Uncle Bill Gault

It’s 6.20am on Anzac day, 2020, my wife and I have just come in from our front gate as the dawn service is an at home affair this year due to the Covid 19. We stood there with all our neighbours, Adrienne thinking of her father Bill Mahony who fought in Darwin and in my mind I thought of the three men whom what war means to me.  My Great Uncle David, who was such an inspiration and mentor for me, who fought in the Middle East and New Guinea. My English Grandfather, William ‘Peddler’ Palmer, gassed on the battlefields of France in the first world war who survived the war but died prematurely aged 56 many years before I was born. And another Great Uncle, Uncle Bill Gault, who died in such terrible circumstances 20 years before I was born.

To me it seems odd to be writing about a man who I never met. His own son Howard Gault, who goes by the nickname Blue, who was born in 1939, does not remember his father. The tragedy of war, of men lost and of men who returned but were never the same, affects so many people. My memory of Uncle Bill focus’ on a single photo, an amazing photo of a young man in uniform with his arms around his sisters, Dolly (my Grandmother), Daphne (Uncle Dave’s wife), Florence and Pearl. It is the sort of photo that you could show a thousand different people and each one would smile and say “what a charming photo of a handsome young man with his beautiful sisters”.

William John Gault was born on the third of October, 1909. He was born in Richmond and remained a keen follower of the Tigers throughout his life, his letters from New Guinea always asking news about their progress.  His occupation was listed as concreter, hard physical labour would not have been new to him. He enlisted into the army on June 4th 1940, joining the 2/22nd Battalion, which became known as ‘Lark Force’. On March 12th, 1941, he boarded the “Katoomba” bound for the defence of New Guinea. On 3rd May he with many of his mates disembarked at Rabaul, New Guinea.

The defence of New Guinea against the Imperial Japanese army was the last line of defence before the impending invasion of Australia. The bloody war of the Pacific was at last heading south, with Australia the main objective. With the bombing of American Navy ships at Pearl Harbour by the Japanese Air Force in 1941, Hitler found an unlikely ally in the Japanese forces. But this critical error drew the Americans into the war, which was the only thing which saved our country from falling.

The Australian troops at Rabaul were very undermanned with not enough weaponry to repel the might of the Japanese army once they landed in New Guinea. Against overwhelming odds, the order of every man for himself was given. Many men retreated into the jungle, some were able to escape, enduring hardships beyond comprehension to us living in such luxury. Uncle Bill escaped into the jungle but was eventually caught by the Japanese, becoming an official prisoner of war.

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The’ Montevideo Maru’ was a Japanese ship built in 1926, running between Japan and South America before the war broke out in 1939. It was then converted into a troop ship taking Japanese troops to the Pacific theatre of war. On June 22nd 1942 it left Rabaul with 1054 Australian prisoners of war, bound for the then Japanese held Chinese island of Hainan. Among those on board were 3 notable Australians.  Harold Page, brother of Australian National Party Prime Minister Earl Page, Reverend Syd Beasley, uncle of former ALP leader Kim Beasley and Tom Vernon Garrett, grandfather of Midnight Oil lead singer and former ALP environment minister, Peter Garrett. But more importantly for me was private William Gault.

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The USS Sturgeon was a US Navy submarine, posted at Fremantle, Western Australia. Its orders were to patrol the oceans to the north of Australia and to sink any enemy ships it encountered, and on the night of 30th June it by chance sighted an enemy ship off the Phillipines coast near the island of Luzon. It was unescorted by destroyers and against protocol was not marked as carrying prisoners of war. The Sturgeon followed it for four hours but was unable to gain any ground on the speeding ship travelling at full throttle, 17 knots per hour. The skipper of the Sturgeon decided to pursue it with an idea that the ship would possibly slow down at midnight, believing any following submarines would have been given the slip. His premonition gained credence when on the stroke of midnight, the ‘Montevideo Maru ‘, feeling safe, throttled back to 11 Knots.

The captain of the ‘USS Sturgeon’, Lieutenant Commander Wright recorded in his journal how easy the sinking of the’ Montevideo Maru’ was. It managed to pass the ship soon after midnight then positioned itself broadside of the vessel.  At 2.29am on July 1st it fired the first of four torpedoes into the hull of the ship, not knowing it was sending 1054 POW’s on board to a watery grave. His journal notes the time between the first torpedo striking and the time before the ship disappeared out of sight on its journey to the ocean floor as 11 minutes.

Back in Australia, family members were officially informed on April 28th 1942 that Uncle Bill was a Prisoner of war. On October 13th, 1945 they were told he was on board the stricken vessel the ‘Montevideo Maru’, presumed dead. They must have been 3 long years for my family, not knowing anything about Uncle Bill, just empty feelings of despair, clinging to hope. Even after the war finished, for what must have seemed an eternity, information was sketchy.

In 2005, my second cousin, Howard Gault received a letter from an old man named Syd Illes who lived in the Western district of Victoria. In shaky handwriting but with diction crystal clear, he told Howard he was probably the last man of his battalion to see his father alive when in the jungle of New Guinea two groups decided to split up and go in different directions. Syd’s group went one way and he remembered looking across at the other group: his mate Bill Gault was in that group.

Of the 1054 prisoners on board the ‘Montevideo Maru’ there were no survivors. It is Australia’s greatest maritime disaster, and more Australians lost their lives that night than in the Vietnam war. Of the 68 Japanese crew, 17 survived. Contrary to the belief that all prisoners were locked in the hold below the ships deck and had no chance, a 2003 interview with a Japanese survivor tells a different story. In October 2003, Yoshiaki Yamaji gave the following account;

“There were more POW’s in the water than crew members. The POW’s were holding pieces of wood and using bigger pieces as rafts. They were in groups of 20 to 30 people probably 100 people in all. They were singing songs. I was particularly impressed when they started singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’, as a tribute to their dead mates.  Watching that, I learnt Australians have big hearts”.

It was determined that the Japanese vessel which rescued the crew would not have wasted their time looking for any surviving POW’s in the water, particularly with the knowledge that an enemy submarine was in the area. The men left drifting on the ocean had no chance of survival.

Howard ‘Blue’Gault is 81 now. He lives at Dromana and besides a few skin cancer problems being kept in check by his doctor, he’s as fit as a fiddle. He can’t wait for the Covid 19 restrictions to be lifted so he can get in his boat and go fishing again off Safety Beach. They have to get lifted soon, the Whiting and Calamari are starting to come on the bite.

Des Palmer