Searchers Find WWII Ship That Sank With More Than 1,000 Allied POWs Aboard

Unaware that the “Montevideo Maru” was transporting prisoners, an American submarine torpedoed the Japanese ship in 1942

Black and white photo of freighter ship
An American submarine sank the Montevideo Maru in 1942, causing Australia's largest loss of life at sea. Australian War Memorial

On July 1, 1942, an American submarine fired four torpedoes at a Japanese merchant ship, the Montevideo Maru, which sank to the bottom of the South China Sea in just ten minutes. Because the freighter wasn’t marked as a prisoner-of-war transport vessel, the Americans didn’t realize more than 1,000 Allied prisoners—the majority of them Australian—were on board.

An estimated 1,080 people from 14 countries died when the ship went down, including 979 Australians, per the Associated Press. To this day, the incident remains Australia’s worst maritime disaster. The ship’s final resting place, however, has long been a mystery.

More than eight decades after the sinking, underwater searchers have finally located the remains of the vessel off the coast of Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines, the Australian government announced on Saturday.

Explorers found the ship more than 13,000 feet below the water’s surface—deeper than the wreck of the Titanic. The find was a collaborative effort between the Australian defense department; the nonprofit Silentworld Foundation; and Fugro, a Dutch company that specializes in underwater surveys.

Searchers located the wreckage after 12 days of searching with an autonomous underwater vehicle equipped with sonar.

Officials said they hoped the discovery would help bring peace to family members who lost loved ones in the wreck 81 years ago. They plan to leave all human remains and artifacts with the wreckage out of respect for the dead and their families.

“These Australians were never forgotten,” says Richard Marles, Australia’s defense minister, in a statement. “Lost deep beneath the seas, their final resting place is now known. ... We will remember them.”

At the time it sank, the Montevideo Maru was sailing from New Guinea, which was then an Australian territory, to Japanese-occupied Hainan in southern China, according to the National Archives of Australia (NAA). The ship was full of Australian troops and civilians who had been in Rabaul, a town on the northern tip of the island of New Britain. After Japanese troops captured Rabaul in early 1942, they set up a camp there for prisoners of war and civilians.

By June, Japanese military leaders had decided to begin transferring the prisoners to Japan. The first transport—which included roughly 60 Australian officers and several nurses—arrived safely. But all the prisoners and internees in the second transport group perished as a result of the Allied attack on the Montevideo Maru.

Information about the incident remained scarce until the end of the war, when Australian Army Major Harold S. Williams went to Tokyo to investigate in September 1945. Piecing together a list of missing personnel from Rabaul and Japanese files, Williams was able to determine who had died aboard the Montevideo Maru and notify their families. Still, questions remain as to whether the list of victims is accurate or complete.

Ship blueprints and sonar imagery
A comparison of the ship's layout (top) with sonar images of the wreck in the South China Sea (bottom) Silentworld Foundation

In 2009, family members of the deceased formed the Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society and began calling on the Australian government to search for the ship. Three years later, the society installed a memorial in Canberra to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the tragedy. The NAA has also created an interactive website that allows users to search through the list of victims and explore archival documents.

For Cathy Parry-McLennan, whose grandfather Arthur Parry was aboard the Montevideo Maru when it sank, finally having some closure is a “lovely thing,” as she tells the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Brianna Morris-Grant.

“I just remember my father telling me for years they didn’t know what had happened to him,” she says.

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