Torpedo tragedy!


We may look at the Seventh-day Adventist Church today with its burgeoning membership around the Pacific, and forget the level of personal sacrifice involved in building it. But we forget those stories at our own collective peril, for it is through them we come to understand how precious the message is that God has entrusted to us. 

Mission service in the Pacific has come with an awful price. In 1920, Pearl Tolhurst was the first Avondale student to die in mission service. It is thought that more than 60 Adventist national and expatriate missionaries and their dependents have paid the ultimate price in our region since then. The torpedoing of the Montevideo Maru during the heat of World War II and its impact on our community is just one example. 

Among the prisoners of war on this ship were Adventist missionaries...

It was December 1941 and all women and children were directed to be evacuated from Papua and the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. Within seven months, the Japanese Navy had pushed back the Australian Army, taken over Rabaul, on the island of New Britain, and established a base from which to plan the invasion of mainland New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. 

Soon after the Japanese occupied Rabaul, the remaining male missionaries and other expatriates were rounded up and arrested. The Japanese considered prisoners of war a hindrance, having to be guarded and fed. On June 22, 1942, the prisoners held in Rabaul were placed aboard a Japanese cargo ship, the Montevideo Maru. Nine days later, the ship with its human cargo was on its way to Hainan Island in the northern Philippines. The American submarine, the USS Sturgeon, captained by Lt Cdr Wright, pursued the Montevideo Maru and, in the fog of war, confused it with the Japanese destroyer, Rio de Janeiro Maru. Unaware that it was carrying Allied prisoners and civilians, Wright torpedoed and sank the ship before dawn on July 1. 

It was the greatest single loss of Australian life in WWII. Among the prisoners of war on this ship were Adventist missionaries, Pastor E M Abbott and Trevor Collett, along with an Adventist government medical assistant, Len Thompson. Pastor E M Abbott was a graduate of the business course at Avondale and, after various appointments in both Australia and New Zealand, he became superintendent of the New Guinea Mission. He’d delayed his holiday in Australia in order to avoid depleting the field of expatriate pastors during Pastor and Mrs Tutty’s holidays. His location placed him within easy reach of the invading forces when they arrived. When the prisoners were packed onto the Montevideo Maru, he was among them. This courageous, self-sacrificing Christian was only 34.

Trevor Collett was a self-supporting missionary in Papua New Guinea working in the timber industry when war broke out. In the early days of the war, he and his wife found themselves looking after 500 refugees dumped on Emira Island by German raiders. He sailed a mission vessel to get help and supplies for them from the government. Many of those rescued were New Zealand citizens, and the Prime Minister of NZ, Peter Fraser, wrote to Collett and thanked him for his part in rescuing these survivors. 

In 1942, Collett and Pastor A S Atkins, a leader in the New Guinea Mission, left Emira, with the hope of joining other missionaries to make their escape from the Japanese. But Pastor Atkins came to believe it was his duty to stay at his post. Another factor in his decision to remain behind was his deteriorating health as a result of asthma and his desire not to be a burden on the others trying to get to safety. He encouraged their escape while he continued to work around the clock looking after soldiers desperately ill—particularly with dysentery. Collett, concerned about Atkins’ failing health, chose to remain and help look after him. 

On March 13, 1942, Pastor Atkins, totally exhausted, died in the Japanese controlled hospital in Rabaul, two days after the completion of a difficult forced march. At this point Collett attempted to escape, but it was too late. He was captured and became a prisoner of war. Pastor Atkins was buried in the Catholic cemetery at Kokopo, near Rabaul, and not far from the contemporary Sonoma College.

Len Thompson was another Adventist on the Montevideo Maru. Trained at Sydney Sanitarium, he became a medical assistant in the New Guinea Government service and, very much to his credit, continued his work for the local people in the early days of the Japanese occupation, until he too became a prisoner of war.  

On Sunday, July 1, the Australian Government is dedicating a Rabaul and Montevideo Maru memorial at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. This presents a perfect time for us to remember the commitment and sacrifice of those who have gone before; reflect on our present freedom; and, just as importantly, help build on the foundation of their pioneering efforts.                                                                 

Dr Lester Devine is director emeritus of the Ellen G White/Adventist Research Centre at the Avondale College of Higher Education.