Sacrificed freedom to help close friend

MOYSTON - It was the worst maritime disaster in Australia's history, yet many of us have never heard of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru.

The Japanese auxiliary vessel was torpedoed by the USS Sturgeon, an Allied submarine, off the northern coast of the Philippines before dawn on July 1.

The submarine captain was unaware that 845 prisoners of war - mostly from the Australian Army's Lark Force - and 208 civilian internees were embarked on the ship from Rabaul, New Guinea on June 22, 1942.

All 1053 Australians met with death in the South China Sea. The only survivors were members of the Japanese crew and it is believed most of the Australians were still locked in the ship's holds as it went down.

Among the Australian civilians to die was Trevor Collett. Trevor was a family friend of Moyston resident Geoff Atkins, who was born in Rabaul in 1933.

Trevor was arrested by the Japanese when he sought medical help for Geoff's father, Arthur, who became ill while trying to escape New Guinea and return to Australia. The pair had failed to evacuate in time after the Japanese invaded Rabaul on January 23, 1942.

It was the night of the attack on Pearl Harbour that the Atkins and Collett families knew something was wrong.

They had heard rumblings in Kavieng on a supply run from the Atkins' home on Massau Island, a 10-hour boat trip with good seas.

Geoff, his parents and sister Lois spent the night at the Colletts' home on Emirau Island. When they returned to port the next morning, they were told they had left it too late to leave.

Eventually they were advised to report to authorities in Rabaul, where there was a fast boat to evacuate women and children and a slower boat for the men.

"We expected the fast boat to be the Queen Mary or something in that class," Geoff said.

"Well the fast boat turned out to be the good old BP's (Burns Philp) ship the Macdhui, well cared for. What normally took 14 days from Rabaul to Sydney, she accomplished - despite zig zagging - in eight days."

Arthur and Trevor returned to Massau and Emira until they heard the radio call to leave.

"They travelled at night nearly to Put Put, when they met the (mission ship) Veilomani coming out of Rugen Harbour (Put Put). They were loaded with a large number escaping," Geoff said.

"Dad got some more refugees and set out after the Veilomani, travelling again at night. Apparently some observant Japanese pilot realised these two islands were moving and shouldn't have been there anyway, so the two boats were torpedoed and all had to swim ashore."

Geoff said Arthur suffered from chronic asthma and that his heart was weakened by the effort of swimming.

"As a result he was very poorly and insisted that the other 30 or so men go on. He would return to Put Put and the boys at our school there would care for him," Geoff said.

"At that, Trevor Collett insisted that if Dad stayed he would stay with him. Subsequently as Dad's heart deteriorated, Uncle Trevor said, 'We have to get you some help - we have to go to the Japanese'.

They surrendered at nearby Kokopo.

Trevor was arrested and put to work on the docks, while Arthur was sent to Vunapope Hospital. His health got worse and he died on March 13, 1942, just a few days shy of his 42nd birthday.

"Dad is buried in Vunapope Cemetery and I understand is the only non-Catholic in it," Geoff said.

"Trevor of course was on the Montevideo Maru, along with others we knew. There is no doubt that in Trevor's case he had sacrificed his chance at freedom to help his friend."

For almost 70 years, mystery surrounded the sinking of the prison boat. There was no formal inquiry, no recognition of the men's service and no closure for families.

"It was not recognised properly by the government until two years ago," Geoff said.

The Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society was established in 2009 to represent the interests of the families of soldiers and civilians captured in Rabaul and the New Guinea islands. It is largely responsible for gaining national recognition for the tragedy.

Geoff is a member of the society and is pleased to be travelling to Canberra with his sister, Lois for Sunday's official unveiling of the Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Memorial.

It will be unveiled by Governor General Quentin Bryce at the Australian War Memorial, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru.

The National Archives of Australia will also commemorate Australia's worst maritime disaster on Sunday by launching a new website.

The website will feature the Archives' recently acquired list of those on board the Montevideo Maru when the vessel was sunk. It is considered to be the most complete list available to date.

The website will also include links to individual service records and other material in the National Archives' collection relating to people on the list.

Australians will be able to search for family members on the list and link to additional materials the National Archives holds about many of those on board. They can also add their own photographs and stories as a tribute to their loved ones.

To do so, visit http://montevideomaru.naa.gov.au

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