superior Japanese invasion force. At Rabaul, of the 1,484 men comprising Lark Force, 107 were killed, 139 were massacred, 386 escaped and 852 were captured and then transported to their death in the Montevideo Maru.

This was simply because Lark Force (which consisted of personnel from the 2/22nd Infantry Battalion, the 1st Independent Company, the RAA Heavy Battery, 34th Fortress Engineers, 17 Anti-tank and a dozen other support services including the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles) was hopelessly undermanned, ill-equipped, poorly commanded and devoid of a coherent strategy given the task it was expected to perform. Despite several months of ‘preparation’, in the circumstances nothing could have adequately prepared them for the overwhelming Japanese invasion force that entered Simpson Harbour on 23 January 1942 following overnight bombing.

Moreover, faced with an invasion force that included several times the number of Australian soldiers and incalculably greater military firepower, within hours of the invasion the Australian commanding officer, Colonel Scanlon, gave the infamous order ‘Every man for himself!’ thus abandoning any semblance of organised defence, or even preparation for organised evacuation, despite months of ‘preparation’ since early 1941 and the knowledge of the inexorable Japanese advance south during the seven weeks following their attack on Pearl Harbor (with, for example, the Philippines attacked just ten hours after Pearl Harbor on 8 December 1941).

This order, to the abject shame of the Australian government at the time, had been communicated by Sir Earl Page. Colonel Scanlon was advised that Lark Force at Rabaul would be ‘hostages to fortune’ – see Anne McCosker What about Rabaul? – with no relief, reinforcements or rescue, and ordered the Force to fight to the end!

Thus the troops were abandoned by their officers who were transported on a separate ship to Japan and survived the war.

With over 1,000 Australians and European civilians now captured and initially held prisoner at the Malaguna Road camp, the Japanese consolidated their hold on Rabaul, which they set up as a base of their own, in preparation for their planned advances further south.

The wartime histories of Rabaul and the Montevideo Maru were embarrassing to the Government and information about the casualties was only released after a delayed period post-war. There was no attempt to save the troops by off-shore rescue from Australia, for example through use of small boats or Catalina float planes to pick up scattered escapees on the beaches, although hundreds were evacuated in local craft by New Britain planters and District officers (many of whom were later to become Coastwatcher party leaders).

While the largest single detachment (411) of those killed in the Montevideo Maru came from the 2/22nd Battalion of the AIF, they were actually outnumbered by the total number of soldiers killed from other units (441) who, when combined with the civilian prisoners aboard (201), comprised 61% of the total loss of 1,053. The numbers are set out hereunder:

Prisoners on the Montevideo Maru

Australian Imperial Force (AIF):

2/22 Infantry Battalion … … … 411
Subtotal (2/22nd) … … … … … … … … 411

1st Independent Company … . 132
RAA Heavy Battery … … … …  97
34th Fortress Engineers … … . 34
Fortress signals … … … … … .. 7
17 Anti-tank … … … … … … .. 62
AA Battery … … … … … … …  32
2/10 Aust Field Ambulance … … 4
18 Special Dental Unit … … … .. 1
19 Special Dental Unit … … … .. 3
Aust Canteen Service … … … .. 2
New Guinea Volunteer Rifles… . 34
A.A.O.C. … … … … … … … … 13
HQ New Guinea area… … … … . 6
A.N.G.A.U. … … … … … … … … 2
Engineers Service Branch … … .. 1
8th Division Supply Column … …  9
RAAF … … … … … … … … … .. 1
RAN … … … … … … … … … … 1
Subtotal (other Units) … … … … … … … 441
TOTAL military POWs … … … … … … … 852
Civilians (not confirmed) … … … … … … 201
TOTAL Casualties … … … … … … … .. 1,053

So let us not forget!

For any relative or friend of a soldier captured at Rabaul, there is a complete list of the fate of every individual of the 1,484 men who served there (whether killed on the Montevideo Maru; killed while escaping; executed at Gasmata; executed at Tol Plantation; killed in action or listed as ‘missing, presumed dead’; officers who surrendered on 23 January 1942, were taken Prisoner of War and were recovered ex Japan at war’s end; and those who escaped capture and made it back to Australia) thanks to John Winterbotham’s fine research Soldiers of Lark Force.

Epilogue: What if?

Some solace to the relatives and friends of the Montevideo Maru victims may be gained from their fate, for if they had survived the sinking, they would have endured 3½ years of sheer misery on Hainan Island! Indeed, they would have suffered unbelievable treatment as did those 263 POWs who had been transported from Ambon and had suffered torture, beatings, near-starvation, disease (including beri-beri) while always slaving. Only 191 (72%) of the 263 prisoners from Ambon were still barely alive when the war ended, some even dying in a Morotai hospital on the way home. See Roger Maynard Ambon: The Truth About One Of The Most Brutal POW Camps in World War Two and the Triumph of the Aussie Spirit.

Apart from ending the lives of the 1,053 POWs, the sinking of the Montevideo Maru took its toll in other ways. The following military units were disbanded: the 2/22nd Battalion, the 1st Independent Company of Commandos, the RAA Heavy Battery, the 34th Fortress Engineers, the New Guinea Vounteer Rifles (NGVR) and others!

For further articles on the Montevideo Maru, see ‘The Ship of Hell and ‘At the Going Down of the Ship’. The latter article includes a full list of the civilians killed on the Montevideo Maru.

This article ‘The March of Death’ was published on 1 July 2017 in a book to commemorate the 75th anniversary of this period in the New Guinea Islands. You can buy the book, published by the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia, here: When the War Came: New Guinea Islands 1942.