Story written by Chris Telfer.

When the news broke on 22 April 2023 that the SS Montevideo Maru, missing for eighty years, had been located on the bottom of the ocean off the coast of the Philippines, the final piece of a wartime puzzle fell into place for many. However, for one daughter, the find was significant.

Watching the news that day and shedding many tears, was Beryl Hamment, an 89-year-old widow living in Greensborough, who finally had the answer to her father’s disappearance in 1942.

Aged 35, John Henry Johnson volunteered for the Army on 10 June 1940. Assigned to Australian Infantry, John soon headed overseas. He left behind his wife, Elsie (pregnant at the time with the couple’s fourth daughter) and three children, Nellie, Dorothy and Beryl. Records indicate John served as a Medical Orderly whilst in Rabaul.

The Montevideo Maru was torpedoed on July 1, 1942. Image: AWM
The Montevideo Maru was torpedoed on July 1, 1942. Image: AWM

Not a lot was heard from John after his departure, but sometime in 1942, Elsie was informed her husband was missing but assumed to be a prisoner of war. Elsie did receive a letter which read, ‘… To My Dear Wife and Family, I am a Prisoner of War in Rabaul in the Japanese (redacted, but possibly a location), I am well and getting treated alright. Love Jack and signed John Henry Johnson).

Elsie said at the time the handwriting was not John’s.

Beryl said that in the early days, when other kids asked her where her father was, she would tell them he was in the war. With troops starting to return, Beryl and her sister Dorothy, would cross the Merri Creek, head to Heidelberg and watch the trucks loaded with soldiers heading to the Repat.

Beryl said that the siblings were looking for their father among the troops, even though they were not sure what he looked like.

Finally, in 1945, Elsie was officially advised that John had been aboard the Japanese merchant ship, SS Montevideo Maru heading to Japan. The unmarked ship was torpedoed by the USS Sturgeon – unaware it was transporting POWs from Rabaul to Hainan. John was presumed dead. Elsie never remarried.

A mural commemorating the Montevideo Maru tragedy was commissioned in the town of Stanhope in 2022.
A mural commemorating the Montevideo Maru tragedy was commissioned in the town of Stanhope in 2022.

At the time of John’s enlistment, the family were living with Elsie’s parents. Life was hard. Elsie’s parents had to move out of their rented house, which meant Elsie and the two younger girls also had to move. Beryl said the Repat paid for her schooling at Preston and she was also undertaking a course at Stott’s Business College. Not liking shorthand, she would skip the class to work in a local greengrocer’s shop until her mother found out she was not attending.

At this time Elsie and two girls, including Beryl, were living in the old round huts at Simpson Barracks as they had nowhere to go. She would not tell anyone where she was living.

Beryl worked in the Typing Pool at the Repat. One day, she was feeling unwell and her boss told her he would take her home. When her boss discovered how and where the family were living, he was horrified and helped them secure housing at Royal Park for a year. Eventually a house was found in West Heidelberg.

Elsie paid rent for years. She was never told she could purchase the house.

Beryl married at 19 but it did not last. Her second husband, Jack, was a former serviceman who served in New Guinea. He passed away aged 56 from lung cancer in 1980. Beryl had been made a junior Legatee in 1947, missed a few years and later rejoined.

Beryl Hamment laying flowers on Anzac Day to commemorate her father’s memory. She is accompanied by her fellow Legacy friend and President of Greensborough Legacy, Noela McGregor.

Today, Beryl has given nearly 43 years of active service to Legacy and is currently the Secretary for the Greensborough RSL Branch of Legacy.

Beryl is sad her mother and two of her sisters never lived to know what happened to their husband and father. Flowers were laid on ANZAC Day for the first time to commemorate his life. A fading photo and service medals sit proudly on a shelf in Beryl’s loungeroom, her beloved dad is with her once more.