More than 1,000 Australian soldiers and civilians perished when an American submarine sank the Montevideo Maru, an unmarked Japanese prison ship, on July 1, 1942. Much-loved Tenterfield horseman Harry Schiffmann is believed to be among those who perished. On Sunday his great-nephew Michael Fittler attended the commemoration of a memorial in Canberra to the Montevideo Maru on the 70th anniversary of the tragedy. Here he writes of Harry’s life and death...
Harry Francis Schiffmann, the youngest of 10 children to Fredrick and Elizabeth Schiffmann, was born at Green Swamp, Tenterfield, on Thursday, December 3, 1903.
Harry was raised at the property about 10 kilometers south of Tenterfield, run by his father Fredrick who had inherited it from his father Johann, a German migrant.
Harry and his siblings Elizabeth (Tilly), Mary (Min), Lillian (Lill), James (Jim), Edward (Ted), Margaret (Mag), Clara, Joseph (Joe), and Ivy (Doll) lived in a small sawn slab house. Over the years the house was extended and many parties and celebrations were held at the family home, including most of the girls’ wedding receptions. The greatest celebration, however, was their parents’ golden wedding anniversary in 1935.
On the death of his mother in 1936 Harry stayed with his father and, with his brother Joe, helped work the farm including a section of crown land leased at Demon Creek.
Harry was a fine horseman and prior to joining the army was a member of the Light Horse in the Tenterfield Brigade. He was also the owner of Blue Peter, a horse well-known in both northern New South Wales and southern Queensland. Harry won many prizes at shows and rodeos on Blue Peter and on Whaco before joining the army.
On July 10, 1940 Harry enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces at Tamworth and was “taken on strength” into the 1st Independent Company (“L”) Force, a commando unit. Lionel Veale had been assigned the job of recruiting men from the bush for this secret unit.
The men of the 1st Independent Company were trained in armed and unarmed combat, map reading, signaling, and many other skills necessary for infiltration behind enemy lines. Harry first trained in Tamworth, then at Wilson’s Promontory which at the time was closed to the public and used as a special training area.
During this period of training he would, when possible, return to Tenterfield on his leave to see his family. On June 12, 1941 he embarked on board the TSS Zealander at Sydney bound for New Guinea, and disembarked on July 20, 1941 at Kavieng, New Ireland, where the company set up its headquarters of 250 men under the command of Major Edmond Wilson.
Small units of these 250 men, Lance Corporal Lionel Veale being among them, were then stationed on islands around the region. They left 147 commandos behind to defend New Ireland from the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy.
On the morning of January 21 the Japanese commenced aerial bombing of Kavieng, continuing for four days. During this time two commandos were killed and two badly wounded. In the early hours of January 23 Kavieng was overrun and occupied by Japanese Land Forces.
Those men of the 1st Independent Company left at Kavieng under the command of Major Wilson, although initially instructed to disperse and fight a guerrilla war against the Japanese, decided that the island was not suitable for this purpose. After discussions between the officers they decided to destroy the airfield and any installations useful to the Japanese and escape to Rabaul on the company’s (requisitioned) ship the Induna Star, a former 81-ton coastal trading vessel.
On January 30 the Induna Star, with around 130 men aboard, slipped away down the west coast of New Ireland, hiding by day and travelling by night. A small party of commandos, comprising about 14 men under the command of Corporal Rodgers, were out of contact at this time somewhere in the south of New Ireland and therefore not aboard when the Induna Star departed.
On the first morning they anchored at Gilingil Plantation and were advised that the 22nd Battalion in Rabaul had ceased fighting and had been taken by the Japanese. Major Wilson decided to make for Buka but was advised incorrectly that the Japanese had landed there.
It was then decided to make for Woodlark Island off the coast of New Guinea. All was going well until mid-morning on February 2 when the Induna Star was spotted by a Japanese plane 70 miles south-east of Rabaul. The ship was strafed and bombed, crippling the vessel and resulting in the deaths of four commandos.
The Japanese pilot must have radioed for help as later that day a destroyer appeared to escort the ship to the Japanese garrison in Rabaul, where all aboard her were imprisoned.
It is believed that Harry Schiffmann was on board the Induna Star but records are sketchy and some members of the 1st Independent Company had been killed in action while others were scattered on islands in and around New Ireland, the Solomon Islands, Bougainville and the New Hebrides.
On June 22 the 1st Independent Company (excluding officers) was placed on board the prisoner ship the Montevideo Maru along with 845 allied prisoners and 208 civilian internees, en route to either Hainan Island in the Philippines or Japan to be used as forced labour.
In the early hours of the morning of July 1, 1942 the Montevideo Maru was torpedoed seven miles off Bojeador Lighthouse on the north-west coast of Luzon by the American submarine USS Sturgeon. It sank at 2.40am. Unconfirmed reports state that only a few Japanese servicemen survived.
Private Harry Francis Schiffmann, Service No. NX40995, is recorded on Panel 14 at the Rabaul (Bita Paka) War Memorial as follows:
Schiffmann, Harry Francis, Pte, NX40995, AIF 1st Independent Company, Australian Infantry. 1st July 1942. Age 38. Son of Frederick and Elizabeth Julia Schiffmann of Tenterfield, N.S.W.
There has always been some uncertainty about which of the Australian prisoners were on board the Montevideo Maru that morning, and it will most likely remain that way given that no official list was handed to the Allies on the surrender of Japan.
It was not until after the war was over that Harry’s family was officially made aware of his death, believing during those years that he was either missing in action or a prisoner of the Japanese. The full story of Harry’s capture and subsequent death was not fully known for several years after the war’s end.
It was his father’s dearest wish that Harry would return home safely from the war. When he received official notification that Harry had died he was devastated and, 84 years of age and suffering from diabetes, he collapsed.
Harry's death had broken his heart. He no longer had the will to live and died two days later on October 22, 1945.
Although Harry had paid the supreme sacrifice, 12 of Fredrick's grandchildren and four son-in-laws had also served during the war, fighting in areas such Borneo, New Guinea, North Africa and Darwin.
Information concerning the Induna Star and Montevideo Maru was researched from People of the Plaque at http://www.
newireland.html and from the work of Lieutenant Colonel Neil C. Smith: Prisoners of War on the Montevideo Maru.