Olongapo SubicBay BatangGapo Newscenter

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Wartime sea tragedy to be remembered in Subic

Ailsa Nisbet, 82, along with her daughter Marg Curtis and cousin Ron Hayes, will represent one of 15 Australian families at the July 1 memorial at Subic Bay in the Philippines.

THE hardest thing for families who lost relatives in the sinking of the Montevideo Maru during World War II was not knowing the fate of their loved ones.

But for those families, closure may finally come on Wednesday when a plaque is unveiled at an official ceremony marking Australia's worst maritime tragedy.

Ailsa Nisbet, 82, along with her daughter Marg Curtis and cousin Ron Hayes, will represent one of 15 Australian families at the July 1 memorial at Subic Bay in the Philippines.

They leave Melbourne today to pay respects to Ms Nisbet's brother, Private John "Jack" Groat, who was on board the Montevideo Maru when it sank on July 1, 1942, carrying 845 prisoners of war from Australia's Lark Force and 208 civilian men.

The troops had been taken prisoner after Japan invaded Rabaul in Papua New Guinea in January 1942.

The unmarked Japanese ship left occupied Rabaul on June 22, 1942 but nine days later an American submarine, unaware it was carrying allied prisoners, torpedoed it off the Philippines coast.

The sinking of the ship was not reported back to Australia, and for several years the fate of the prisoners of war was unknown.

Ms Nisbet said for years her brother's fate was a mystery.

"The family was first told he was missing," she said.

"Then they said 'missing presumed dead', then we got a message he was a prisoner of war, then we got a letter from Jack saying he was being looked after by the Japanese.

"But that's all. Mum didn't hear what happened until late 1945. And there is still doubt about it," she said.

In 1997, Ms Nisbet visited Rabaul to see where her brother was stationed and this year Ms Curtis and Mr Hayes completed a three-day trek retracing the escape many Lark Force men made during Japanese occupation.

"It's a very emotional trip," Ms Nisbet said.

"It's been many, many years and nothing has been heard of the Montevideo Maru and it's just all coming out now.

"I'm the last member of the family and it will be a closure for me to go up there."

Former federal Labor leader Kim Beazley, whose uncle Reverend Sydney Beazley was lost on the ship, is the patron of the Montevideo Maru Memorial Committee.

Phil Ainsworth, in the Philippines for the event, said the committee aimed to get more national recognition for the tragedy.

"This memorial will give the families some comfort because even now 67 years later they still feel discomforted and in grief," he said.

Another attendee is Andrea Williams, whose grandfather and great uncle were on board. She wants a government response similar to that for the recently found HMAS Sydney, another World War II sea tragedy that claimed 645 lives.

"There is a fair amount of literature on the Montevideo sinking but there are some nagging specifics, like why there was no inquiry into the fate of these men," she said.

Australian archives had several passenger lists but they were inconsistent and there was no passenger manifest, she said.

"What has happened to the nominal roll of the men apparently on board?"

Veterans' Affairs Minister Alan Griffin marked the 67th anniversary of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru in a speech to Parliament last Friday.

Mr Griffin said the Australian Government put $7200 towards the memorial and the Australian ambassador to the Philippines, Rod Smith, will attend.

"I've spoken to individuals who lost family members as part of the Montevideo Maru and I know these things remain with people forever," he said.

"I express my heartfelt sympathy for their loss." By Ilya Gridneff AAP - The Age

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