Remembrance Day 2009- Commemorative Address by Ambassador Rod Smith
Subic Bay Hellships Memorial
11 November 2009
Distinguished guests, veterans, ladies and gentlemen.
I have the honour to deliver this address on behalf of the Australian Minister for Veterans Affairs, the Hon Allan Griffin MP. Mr Griffin had planned to attend this service in person but only late last week was prevented from joining us due to unavoidable commitments in Australia. I know he would want me to convey his respects and best wishes, particularly to all the veterans gathered here.
Ninety one years ago today, the guns on the western front fell silent, ending four years of bloody conflict. But the hope and vision of the peacemakers back then, that the Great War would be the “war to end all wars”, was not to come to pass – battlefields and war graves across Europe, the Pacific, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, lie in testament to the fact that tyranny, greed, prejudice and terrorism still threaten, and must still be opposed by freedom loving peoples everywhere.
Remembrance Day was originally conceived to honour the sacrifice, suffering, and ultimate victory of those men and women who fought in the First World War. Over the years as subsequent conflicts occurred, this day has come to be the day we honour all veterans and remember all the victims of war.
Today we are honoured to have with us many veterans from Australia, the Philippines, the United States and New Zealand, to share this moment with us, and to receive, once again, our thanks for their dedicated service and sacrifice. I particularly welcome families and descendents of veterans who gather with us in solemn reflections of courage and commitment; of loss and suffering; of service.
At today’s ceremony in Subic Bay, we especially commemorate those who perished on the hell ships, and in particular those onboard the Rakuyo Maru and on the Montevideo Maru, which sunk off the coast of the Philippines on 01 July, 1942.
1053 people perished with the Montevideo Maru that day, each with their own story. It is the adding together of each of these stories that makes this incident not only Australia’s worst maritime disaster, but one of intense personal loss made all the more painful for the families of the victims who did not know for years what had happened.
One of the men on board the ship was Arthur Gullidge, from Broken Hill in New South Wales.
Gullidge’s passion was music. Before the war, he was a prolific and acclaimed composer and was the leader of the Brunswick Salvation Army Band in Victoria from 1933.
That same year he won his first major music prize – the prestigious National Composition Award – presented by the Australian Broadcasting Commission.
During the war’s early years, Gullidge, a pacifist and member of the Salvation Army, was torn between wanting to serve but not wanting to be a combatant.
He and 24 of his fellow Salvation Army bandsmen concluded that the only avenue open to them was to enlist as musicians, a role that would result in them also serving as stretcher bearers – a military role that would not compromise their ethical principles.
They enlisted in the 2nd Company/22nd Battalion and their battalion band was unique, in that all twenty four members were Salvation Army bandsmen and they enlisted as a complete band under their bandmaster.
Gullidge, as bandmaster, was given the rank of sergeant.
Instead of being sent to the war in Europe, the bandsmen found themselves instead posted to Rabaul with ‘Lark Force’.
‘Lark Force’ comprised, among others, members of the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, an Australian coastal defence battery, an anti-aircraft battery, an anti-tank battery and a detachment of the 2nd Company/10th Field Ambulance.
They were in Rabaul when the Japanese invaded in January 1942. The surviving members of the garrison and the town’s Western civilian population became prisoners of the Japanese, Gullidge among them.
He, along with hundreds of other men from the 2nd Company/22nd Battalion, were amongst the 1053 Australian prisoners of war and civilians who were marched from their camps to Rabaul's harbour to board Montevideo Maru.
On other days they had walked the same route to work on the docks, but this time they carried whatever kit they possessed and were flanked by guards with machine guns. The Chinese and New Guinean dockside labourers who watched them board the ship were among the last people to see them alive.
The Montevideo Maru carried no markers identifying it as a prisoner of war transport ship and it was indistinguishable from legitimate targets of allied aircraft and submarines.
Lieutenant Commander Wright, captain of the American submarine, USS Sturgeon, wrote in his log that early on the morning of the 1st of July 1942 Sturgeon chased a large ship as it sped from the Philippines westwards into the South China Sea.
He guessed that it was heading for Hainan and, for some time, doubted whether he could catch it.
But by 2.30 in the morning the submarine had drawn close enough to fire its torpedoes.
Four were fired from 4000 yards, two hit and the ship sunk within eleven minutes. The prisoners were locked in the hold with no means of escape once the ship was struck. No prisoners survived.
Japanese accounts claim that the captain and more than 10 of the crew made it ashore, where most of them, including the captain, were killed.
Five survivors set out on foot for Manila, two died en-route and three made it after a ten-day trek. They reported the sinking and a search was immediately ordered, but too much time had passed and no trace of either the ship or survivors was found.
The ship's owners were informed just three weeks after it happened - and in January the following year the Japanese Navy Department forwarded details of the sinking to Tokyo’s Prisoner of War Information Bureau together with a nominal roll of the prisoners and civilians on board.
During the war the Red Cross made enquiries concerning the men who had been captured but received no answer.
In Australia, Mavis Gullidge had received a telegram stating that her husband Arthur was missing believed to be a POW.
For Mavis and all the families of the men who had been on the Montevideo Maru there was never any news during the war, even though Japanese authorities had known of the loss since shortly after the sinking.
Like many who waited in Australia for news of the men and women who had been overrun in Southeast Asia and the western Pacific in 1942, the families and friends of Lark Force and the civilians who had remained behind in Rabaul spent three and a half years wondering and hoping.
By September 1945 lists of men recovered from Japanese prison camps were being published every day, but still more than 5,000 Australians remained unaccounted for - including those who had been imprisoned at Rabaul.
Stories suggesting the loss of a Japanese prison ship carrying many of the missing men from Rabaul first appeared in Australian newspapers in late September 1945, and an Australian officer fluent in Japanese, a Major Williams was searching through records in Tokyo's Prisoner of War Information Bureau when he found the full list of names.
Many were of servicemen identified by name and serial number, the rest were civilians. Their place of capture was given as Rabaul and many appeared to be Australians - but the names having been translated from English into Japanese script and then back again created considerable difficulties.
The Director of the Prisoner of War Information Bureau admitted that the details of what had happened to the men on the Montevideo Maru had been in Japanese possession since the beginning of 1943 and he expressed regret that no details had been transmitted to Australia.
The translated roll reached Canberra in late October 1945 - telegrams were sent to families across the country confirming what they had feared; few of the men taken prisoner or interned at Rabaul in 1942 had survived the year.
Gullidge had been lost to his family for more than three years before they finally received word of his fate in October 1945.
Sergeant Gullidge is honoured to the present day and he is particularly prominent in the collective memory of the Salvation Army.
His compositions, especially his marches, are still played by Salvation Army bands.
As we stand here today and look out at the sea, we remember Sergeant Gullidge, his mates in the 2/22nd Battalion, the Lark Force, the civilians and all who perished in Australia’s worst maritime disaster.
Sergeant Gullidge’s story is but one of the many millions of stories we remember when we honour the veterans and victims of war. Thank you for your attendance at this ceremony today. Your presence is true testament to the pledge we make to those who serve and sacrifice for their countries/ that will always be remembered. Lest we forget.