Research Team Discovers Wreck of WWII-Era Japanese Ship That Sank With Over 1,000 POWs

The Australian government has announced that the wreck of the Japanese auxiliary ship Montevideo Maru has been located in the South China Sea. The announcement comes nearly 81 years after the vessel, carrying over 1,000 prisoners of war (POW), was taken out by the USS Sturgeon (SS-187) during a transport mission, resulting in one of the worst maritime disasters of the Second World War.

Montevideo Maru at sea
Montevideo Maru, pre-1941. (Photo Credit: Unknown Author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The announcement was made by the Australian government on April 22, 2023. The discovery was made via a joint effort by the Australian Defence Force, the not-for-profit Silentworld Foundation and Dutch deep-sea survey specialists Fugro. According to the press release, the wreck is located over 4,000 meters below sea level, meaning it’s deeper than the RMS Titanic.

The search for Montevideo Maru took 12 days and required the use of an autonomous underwater vehicle equipped with sonar. It comes over a decade after the families of those who perished in the sinking formed the Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society and called upon the Australian government to search for the lost Japanese vessel.

To verify the wreck’s identity, the Silentworld Foundation used expert analysis from archaeologists, ex-naval officers, research specialists and conservators.

Memorial to Australian soldiers who fought and lost their lives in World War II
Memorial to the Australian soldiers who gave their lives for the defense of Rabaul and who perished in the sinking of Montevideo Maru. (Photo Credit: Nick-D / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Montevideo Maru was a Japanese auxiliary ship that conducted a number of transport missions during the Second World War, largely of civilians and POWs. The vessel also notably participated in the invasion of Celebes between February 6-16, 1942.

A few months following the Japanese victory during the Battle of Rabaul, on June 22, 1942, Montevideo Maru was tasked with transporting 1,054 POWs, the majority of which were Australian, to Japanese-occupied Hainan. The unescorted ship was in the middle of her journey when she was sighted by the US Navy submarine USS Sturgeon near the Philippine coast eight days later.

Sturgeon tailed Montevideo Maru over the course of the day. At around midnight on July 1, the Japanese vessel slowed to meet up with two destroyers, creating the opportune moment for the American submarine to strike. Unaware the vessel was carrying Allied POWs, as she wasn’t marked as a prisoner transport ship, Sturgeon‘s crew fired four torpedoes. One struck Montevideo Maru, causing her to sink in the South China Sea.

The POWs being held on the ship were killed in the incident, as were several members of her crew. The sinking of Montevideo Maru has since been dubbed the worst maritime incident in Australia’s history.

Montevideo Maru at sea
Montevideo Maru, 1941. (Photo Credit: Unknown Author / Australian War Memorial’s Collection Database / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The wreck appears to be in relatively good condition, considering how long she’s been at the bottom of the South China Sea. While her canvas and wood have since rotted, her metal components are largely intact.

“Families waited years for news of their missing loved ones, before learning of the tragic outcome of the sinking,” John Mullens, the director of the Silentworld Foundation, said in the media release. “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.”

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese added, “The extraordinary effort behind this discovery speaks for the enduring truth of Australia’s solemn national promise to always remember and honour those who served our country. This is the heart and the spirit of Lest We Forget.”

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