Shipwreck of SS Montevideo Maru found after over eight decades

The wreck of a ship sunk in Australia's worst maritime disaster has been found in the South China Sea 81 years after it went missing.

The SS Montevideo Maru had more than a thousand prisoners of war and captured civilians, including three Kiwis on board, when it sank off the coast of the Philippines.

The Japanese transport ship was hit by four torpedoes from the USS Sturgeon in 1942 and sank without trace - until now. 

"It's answered a mystery that's now been in place for 81 years and the search process has been going on for well decades but particularly over the last five years," Technical director Captain Roger Turner said. 

"But for the descendants who are represented on board here the search has been going on for decades."

Most were Australian prisoners of war captured in the fall of Rabaul in what's now Papua New Guinea. 

Alongside the Japanese crew were civilians from more than a dozen nations, three of them Kiwis. Latham Hamilton, George Leonard Brett and Joseph Thomas McEvoy - all connected to plantations in the region.

"They had all been in Rabaul at the time that the Japanese invaded and were rounded up and they all ended up on the Montevideo Maru," Capt Turner said.

Capt Turner said Japanese and American researchers helped a team to narrow the search to three areas in which they spent 12 days, a task still harder than finding a needle in a haystack.

"Well the first thing is to find the haystack, and then start looking for the needle," he said.

There was a lot of misinformation in the early days. In the fog of war, some even claimed the ship never sank. But this week the team located the wreck in two pieces 500 metres apart on a flat seabed 4km down.

"Absolutely ecstatic that it was yes, moment of a lifetime to be able to recognise all that had gone into it but more importantly that we were able to honour the victims of the tragedy," Capt Turner said.

A Japanese eyewitness reported those who survived the explosion and made it into the water sang Auld Lang Syne as their trapped mates went down with the ship.

The search team's promising the tomb will remain undisturbed.