- Wright, Ken
- History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2009 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Historian Bruce Gamble recreates as accurately as possible the horrors experienced by the prisoners during the eleven minutes it took for the ship to sink.
‘Aboard the Montevideo Maru, the crew and naval guards scrambled for their lives. Those not on duties had been jolted awake in the morning darkness by explosions and alarms; now they groped along passageways in absolute darkness, searching for exits. The lights came on for only a minute or two after the torpedo struck, and then oil from the ruptured tank spilled into the engine room forcing the engineers to deliberately shut down all power. Some of the crewmen made it to the lifeboat stations as there were three on each side of the superstructure and two more along each side of the aft deckhouse. But because the ship was listing rapidly and going down by the stern, only three lifeboats on the starboard side of the superstructure had a prayer of being launched. The sailors weren’t quick enough. Within six minutes, the ship’s bow had risen high out of the water and all three lifeboats capsized from their davits with one sustaining damage.
There is no evidence that any of the hatch covers were unfastened during the eleven minutes that the Montevideo Maru remained afloat. The Japanese were only concerned in saving their own lives and callously left the trapped POWs to die . . . Dozens got safely into the water, but twenty crewmen or guards were killed by the explosions or drowned. The surviving Japanese righted the capsized lifeboats and climbed aboard. One boatload headed west, the other two remained more or less stationary until daylight, and then headed east towards Luzon. For the prisoners down in the pitch-black holds, those last eleven minutes were measured quite differently. If any men were confined in the aft two holds, they didn’t suffer long. Those not killed outright by the exploding torpedo would have been knocked senseless by its concussion effects and then quickly drowned as tons of seawater rushed in.
The truly unfortunate victims were those in the forward holds. Before the end came, they endured eleven minutes of mind-bending terror. No one could see what was happening; they could only feel the ship canting steeply and their ears were assaulted by the screech of collapsing bulkheads and painful pressure changes as air was forced from flooded places. Some probably attempted to reach the hatches but as they groped upwards, they found no escape. The effects of adrenalin gave them strength only for a short time then as their black world tilted even more, they slid aft and piled up against the lowest bulkhead. Under the crush of filthy bodies, those at the bottom quickly lost consciousness. The panic that surely accompanied those final few minutes can only be imagined. Sentimentalists would like to believe that some of the prisoners calmly faced their impending death but the circumstances strongly suggest that a contagious, mass hysteria swept through the black holds. And who could blame the victims. They were plunged into an unfathomable nightmare with each second filled with the sounds of water rushing in and the ship breaking apart. As the minutes wore on, the men who were still conscious would have instinctively tried to claw their way upward, their shouts and screams only adding to the freakish pandemonium. The terror and their ordeal mercifully ended at 0240 with a final hiss of foul smelling air as the bow of the Montevideo Maru slid beneath the waves.’
A few of the Japanese who so callously abandoned the helpless prisoners to a certain death managed to survive. In a 2003 interview for Australian television, the last known survivor, Yoshiaki Yamaji, a Japanese sailor, described people jumping into oil covered water from the ship which was leaning to starboard and the screams of the doomed trapped in the holds. An estimated 71 Japanese died. Of the 1,050 POWs and civilian internees, there were no known survivors. Japanese accounts record the captain of the Montevideo Maru and approximately ten crew in one lifeboat who managed to make it to shore somewhere on the Philippine coast but some were killed, including the captain, by Filipino guerrillas. Five survived and set out towards Manila, two died en route but three made it safely and reported the sinking. A rescue mission was dispatched but found nothing. Too much time had elapsed.