- By Lawrence Peter
- BBC News
Deep sea explorers have discovered the wreck of a Japanese transport ship that sank off the Philippines, killing nearly 1,000 Australian soldiers and civilians in World War II.
It was Australia’s worst maritime disaster: an American submarine torpedoed the ship, unaware that it was full of prisoners captured in Papua New Guinea.
The Montevideo Maro sank in July 1942.
An estimated 979 Australians were killed, along with 33 Norwegian sailors and 20 Japanese rangers and crew.
The Australian marine archeology group, Silentworld Foundation, organized the mission, with help from a Dutch deep-sea survey company called Fugro.
The wreck was located by an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) at a depth of more than 4,000 meters (13,123 ft) – deeper than the wreck of the Titanic.
“It’s a war grave now, it’s a grave that must be treated with proper respect,” Captain Roger Turner, a technical specialist on the search team, told the BBC.
He said the closest the AUV got to the wreckage was 45 meters away.
“It was a moving moment to see the pictures of the ship, the closed hatch covers where the prisoners were held on the voyage.”
Silentworld said: The wreckage will not be disturbed – human remains or artifacts will not be removed.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said that “the resting place of the missing souls in the Montevideo Maro has finally been found”.
“We hope today’s news will bring some measure of comfort to loved ones who have been sober for so long.”
The ship was sunk by torpedoes from USS Sturgeon and went down quickly.
After being hit, Captain Turner, speaking on the phone from the search vessel, said that the Montevideo Maru assumed a steep angle within six minutes and disappeared beneath the waves within 11 minutes. Only three lifeboats were launched and 102 Japanese crew and guards rowed to the Philippines.
Silentworld director John Mullen said families have “waited years for news of their missing loved ones”.
“Today, by finding the ship, we hope to close the many families devastated by this terrible disaster.”
Silentworld says an estimated total of 1,089 victims came from 14 countries and it was not possible to trace all of their relatives. But it says descendants of victims can register with the Australian Defense Force to get updates on the investigation and future anniversaries.
The search began on April 6 in the South China Sea, 110 kilometers (68 miles) northwest of Luzon in the Philippines, and the wreck was located 12 days later.
Then it took several days to verify the wreck using expert analysis from marine archaeologists, conservationists, and other professionals, including former Navy officers.
Scans of the wreck, including the hold, fore bow and bow, and identical features shown in the ship’s drawings.
Captain Turner told the BBC the team were “euphoric”.
“Many years were invested in this, and more than that, the descendants of the victims numbered in the thousands. Two who were on the ship spent most of their lives researching the events, tracing down as many victims as they could.”
Capt. Turner said the people of Rabaul in Papua New Guinea – a strategic center captured by the Japanese in 1942 – still feel their connection to the Montevideo Maru disaster “very strongly today”.
“They made it clear how important this is to the grandchildren,” he said.
Sadness at the scale of the disaster was tempered by the team’s joy at locating the ship.
“We’re looking at the graves of more than 1,000 people,” John Mullen told ABC News Australia.
“We lost nearly twice that number [Australians] As with the entire Vietnam War, so extraordinarily important for families and grandchildren.”
“We had two people on board who had family members who were missing, so while there were cheers on one side, there were some tears on the other side. It was very emotional.”
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