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Australia’s most tragic shipwreck site located

Montevideo Maru, seen in 1941
Montevideo Maru, seen in 1941

The wreck of WW2 Japanese transport ship Montevideo Maru, sunk by a US submarine in what is regarded as Australia’s worst maritime disaster, has been found more than 4km deep in the South China Sea off Luzon in the Philippines.

The captain and crew of USS Sturgeon were unaware of who was being transported by the unmarked Japanese vessel. The submarine stalked the the 7,267-ton Montevideo Maru through the night and, using four torpedoes, sank it in little more than 10 minutes before dawn on 1 July, 1942.

Also read: Where did Blythe Star go? 50-year mystery solved

USS Sturgeon (US Navy) the submarine that unwittingly torpedoed a ship full of Australian prisoners of war
The submarine USS Sturgeon (US Navy)

It later emerged that 845 Australian prisoners of war and 209 civilians, some from other countries but all captured in the Battle of Rabaul in what was then New Guinea a few months earlier, had been onboard. The only survivors were around 20 of the 88 Japanese guards and crew.

The wreck was discovered following nearly five years of research and planning by the Sydney-based Silentworld Foundation, led by Australian businessman, maritime-history philanthropist and explorer John Mullen. The foundation supports and promotes Australasian maritime archaeology, history, culture and heritage.

Silentworld worked on the project with Dutch deep-sea survey specialist Fugro, using its vessel Fugro Equator, supported by the Rabaul & Montevideo Maru Society and Australia’s Department of Defence.

‘Terrible chapter’

The wreck was found 110km north-west of Luzon on 18 April, following a 12-day search using an AUV with in-built sonar-scanning. The project team of maritime archaeologists, conservators, operations and research specialists and ex-naval officers were able to identify the wreck from the emerging images. The site has been recorded but will not be disturbed.

How the AUV scans lined up with plans of the Montevideo Maru (Silentworld Foundation / Fugro)
How the AUV imagery identified the Montevideo Maru (Silentworld Foundation / Fugro)

“The discovery of the Montevideo Maru closes a terrible chapter in Australian military and maritime history,” commented Mullen. “Families waited years for news of their missing loved ones, before learning of the tragic outcome of the sinking. Some never fully came to accept that their loved ones were among the victims. 

“Today, by finding the vessel, we hope to bring closure to the many families devastated by this terrible disaster… I am proud to be the citizen of a country that never forgets or stops looking for those lost in the course of duty, no matter how many years may pass.”

First commandos

Brothers Sidney, Dudley and Daryl Turner had all been part of the 1st Independent Company, Australia’s first commandos, and died together in the tragedy. Their descendant Andrea Williams, who helped to found the Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society in 2009, was onboard Fugro Equator when the shipwreck was located.

“Having had a grandfather and great-uncle as civilian internees on Montevideo Maru always meant the story was important to me, as it is to so many generations of families whose men perished,” she said. “Being part of the Silentworld team that has found the wreck has been both hugely emotional and also fulfilling.”

Relatives of more than 20 victims of the sinking had already thanked Silentworld on its Facebook page within hours of news of the discovery being shared.

“The Australian soldiers, sailors and aviators who had fought to defend Rabaul had enlisted from across the country to serve, and met a terrible fate at sea on the Montevideo Maru,” said Australian Army chief Lt-General Simon Stuart. 

“Today we remember their service, and the loss of all those aboard, including the 20 Japanese guards and crew, the Norwegian sailors and the hundreds of civilians from many nations… A loss like this reaches down through the decades and reminds us all of the human cost of conflict. Lest we forget.”

In 2009 Silentworld solved a 180-year mystery by locating the wreck-site of HMCS Mermaid, lost on a Queensland reef in 1829, and in 2017 helped in locating Australia’s first submarine HMAS AE1.

Diver death in Malapascua

An American scuba diver has died on one of the regular early-morning dives at Kimod Shoal to watch thresher sharks off the Philippines island of Malapascua.

Mark Alan Shea, 67, was diving with a divemaster and two other overseas divers at around 7.20am yesterday (21 April). About six minutes into the dive the guide saw him start to sink, retrieved him and brought him to the surface unconscious. 

CCR was applied on the boat, which was about 30 minutes out from Malapascua. Shea was declared dead after further attempts to resuscitate him at a hospital in Daanbantayan on mainland Cebu. Police were awaiting permission from Shea’s relatives to carry out a post mortem examination.

Also on Divernet: Deep Historic War Wrecks Located In Philippines, Virtual Dive On WW2 Japanese Submarine, Vescovo Dives World’s Deepest Shipwreck Sammy B, History Made With Deepest Wreck Dive

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