Montevideo Maru, found

Class leader USS Salmon (SS-182) running speed trials in early 1938. Note the S1 designator. NH 69872

As covered in past Warship Wednesdays, the hard-charging Salmon-class fleet submarine USS Sturgeon (SS-187), under command of LCDR William Leslie “Bull” Wright (USNA 1925), a colorful six-foot-three cigar-chomping Texan, made a name for herself in the early days of the Pacific War. After an early attack on a Japanese ship just after Pearl Harbor, she flashed “Sturgeon no longer virgin!”

It was on her fourth patrol that she came across the 7,266-ton, twin-screw diesel motor vessel passenger ship MV Montevideo Maru which had been used by the Imperial Japanese Navy as a troop transport in the early days of the war, supporting the landings at Makassar in February 1942 and was part of the Japanese seizure of New Britain.

Via ONI 208J.

Sailing on 22 June unescorted for Hainan Island off China, Montevideo Maru ran into Sturgeon eight days later. Our submarine pumped four fish into the “big fella” in the predawn hours of 1 July, after a four-hour stalk, with young LT Chester William “Chet” Nimitz Jr. (yes, that Nimitz’s son) as the TDC officer.

Tragically, in what is now known as the “worst maritime disaster in Australian history,” Montevideo Maru was a “Hell Ship,” carrying more than 1,000 prisoners of the Japanese forces, including members of the Australian 2/22nd Battalion and No.1 Independent Company of the incredibly unlucky Lark Force which had been captured on New Britain.

All the prisoners on board died, locked below decks. Of note, more Australians died in the loss of the Montevideo Maru than in the country’s decade-long involvement in Vietnam.

Sturgeon, of course, was unaware that the ship was carrying Allied POWs and internees.

DANFS does not mention Montevideo Maru‘s cargo.

Four days later, Sturgeon damaged the Japanese oiler San Pedro Maru (7268 GRT) south of Luzon, then ended her 4th war patrol at Fremantle on 22 July.

Sturgeon earned ten battle stars for World War II service, with seven of her war patrols deemed successful enough for a Submarine Combat Insignia.

Bull Wright, who earned a Navy Cross for his first patrol, never commanded a submarine again– perhaps dogged over the Montevideo Maru, or perhaps because he was 40 years old when he left Sturgeon— and he retired quietly from the Navy after the war as a rear admiral. Although a number of WWII submarines and skippers with lower tonnage or fewer patrols/battle stars under their belt were profiled in the most excellent 1950s “Silent Service” documentary series, Bull Wright and Sturgeon were noticeably skipped.

Now, Montevideo Maru has been discovered in her resting place off the Philippines. An expedition team, led by Australian businessman, maritime history philanthropist, explorer, and director of not-for-profit Silentworld Foundation, John Mullen, found the hell ship’s wreck earlier this month.

One comment

  • I’ve just finished listening to an audiobook, called The Bravest Man. About Capt. Richard O’Kane and others in SubPac during WW2. It mentions the famous radio message, ‘Sturgeon no longer a virgin.’ I highly recommend the book, as a raw, no frills read. Excellently researched.
    It must have been uniquely harrowing for many US sub commanders serving in the Pacific. Knowing that in sinking merchant ships, they might be killing allied PoWs and/or civilians.
    In the rush to confront communism in 1945, many, many Nazis never paid for their war crimes and many Japanese never did either. Its a great pity that both these nations do not recognise this and believe themselves superior to most others, to this day.

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