Montevideo Maru

Montevideo Maru

On 1 July 1942 the Montevideo Maru, carrying approximately 1060 prisoners of war, most of them Australian, was sunk by an Allied submarine.

The prisoners had been captured in January 1942 by Japanese forces in Rabaul on New Britain, in the former Australian territory of New Guinea, and they were being transferred to Hainan off southern China.

The Montevideo Maru was torpedoed off Luzon by the USS Sturgeon, unaware that it was carrying Allied prisoners. Only a few of the Japanese crew were rescued and all the prisoners on board died, as they were locked below deck. The loss of life on the Montevideo Maru is described as the worst maritime disaster, in peace or war, in Australian history.

On board were approximately 850 Australian Servicemen; mostly members of the Australian Army, two members of the Royal Australian Navy, and one member of the Royal Australian Air Force. There were also approximately 210 civilians from as far afield as Denmark, England, Fiji, Germany, Holland, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the United States of America.

The Australian Servicemen had been serving in Lark Force in Rabaul. Lark Force was an Australian formation established in March 1941 for service in New Britain and New Ireland. Raised in Australia and deployed to New Britain it was tasked with defending Rabaul including its two airfields, port and seaplane anchorage with hopelessly obsolete equipment and virtually no possibility of either reinforcement or evacuation.

On 23rd January 1942 some 5,000 Japanese troops landed on New Britain, and very quickly organised resistance collapsed. Some 400 men of Lark force managed to escape to Australia. In February 1942 the Japanese massacred 160 Lark Force prisoners at Tol plantation on the southern coast of New Britain. Approximately 850 Lark Force prisoners of war died on 1st July 1942 on board the Montevideo Maru.

Among those Australian servicemen who died were seven pairs of brothers including NX54320 Bombardier Walter Freeman and NX53296 Gunner Ronald Freeman. Sons of Alfred and Lucy Freeman, they enlisted together on 24 June 1940 at Paddington, Sydney. Walter was a waiter and Ronald a labourer when they enlisted. Both sailed from Sydney with the 17th Anti-Tank Battery on 9th September 1941. Walter was 30 years of age and Ronald was aged 28 years when they died together on the Montevideo Maru on 1st July 1942.

Image of Bombardier Walter Freeman
Bombardier Walter Freeman
Image of Gunner Ronald Freeman
Gunner Ronald Freeman

The Unrecovered War Casualties Unit (UWC-A) has compiled a list of all prisoners on board which can be found here. This list compiles records found in the National Archives of Australia, the Australian War Memorial, and the Montevideo Maru Memorial, amongst other sources. No list is perfect due to the passage of time and unclear records.

Relatives of the victims of the Montevideo Maru sinking can register their details with UWC-A.

More information about the Montevideo Maru can be found on the National Archives of Australia.

The Department of Defence was pleased to work with Silentworld Foundation in the discovery of the Montevideo Maru, which occurred in April 2023.