Sometimes, a picture paints a thousand words and in the case of a small town in north-central Victoria, that couldn’t be more accurate.
Like the thousands of families left bereaved when the Montevideo Maru sank on July 1st 1942, the town of Stanhope mourned the loss of some of its own.
More than 1,000 Australians perished when the Japanese passenger vessel the Montevideo Maru, which was used by the Japanese Imperial Navy, was torpedoed by American submarine USS Sturgeon, off the coast of the Philippines. Reports claim it sank in as little as 11 minutes from when it was hit.
According to the Australian War Memorial, while the exact number and identity of the men aboard the ship has never been confirmed, Japanese and Australian sources suggest 845 POWs and 209 civilians lost their lives.
The Stanhope RSL President, Philip Chapman explains why the tragedy is so personal to the town.
"We’ve got five soldiers which link Stanhope to the sinking of the Montevideo Maru. Three of the soldiers are on our memorial cenotaph because they came from Stanhope and two others who did not live in Stanhope but had family ties."
Stanhope RSL President, Philip Chapman
The three locals were Percy Crombie, 22, a local grocer; Alfred Meldrum, 37, labourer on a local dairy farm and William McLennan, 34, a local orchardist.
The other two with links to Stanhope are George Ryan, 32, a fruit picker and Thomas Crichton, 22, a labourer.
Unfortunately, as Philip says, it was a very little-known story.
"Even I, as President, was aware of the names on the memorial Cenotaph but knew almost nothing about the Montevideo Maru and its connection to Stanhope. It’s been a bit of a learning curve."
Stanhope RSL President, Philip Chapman
Philip says the Sub-Branch Secretary George Gemmill, who also happens to be the unofficial local historian, was the brainchild behind commissioning the mural.
“He started to tell the story and we all just looked at each other at this general meeting and wondered how we didn’t know about it.”
Having received a Commonwealth Grant under the Saluting their Service Commemorative Grants Program, the Sub-Branch also needed the support of the local community.
“We decided to approach the local community and put our idea to them. We wanted the town to be a part of it and to take ownership of it and look after it for years to come. We were blown away and overwhelmed by the interest and generosity of donations to go on top of the grant.”
The mural takes pride of place on a prominent wall at one of the town’s main intersections opposite the Cenotaph.
“That way it would be a wonderful backdrop when we are lined up for ANZAC Day, which it was for the first time earlier this year,” says Philip.
Artist Tim Bowtell was commissioned to paint the mural. He is renowned for his larger-than-life creations in various landmarks around the state, including on the Colbinabbin Silos.
Tim Bowtell says the brief was simply the story of the Motevideo Maru, which resonated with him and inspired his creativity.
"It was almost instantaneous. There were some guidelines, there had to be a picture of the ship obviously, they wanted the logos and the title and the poppies evolved into it a bit later. But because the timing of when the ship was torpedoed inspired the colour scheme, the dark moonlit night and light rays hitting the water."
Artist Tim Bowtell
In a case of art imitating life, Tim has successfully managed to capture the subtlety of the submarine in the mural, much like the way it must have lurked quietly beneath the water on that fateful day.
“People almost don’t notice it in the actual mural, it’s not noticed straight away, it just helps to create that feeling that they didn’t know what was coming.”
The wall, which measures about 25 metres long by about 4.5 metres high took Tim about 10 days from start to finish.
He says it’s been a privilege to have been given the opportunity to paint this mural, which is so much more than just an artwork. He says it’s an opportunity for the story to live on and educate.
“I think its enriching for the community. For the younger one it’s an important story for them to learn what happened and know that people in the community are connected to it to this day. For the older people that do know about it, it’s a nice way of commemorating the tragedy. Well, I know it is because people were in tears when they were watching me paint it and tell me their stories.”