Below is my author note from Elizabeth's Star. The story of the men who perished on the Montevideo Maru is the reason I started writing and finally after years of research, writing, editing and publishing, readers are learning about the events surrounding Rabaul, New Guinea during World War II.
In January 1941, my grandfather, James McGowan, enlisted for service at Kelvin Grove, Brisbane. His unit was the Australian Army Ordnance Corps, which would later become part of Lark Force. On the 10th of March that same year, he was ‘marched out to duty – Rabaul, New Britain’, leaving behind a young wife and five children. At the time, my mother, Margaret, was twelve years old; her father used a school atlas to show her and the rest of the family where he was going. They weren’t allowed to tell anyone. He was going to build observation structures and do maintenance work — he would be back home in six months.
When the Japanese forces invaded New Britain on 23 January 1942, the small garrison of Lark Force was supposed to defend Rabaul against overwhelming odds. Australian women and children had been evacuated in the weeks prior, but others had not been given the option to leave.
The ill-equipped Australian force of 1500 soldiers fought gallantly in an attempt to turn the tide of the advancing Japanese, who completed well-coordinated attacks with their navy, air force and army. With no sign of backup or support from the Australian government, the assessment of the situation by the head of the unit, Lieutenant-Colonel John Scanlan, was that the situation was hopeless. His subsequent orders were, ‘Every man for himself’. Members of Lark Force and the civilians of Rabaul retreated into the jungle, scattering in every direction as they searched for an escape route through the thick rainforest and treacherous terrain. Struggling with malaria, dysentery, malnutrition and exhaustion, some made their way to points where they could escape on small boats to the New Guinea mainland. Others perished in the jungles of New Britain.
One hundred and seventy men made their way to Tol Plantation, hoping to be rescued. However, Japanese forces were waiting for them, and the Australians had no choice but to surrender. Only six of those 170 men survived the surrender at Tol; the rest of the Australians were shot, bayoneted or beheaded.
In the occupied township of Rabaul, 1053 Australian troops, along with other residents of Rabaul and the nurses who remained, were held as prisoners of war. On 22 June 1942, 845 military personnel and 209 civilians were marched down to the wharf at Rabaul and loaded into the holds of the Japanese ship, Montevideo Maru. The ship was unmarked and—en route to Hainan Island, off the coast of southern China—was torpedoed and sunk by an American submarine, the USS Sturgeon. All on board perished. This tragedy remains the greatest loss of Australian lives at sea.
Margaret was sixteen when the war ended. She remembers all those years her father was away, and the telegram that arrived in 1942 announcing he was ‘missing in action’. Every night she would listen to the radio for the names of current prisoners of war. Perhaps she would hear her father’s name, and know he was alive and where he was. In October 1945, more than a month after the war ended, the family finally received a telegram announcing their father, James McGowan, QX64913, had been on board the Japanese prisoner-of-war ship, the Montevideo Maru, which was torpedoed by an American submarine. There were no survivors.
For many years there was confusion around the plight of those left in Rabaul. The ship’s list was missing, and the families given either varied versions or no further information about where the ship and the bodies of their loved ones lay. Today, families can look at the ship’s roll, written in Japanese and transcribed into English. It is moving to read the names of those who were on board, the names of men who were, as many say, left behind as ‘hostages to freedom’, disregarded by an Australian government who made no plans to either evacuate them or to send any reinforcements or rescue crews after the invasion.
Like so many other families, my mother and her siblings may never really know what happened to their father, who they thought would only be gone for a matter of months. The following story is a work of fiction and is not James’ story. It does, however, feature actual events and a depiction of what life was like for those who were in Rabaul, those who escaped, and those who waited to learn the plight of their loved ones.
Lest We Forget