Tuesday, 28 November 2023
Statements on Indulgence
ALBANESE (—) (): Last night at the Australian War Memorial I had the privilege of attending a dinner commemorating the sinking of the Montevideo Maru on 1 July 1942. After that event, which was attended by the Chief of Army and the Chief of Navy, I had a discussion with the shadow minister for defence about raising it here in parliament today, because I really think that this is a story that needs greater reflection and knowledge amongst the Australian people, paying respect to the almost 1,000 Australians who perished in what was our nation's worst ever maritime disaster. Last night, on every table, were family members honouring their loved ones and signifying the long vigil they have kept in service of their memories.
The Montevideo Maru was a Japanese vessel known as a hell ship, carrying prisoners of war in horrendous confinement. It was unmarked as a prison transport and was torpedoed by the USS Sturgeon, which was not aware that the Montevideo Maru was carrying allied prisoners of war. It sank in 11 minutes.
Think about this figure: more Australian soldiers died in those 11 minutes than in the entirety of the Vietnam War—in 11 minutes. Remarkably, it was not until Anzac Day this year that, through the work of the Silentworld Foundation, the final resting place of those lost souls was known at last. It was, literally, a remarkable find. It was at a depth of nearly 4,200 metres, deeper than the wreck of the Titanic.
The Australians lost to the sea that day were a mixture of interned civilians who'd made a home in Rabaul in New Guinea and soldiers from Lark Force who had been garrisoned there in 1941 and taken as prisoners of war when the Japanese invasion came in January 1942. All were malnourished and many gravely ill, captive in some of the most brutal conditions imaginable. Yet in their final letters home their only thoughts were for those at home, providing words of reassurance and hope, love and comfort:
"Please do not worry about me, as I am alright."
"Don't know when I'll be able to write again, but keep your chin well up my beloved."
"Look after yourself. I love you. Kiss Vicki for me."
… … …
"Keep the old bike in good nick, as I will need it again."
"Don't worry. Cheerio."
These letters, showing that great Australian spirit, were written by factory workers and farmhands, sporting stars and members of the Salvation Army band.
We heard last night there were relatives, three brothers, who all perished at the same time. It's quite extraordinary. They were mainly from Victoria, but from Western Australia, from Claremont, from Middle Park, from Traralgon, from a range of areas right around Australia.
These letters were sent home, and, of course, the relatives didn't know what had happened to them. It was a long, long time away until, in October 1945, official telegrams informed families their loved ones became missing on 1 July 1942 and were presumed dead.
The final story belongs to the last living member of the Japanese crew, and the Japanese ambassador joined us there last night, along with other members of the diplomatic corps. Sixty years after that fateful day, he spoke of how, as the ship sank, groups of Australians clinging to pieces of wreckage in the water sang Auld Lang Syne for their brothers already below. Until the end, their thoughts were of others.
Last night was one of those nights that, as public officeholders, we have the great privilege of seeing the best of Australia. There was a video shown of the oldest survivor, who is 103—who wanted to come, but was unfortunately unable to. But the video that has been done of it is quite remarkable.
To John Mullen in particular—the work that he has done is quite remarkable; it makes a difference to all of these families. To the Australian War Memorial—it is a sacred site in this country, and there was nowhere better to have what was a commemoration but also a celebration last night. Today, we, as a parliament, show that we have not forgotten those on the Montevideo Maru. We bring them to mind. We honour them. As we say: We will remember them. Lest we forget.
on indulgence—I was very glad to represent the Leader of the Opposition last night at the Silentworld Foundation dinner at the Australian War Memorial. Prime Minister, thank you for the opportunity to speak today, because this is special to my family.
It was a special night for all the families of the more than 1,000 Australian prisoners of war lost in Philippine waters aboard the SS Montevideo Maru on 1 July 1942, the worst maritime loss of life in Australian history. Many families were shattered by the loss of loved ones, the grief passing through the generations. Yet, after more than 80 years, the final resting place of the Montevideo was found this year on 18 April at a depth of over 4,000 metres, deeper than that of the Titanic. The final resting place of so many Australians thought to be known only to God was revealed at last to the relief of many families.
Last night, while sombre, was also a time for celebration, as the Prime Minister has noted, a time to celebrate that those once lost are now found. And on behalf of the Montevideo families, I thank the Silentworld Foundation team, led very ably by John and Jacqui Mullen, explorers of the deep who made it their mission to find our lost family and friends. We honour the team who went to sea, partnering with Fugro and the Australian Department of Defence. What seemed impossible—locating a lost ship at such depth—they made possible, and we thank them for it. We also thank Andrea Williams, chair of the Rabaul and Montevideo Meru group, for her tireless advocacy on behalf of the families.
I'd like to make two final points. The tragedy of the Montevideo Maru reminds us how costly war can be. The sinking of the ship was shrouded in the fog of war, as the Japanese flagged Montevideo was sunk by the USS Sturgeon with its final war shot after embarking on patrol from Fremantle in Western Australia. The USS Sturgeon was defending Australia during its darkest hour in 1942. Our loss reminds us that peace is something to be protected, which is why we welcome, once again, the presence of US submarines in Western Australia from 2027. Peace through strength is how we avoid a repeat of the Montevideo tragedy.
Finally, the Montevideo Maru has touched members of this House. Our former Prime Minister, Earle Page, lost his brother, Harold Page, the then deputy administrator of Papua New Guinea. Kim Beazley lost his uncle, the Reverend Syd Beazley, of the Methodist mission. Peter Garrett lost his grandfather, Tom Garrett. I lost my great-uncle, Private Neill Ross Callaghan, who perished with his brother-in-law, James Walker, leaving behind his young beautiful widow, Nell, who felt the hammer blow of double bereavement—left to mourn the loss of her husband and brother. I grew up sensing the sadness in my grandparents whenever Uncle Neill's name was mentioned. For this reason, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to the House and honour our fallen as well as the great team at Silentworld, who, in a sense, have returned them to us. Lest we forget.