The Montevideo Maru has been found but the wrecks of other ‘hell ships’ like the Rakuyo Maru are still missing – ABC News

The Montevideo Maru has been found but the wrecks of other 'hell ships' like the Rakuyo Maru are still missing - ABC News

The discovery last week of the wreck of the Montevideo Maru was a welcome final chapter in what has been a desperately painful story for the families of those who died in Australia’s worst maritime disaster.

The ship, which was torpedoed by an American submarine, took an estimated 979 Australian troops and civilians to their deaths off the coast of the Philippines in July 1942.

The location of the wreck remained a mystery for more than 80 years, before a team led by not-for-profit Silentworld Foundation discovered it after 12 days of searching in the South China Sea.

It was a sliver of good news in an otherwise overwhelmingly tragic tale — that of the Japanese prisoner transport “hell ships” of World War II — that some historians feel remains under acknowledged decades later. 

There are plans to use images of the wreck of the Montevideo Maru to teach children about World War II.()

According to Australian War Memorial research, more than 22,000 Allied troops died on Japanese hell ships, including 19,000 who were the victims of so-called friendly fire — more than the number of men who died on the Thai-Burma Railway.

Of those, around 1,800 were Australian — the majority of whom died in the sinking of two ships two years apart.

Researchers believe as many as 126,000 prisoners were transported on the hell ships in journeys lasting up to 70 days, with little food or water and under constant threat of attack from US submarines and Allied aircraft.

The story of the Montevideo Maru is well known, but the story of others — such as the Rakuyo Maru — is much less prominent in the public consciousness.

Senior historian at the Australian War Memorial, Lachlan Grant, said the experiences of Australians who died on these ships is often overshadowed by other prisoner of war stories.

“I don’t think it’s a very well known aspect of Australia’s war and also in particular of the Australian prisoners who were transported to Japan in the war,” Dr Grant said.

“The camps at Changi, the terribly tragic story of Sendakan and the Thai-Burma Railway — these are just such strong stories that they kind of overwhelm the other diverse stories of imprisonment.”

The sinking of a ‘hell ship’

The Rakuyo Maru was used as a Japanese prisoner transport during the Second World War.()

The wolfpack of three American submarines — Sealion, Growler and Pampanito — had spent just over three weeks hunting for prey in the South China Sea when they came across a convoy of Japanese ships.

It was still dark on the morning of September 12, 1944 when they attacked.

Submarine torpedoes sent a destroyer to the bottom of the ocean and disabled a tanker, the flames from which helpfully illuminated a large transport ship, the Rakuyo Maru, travelling at the rear of the column of enemy ships.

The Sealion fired two torpedoes at the ship, both of which hit their target, causing the vessel to bust into flame.

Under return fire, the trio of submarines was forced to dive and cleared the scene.

They had done enough damage for now.

Three days later the American vessels began to come across wreckage drifting in the sea and returned to the scene of the skirmish days earlier.

From a distance they saw what they assumed were Japanese survivors clinging to rafts and wreckage, but as they got closer it became clear they were something different.

Some men brushed away layers of engine oil to reveal curly and red hair and were calling out in English. The submariners thought they may have been Dutch but it soon became clear that under the oil and grime the men were British and Australian.

In an interview with his US Navy superiors several weeks later, the captain of the Pampanito, Lieutenant Commander Landon L. Davis Jr. said the men were in a terrible state .

“We gave them water right away, that was their biggest need — they hadn’t had any water. Some of them couldn’t even drink the water; we had to give them a wet rag to chew on in their mouth,” he said.

“Others had very bad skin conditions, we tried to wipe the oil in big buckets topside and with that fuel oil we managed to wipe most of the heavy grease off. Cut all their clothes off and threw them away.

Many of the men from the Rakuyo Maru had been clinging to floating wreckage and were covered in engine oil when rescued.()

“I know one gent whom we picked up — he was by himself also, no raft at all — he was just floating in the water, and it was almost dark, night-time, and we saw him waving what I thought was a white hat or a hand, or something like that, and we came alongside and the only thing he had been waving was his own hand, they were so white from the salt water immersion that it looked like a white sheet of paper.”

The men were able to tell the Americans they were what was left of around 1,300 Allied prisoners who were loaded onto the Rakuyo Maru to be transported to Japan — the same vessel torpedoed by the Sealion days earlier.

They’d survived the horrors of the Thai-Burma Railway only to find themselves in more peril at sea.

Survivors of the Rakuyo Maru were able to give a detailed account of conditions onboard the vessel.()

The Rakuyo Maru didn’t sink straight away, but took hours to submerge, giving the men and their Japanese captors time to abandon ship.

The Japanese were picked up by their own ships, but many of the Allied prisoners were left to fend for themselves on rafts that became so overloaded they sat inches below the waterline.

When boarding the ship, the men had each been given a block of crude rubber they were told was to be used as a life preserver if the ship sank, but the blocks had no buoyancy — this was just how the Japanese were transporting crude rubber back home.

Rakuyo Maru survivors had already been through hell

Of the 1,300 Allied prisoners onboard the Rakuyo Maru, just 150 were rescued by the Americans, with another 500 picked up again by the Japanese.

The sinking of the Rakuyo Maru and another vessel in the convoy, the Kachidoki Maru, claimed the lives of 542 Australians and more than 1,000 British POWs.

Information on the rescue of POWs was initially kept secret.()

In addition to months of recovery from malnutrition, mistreatment and disease, the 150 Australian survivors of the Rakuyo Maru also underwent months of interrogation.

Lachlan Grant said the men confirmed a tale of horror that had, until then, had only been imagined.

“These guys provided the first eye-witness accounts of the conditions for prisoners of war of the Japanese, so they’d survived the Thai-Burma railway,” Dr Grant said.

“Up to this point in the war there were really only rumours back in Australia about what conditions might be like for prisoners of war, but these were proper eye-witness accounts.”

Details of the sinking of the Rakuyo Maru, the rescue of the men and the details they gave about conditions at the hands of the Japanese were initially suppressed by the Australian government.

The names of those who were recovered were not released and incident was not disclosed to parliament until two months after the vessel was sunk.

“You can imagine what it must have been like for all the families of the 22,000 Australian prisoners of war when you have these survivors who’ve come back who might know one of their relatives. They might know what happened to one of their loved ones,” Lachlan Grant said.

“A lot of people wanted to talk to them. ‘Did you know my brother? Did you know my husband? What happened to him?’ They were quite in demand.”

American code breakers were able to intercept and translate Japanese messages related to the sinking of the Rakuyo Maru.()

It was not revealed until decades later that American commanders in many cases knew that ships being targeted by their own submarines carried Allied prisoners of war.

Unknown to the Japanese — and not revealed until the 1970s — code breakers had successfully deciphered Japanese messages, giving American commanders a rundown of ships in a convoy and what the vessels carried.

“The Rakuyo Maru was in a much larger convoy and the Americans knew which ships were in the convoy and what was onboard, but submarines wouldn’t be able to identify individual ships within the convoy,” Dr Grant said.

“The American [commanders] essentially made the decision not to pass down information to submarine commanders that there were prisoners of war in the convoy because they didn’t want the submarine commanders to be hesitant in their attacks.”

The deaths of 19,000 hell ship prisoners at the hands of their own allies was seen as an unfortunate but acceptable by-product of damaging the Japanese war effort.

We found the wreck. Now what?

The first images of the Montevideo Maru, lying 4,000 metres beneath the surface, were released by Silentworld last week. ()

In the days since the discovery of the wreck of the Montevideo Maru there’s been talk of the closure the discovery brings to the families and descendants of the men who died.

But Joan Beaumont from the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University believes “closure” is a word that is overused. 

“We are talking about grandchildren and great grandchildren and I have questions – some people think unfairly — of this whole idea of closure,” Professor Beaumont said.

“Is it actually grief that these generations are feeling? I think there’s immense curiosity and satisfaction to be had in knowing more so that is something I would caution people to think about.

“Why do we find the discovery of this wreck so significant?”

The wreck of the Montevideo Maru is now a war grave but, lying 4,000 metres below sea level, won’t inspire pilgrimages in the same way Gallipoli or Kokoda does. 

Professor Beaumont, who has previously raised concerns about what she called an excess of commemoration — or “conspicuous commemoration” — is wary about attaching too much significance to the discovery. 

“Now it’s been discovered, what difference does it really make to the process of commemoration?” she said.

“The discovery in some sense completes the story and people do find great satisfaction in that, but I don’t think anyone today really feels grief for those people.”

Professor Beaumont argues, despite the response generated by the discovery of the Montevideo Maru, there’s no great imperative to find other wrecks like the Rakuyo Maru.

“It would be satisfying to know where that wreck was but those men on that ship we know more about. We know about their experience of captivity more.” 

“This whole question of a sea grave, so to speak, people get satisfaction but equally they can’t visit it.”

The remains of a truck from the Montevideo Maru shipwreck.()

The discovery of the Montevideo Maru on the eve of Anzac Day more than 80 years after it was sunk suggests there may be more chapters still to be written in Australia’s prisoner of war story.

“I think it just goes to show that history is ever evolving and that these wrecks are still out there and at some point in time they will be discovered,” Lachlan Grant said.

“We’ve seen the prominence of the story this week. We do remember these events, there are people who remember them and they are a significant part of the Australian story of the Second World War.”


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