The wreck of the Montevideo Maru, a Japanese passenger vessel sunk during the Second World War while carrying a reported 979 Australian soldiers and civilians, has been located by a team of deep-sea explorers off the coast of the Philippines.

The ship was sunk on 1 July, 1942, by a torpedo from the American Salmon-class submarine USS Sturgeon, eight days into a voyage from Papua New Guinea to the Chinese port of Hainan.

Unbeknown to the captain of the Sturgeon, however, the Montevideo Maru was transporting prisoners of war captured during the Battle of Rabaul during January and February 1942. After being struck by at least one of four torpedoes fired by the Sturgeon, the Montevideo Maru rapidly took on water and sank at a steep angle just 11 minutes from the time of impact.

Approximately 1080 lives in total were lost during the sinking, including at least 850 Australian service members and 210 civilians from 14 countries. 71 of the Montevideo Maru’s Japanese crew complement of 88 men were also killed during the sinking.

Considered to be Australia’s worst maritime disaster, the resting place of the Montevideo Maru has remained unknown until the wreck was found by the Silentworld Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to Australasian maritime archaeology, history, culture and heritage.

Supported by Dutch deep-sea survey specialists, Fugro, the Australian Department of Defence, and the Montevideo Maru Society, the Silentworld Foundation’s search began on 6 April in the Philippine Sea, approximately 110km north-west of Luzon. The wreck was located just 12 days later by an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) at a depth of more than 4,000m, and its identity verified a few days later.

‘The discovery of the Montevideo Maru closes a terrible chapter in Australian military and maritime history,’ said the expedition’s leader, John Mullen. ‘Families waited years for news of their missing loved ones, before learning of the tragic outcome of the sinking.

‘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.’

Chief of the Australian Army Lieutenant General Simon Stuart said finding the wreck has ended 81 years of uncertainty for the loved ones of the lost.

‘The Australian soldiers, sailors and aviators who had fought to defend Rabaul had enlisted from across the country to serve, met a terrible fate at sea on the Montevideo Maru,’ said Lieutenant General Stuart. ‘Today we remember their service, and the loss of all those aboard, including the 20 Japanese guards and crew, the Norwegian sailors and the hundreds of civilians from many nations.

‘A loss like this reaches down through the decades and reminds us all of the human cost of conflict,’ added Lt Gen Stuart. ‘Lest We Forget.’

Montevideo Maru wreck found after 81 years – DIVE Magazine