Montevideo Maru Commemorative Dinner Speech

27 November 2023

With just 272 words the 16th President of the United States reflected on the inadequacy of words to commemorate those who sacrifice their lives in the service of their fellow citizens.

His poignant remarks at the dedication of the cemetery on the battlefield at Gettysburg defied his prediction that history would little note nor long remember them.

The simple haunting cadences of Lincoln’s address resonate eternally.

At once, reminding us of our flawed and vulnerable humanity while inspiring us to honour the covenant with those whose past sacrifice has bequeathed us the nation to which we are so fortunate to belong.

Brevity in word, humility in character and our coming together in quiet reflection are the consummate measure of our respect for the fallen.

In the age of individual expression their sacrifice is imbued with such a substance that renders language somewhat ephemeral.

Their Sacrifice, our history, and the solemnity of this memorial to those Australians whose remains never came to rest, here, in the land of their birth, warrant further humility.

This evening, we pay our respects to the Australians lost in the sinking of the Montevideo Maru on 1 July 1942.

The circumstances of that loss bewilder modern sensibilities. Among us here are their descendants for whom we all fervently hope that the discovery of the Montevideo Maru last April will bring some measure of consolation, some sense of peace.

979 Australians lost their lives at sea that day, in what is Australia’s greatest ever maritime loss of life.

  • Most were Australian soldiers.
  • 88 prisoners of other nationalities also died
  • Including the 33 imprisoned crew members of the Norwegian vessel Herstein, sunk in the invasion of Rabaul.
  • Of the 122 Japanese crew and guards on the Montevideo Maru, 102 made it to lifeboats but only 10 made it home to Japan.
  • One family, the Turner family, lost three brothers in the sinking.
  • The youngest who perished was 15 and the oldest in his sixties.
  • Amongst the dead was a First Nations’ soldier, Ray Dalton
  • And while most of the soldiers were from Victoria, those lost came from all over Australia.
  • Indeed, the Chair of this Memorial, the Honourable Kim Beazley, lost an uncle aboard the Montevideo Maru.

To all the descendants of those lost I extend condolences on behalf of the Australian Army.

Perhaps the only comfort that our Army can offer to those who lost loved ones that night is that their sacrifice is honoured by our relentless determination to identify and where possible recover the remains of our fallen no matter where or when they died.

It is my privilege to lead an organisation that does not rest until fallen are laid to rest and their bereaved comforted.

Indeed, as we gather this evening, our people continue the search for our fallen.

And, may I also express the profound gratitude of the Australian Army to Silent World for their truly extraordinary efforts in realising the search for the Montevideo Maru. To John Mullen and the entire team: A most sincere “Thank you.”

It lies at a depth greater than the Titanic. It was an extraordinary feat of science and engineering skill to discover the ship after the elapse of 80 years.

But even more so, it was a soaring manifestation of human empathy to pursue this search against the odds.

Thank you for your efforts to permit thousands of loved ones to reconcile this sad chapter in our military history.

Fittingly, a descendant of the lost Australians was aboard your vessel when you discovered the wreckage.

Befitting, a war grave, the wreckage will lie undisturbed beneath the sea. Friend and foe alike rest there, their enmities now subsumed by death and the march of history.

Australia and Japan alike can mourn this loss and resolve that it never happen again.

Perhaps that is the greatest legacy of those who perished aboard the Montevideo Maru. Their remains rest undisturbed in posterity. May their legacy remain undimmed in eternity. Lest We Forget.