- Wright, Ken
- History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2009 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
With rising concern about the threat of Japanese militarism in the Asia-Pacific region, the Australian Chiefs of Staff sent the 2/22 Battalion AIF to Rabaul, the capital of Australian Mandated Territory of New Guinea on 25 April, 1941. Codenamed ‘Lark Force’ the bulk of the troops tasked to defend Rabaul comprised 900 men and officers. This was later increased to about 1400. The additions included approximately 150 men and officers from the 1st Independent Company based on nearby New Ireland, a detachment from 2/10 Field Ambulance, six Army nurses, an anti-tank and anti-aircraft battery and a coastal artillery battery plus a number of militia from the New Guinea Rifles.
Ten Wirraway and four Hudson aircraft from 24 RAAF Squadron arrived just as Japan attacked the American naval base in Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The war in the Pacific had begun. The Chiefs of Staff had sent this token force in the full knowledge that it stood no chance of holding any Japanese attack.
The Japanese bombing of Rabaul began on 4 January and continued on a daily basis until their invasion force stormed ashore at Rabaul’s Blanche Bay just after midnight on 23 January 1942. Despite a fierce but brief fight, the outnumbered defenders were overwhelmed and had no choice but to surrender. The Air Force managed to get away but the army had to remain.
Approximately 400 soldiers and a number of civilians attempted to escape southward to New Guinea. Most of the remaining troops and several hundred civilians including the six Army nurses were captured. At the Tol Plantation on the narrow neck of the islands Gazelle Peninsula, Japanese forces rounded up 158 Australian soldiers and massacred them. Only a few survived to inform the authorities of the atrocity. The loss of Rabaul had robbed the Allies of an excellent naval and air base for launching attacks against the Japanese fleet at Truk, 2800 kilometres north of the Caroline Islands. Truk was the base of the Japanese Navy’s Fourth Fleet from November 1939 until July 1942 when it became the forward Headquarters of the Japanese Combined Fleet until February 1944.
On June 22, approximately 845 service personnel and 208 civilians were herded aboard the 7,266 ton Montevideo Maru at Rabaul where they had been interned since the Japanese invasion. Amongst the civilians were 32 Norwegian seamen from the merchant ship Herstein, sunk in Rabaul harbour, and 31 missionaries. To run the ship and control the prisoners, 71 Japanese crew and 62 naval guards also went aboard. The ship was bound for Hainan Island located at the southern end of China, with the possibility of an onward voyage to Japan. Not included amongst those loaded aboard were the Lark Force officers and the six Army nurses. They were to be the lucky ones as they were successfully transported to Japan aboard the Naruto Maru two weeks later.
Eight days into the voyage, in the early hours of 1 July 1942, the Montevideo Maru was spotted off the coast of Luzon in the Philippines by the patrolling American submarine USS Sturgeon, commanded by Lt Commander William L [Bull] Wright.
Extract from USS Sturgeon Commander’s log book:
30 June 1942
Patrolling northwest of Bojeador as before. Dove at dawn, surfaced at dusk. At 2216 sighted a darkened ship to southward at first, due to bearing on which sighted, believed him to be on northerly course, but after a few minutes observation it was evident he was on a westerly course, and going at high speed. Put on all engines and worked up to full power, proceeding to westward in attempt to get ahead of him. For an hour and a half we couldn’t make a nickel. This fellow was really going, making at least 17 knots and probably a bit more, as he appeared to be zigzagging. At this time it looked a bit hopeless, but determined to hang on in the hope he would slow down or change course towards us. His range at this time was estimated at around 13,000 yards. Sure enough, about midnight he slowed to about 12 knots. After that it was easy.
1 July 1942.
Proceeding to intercept target as before. Altered course to gain position ahead of him, dove at 0146. When he got in periscope range, it could be seen that he was larger than first believed, also that his course was a little to the left of west, leaving us some 5,000 yards off the track. Was able to close some 1,000 yards of this, and then turned to fire stern tubes as;  Only 3 tubes available forward and at this range and with large target 4 fish spread desirable. After tubes had ‘700’ heads while heads forward were small ones. At 0225 fired four-torpedo spread, range 4,000 yards from after tubes. At 0229 heard and observed explosion about 75-100 feet abaft stack. [One of the torpedoes with a 700 pound warhead exploded against the starboard hull ripping open holds 4 and five.] At 0240 observed ship sink stern first. 0250 surfaced, proceeded to eastward, completing battery charge. Ship believed to be Rio de Janeiro Maru, or very similar type, although it is possible it was a larger ship; he was a big one. A few lights were observed on deck just after the explosion, but there was apparently no power available, and his bow was well up in the air in 6 minutes. Dove at dawn. No further contact.