Light falls on wartime mystery
Frank and Doreen Beadle. Picture: John Mokrzycki.

A little known but enduring mystery surrounding the loss of more than 1000 Australian lives in World War II came closer to being solved this week.

Two big events relating to the sinking of the Montevideo Maru have coincided to bring a form of closure to hundreds of families who have wondered for years about the exact fate of their loved ones.

This week, wartime Japanese documents were unveiled at the National Archives of Australia providing details of 1053 service personnel and civilians lost when the Montevideo Maru was torpedoed by a US submarine off Luzon in the Philippines in 1942.

Today in Canberra, on the 70th anniversary of this, Australia's greatest single wartime loss of life, a memorial statue will be unveiled.

The Australians trapped in the hold of the "hellship" - as the unmarked Japanese PoW transports became known - had been captured at the fall of Rabaul in New Guinea.

The Australian were hopelessly outnumbered. Of the 1400 in Lark Force, mainly from the 2/22nd Infantry Battalion, about 300 soldiers escaped. Some made their way to Australia and about 130 were rounded up and executed at the Tol plantation.

On June 22, the 845 survivors and 208 civilians (including nationalities other than Australian) were loaded on the Montevideo Maru. It is hoped the newly revealed Japanese PoW cards will detail all the passengers on the ship.

Doreen Beadle's brother Fred Mansley was one of those soldier passengers. Just 24, he escaped into the jungle but after hurting his leg, surrendered to the Japanese so as not to hold up his companions.

"For years we were hoping that he got away and was hiding on the islands, maybe with amnesia," Mrs Beadle said from her home at the RAAF retirement village in Bull Creek.

"We hope the list will confirm that he was on the ship."

Mrs Beadle recently met Grace Lovell, of Mt Pleasant, the sister of another victim.

Mrs Lovell, who shortly turns 91, lost her brother Frank Vale, who was 23 when he died, presumably on the Montevideo.

Lark Force was mainly Victorian and the two women, who moved to WA after the war, have been a great comfort to each other.

"The government hid the story for so many years and there was this great sorrow that you couldn't talk about," Mrs Beadle said. "It's been very healing to talk to someone with the same feelings."

There has been much conjecture that the tragedy was ignored or downplayed because the Australian Government hung the Lark Force out to dry. "You can say that but that's something for the historians to decide," Phil Ainsworth, president of the Rabaul and Montevideo Maru Society, said.

What is known is that in 1945, Australian Major Harold Williams returned from Japan with a list of people on the ship and that list mysteriously disappeared.

In 1955, a comprehensive Japanese PoW list was offered to all countries involved in the war and Australia was only one of 10 nations that refused the offer.

"There was never a major investigation and the controversy just continued," Mr Ainsworth said.

While the new list is not necessarily the definitive roll, Mr Ainsworth believes it matches closely the document Major Williams brought back from Japan.

His society was formed in 2009 with a major aim of having the tragedy more formerly recognised.

Its first objective was achieved in June 2010 when both Houses of Federal Parliament acknowledged the loss and donated $100,000 to a memorial fund.

The society has since raised more than $400,000 to pay for the statue, which will be unveiled by Governor-General Quentin Bryce.

About 600 people will attend a commemorative lunch today and more than 1000 are expected at the National War Memorial tomorrow.

Mrs Lovell will be represented by a large number of nephews and nieces.

Mrs Beadle and her husband Frank flew out yesterday for the service.

Although confined to a wheelchair, Mrs Beadle was at this year's Anzac Day service in Rabaul, where there is a Montevideo memorial and the Bita Paka War Cemetery, which lists all the victims on 30 columns.

"It was healing to be able to touch his name," she said.

Now she is determined to go to Canberra to pay tribute to her brother Fred and ensure his story goes full circle.

"I will make it," she said. "It will be my swan song."

The West Australian

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