Remembering Australia’s worst maritime disaster

The Schiffmann family in 1904.THE Montevideo Maru, Australia’s worst and least known maritime disaster, will be remembered in a memorial service this weekend.

The service will be held at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra on Sunday. It will be attended by hundreds of relatives of those who lost their lives.

One of the relatives is Armidale man Michael Fittler.

Mr Fittler is the great-nephew of Australian commando and World War 2 serviceman, Harry Francis Schiffmann.

Private Schiffmann was most likely captured in the aftermath of the Japanese invasion of Papua New Guinea in the Battle of Rabaul during World War 2.

After the invasion the Japanese transported more than 1000 Australian prisoners, 845 prisoners of war and 208 civilian internees, on an unmarked transport ship, the Montevideo Maru.

The ship set off on June 24, 1942, unescorted on the way to the Japanese occupied Chinese island of Hainan.

On June 30, however, the ship was spotted by an American submarine, the USS Sturgeon.

On July 1, The Sturgeon, not knowing of the Australian prisoners on board, fired four torpedoes and sank the Montevideo Maru before dawn.

Only 18 of the 88 Japanese crew members survived, and no Australians survived the attack.

The Japanese captain, ewho survived, recalled in 2003 how the Australians sang Auld Lang Syne to their countrymen and countrywomen on board as the ship went down.

The Montevideo Maru disaster was little known at the time and very little was done publicly to investigate the disaster until after the war.

Families were not even notified of their loved ones’ death until after the war.

“The Allies actually sank the ship so I think there was some secrecy, a bit of ‘let’s not tell everybody about this, it happened, put it away, we’ll get one with our lives and get over the war and the less people that know about that the better’,” Mr Fittler said.

He found the story of his great-uncle while researching his family history.

The family historian is related to Mr Schiffmann on his mother’s side.

Mr Fittler never knew his great-uncle but he thought finding out that he likely died on the Montevideo Maru would give his mother some closure.

However, as Mr Fittler acknowledges, no one can be certain who was killed on the Montevideo Maru, as well as in the invasion.

The Japanese did not keep records of prisoners on the Montevideo Maru, meaning it is difficult to be certain who died where.

“Part of me wonders, but I think it gives Mum closure … her father never ever knew what happened to him,” Mr Fittler said.

“All they heard was that he was dead.”

He said that by going to the memorial service, he may be able to finally find out what happened to Mr Schiffmann.

Almost as many died on the Montevideo Maru as those that lost their lives on the Titanic.

Due to the secrecy surrounding an act of friendly fire, it has remained largely unknown. It seems the Montevideo Maru may be equal parts tragedy and lesson, especially to Mr Fittler.

“I think it’s a long, distant memory, but I think it’s one that Australia should always remember so it doesn’t happen again,” he said.

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