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Saturday January 08, 2011 10:34:23 AM


Photographs used here are in THUMBNAILS

Prime Minister Curtin, 18th May1943. 'The attack which took place a few miles off the Queensland coast bears all the marks of wantonness and deliberation. Not only will it stir our people into a more acute realization of the type of enemy against whom we are fighting, but I am confident also that this deed will shock the conscience of the whole civilized world and demonstrate to any who may have had any lingering doubts the unscrupulous and barbarous methods by which the Japanese conduct warfare.'

HMAS CENTAUR Main memorial at Centaur Park near Wickham Point, Caloundra Memorial at Byron Bay.

."Here after you climb Boundary Street hill from Coolangatta, you will find splendid views of the ocean and unexpectedly for most visitors, a serene place for quiet reflection on the role the sea plays in war and its victims. Almost in the shadow of the white Captain Cook Lighthouse - it was Cook who in 1770 named Point Danger and the distinctive Mount Warning further inland - are memorials of the 41 Allied ships sunk in and around Australian waters by German and Japanese action in World War 11.

One of the most disastrous sinking had its own handsome monument: to the 268 lives lost in the torpedoing of the hospital ship ' Centaur' by a Japanese submarine Number 1-777 at 4.10am on May 14 1942 off Stradbroke Island. 

The Centaur was a steel vessel of 3222 tons, 315 feet in length, 48.2 foot beam, built at Greenock converted Blue Funnel liner built in Scotland sank in just three minutes in 1924. Some say it was 3066 tonne. Of the 332 aboard, 62 survived, some clinging to rafts and debris for some 34 hours before being picked up by the American destroyer USS Mugford

Her life between 1924 to 1942 was as a cargo ship carrying goods such as, timber, hides and wool. In 1941 she rescued survivors of German Auxiliary cruiser Kormoran after HMAS Sydney had sunk it. She did the Western run Australia to Singapore and all ports in between. The 2/3 Australian hospital ship was converted from motor passenger ship early 1943 when she was acquired by the defence authorities and work begun on fitting her out as a hospital ship. Before she set out in her new role all powers had to be notified. The Japanese were notified on 5th February but there is no record that they acknowledged this. On the 12th May 1943 mid morning the Centaur left unescorted from Sydney Harbour. Onboard were 75 Merchant Navy crew, the ship's army medical staff comprising 8 Officers, 12 Nurses, 45 other ranks, and 192 members of the 2/12 Field Ambulance  for its voyage to Port Moresby to pick up casualties from the Buna and Gona battles, and to deliver the 2/12 Field Ambulance's stores and equipment for its tour of duty in New Guinea.

The ship was marked correctly indicating it was a hospital ship and was fully illuminated according to Geneva Conventions.

The vessel had been on its way from Sydney with 192 members of the 2/129th Field Ambulance Corps, 75 merchant seaman and 65 medical staff including 12 nurses - of whom only Sister Ellen Savage survived. The memorial bears all the names of those who died." 

On the 13th May she was sighted by an aircraft patrolling near Coffs Harbour. As the watch changed at midnight it was noted that it was a clear night. At 0330 hours they were twenty-three miles due east of Point Lookout, by 0400 hours they were twenty-eight miles off the southern tip of Moreton Island, 38km off the Queensland coast. The  position being approximately 2717' S, 15358' E about 50 miles east north-east of Brisbane. What happened at 0410 hours on Friday 14th May 1943 has been vividly described by survivors. It sank in 170 meters of water after being set on fire by a torpedo from the Japanese submarine I-177and it struck the ship on her port side hitting the oil fuel tank causing an enormous explosion. The bridge superstructure collapsed, the funnel crashed onto the deck, and everything was covered in burning oil. The ship broke in two and sunk in three minutes. 

It all happened so quickly that no distress signal could be sent out and no lifeboats could be launched. Many were trapped in the ship as she went to the bottom, those that were able to get clear dove overboard into the oily waters. Many were sucked down with the ship, while others tried to cling onto anything that floated. Many were badly burned and injured and some has swallowed large amounts of oil . Most were asleep below the decks in their bunks and they were trapped. The ones who managed to get up on deck soon fell into sea as ship began to list and were sucked as ship sank.

In the early morning light the roof of the Wheelhouse was the largest piece of wreckage visible, and was dubbed "survival island". Those on small rafts and pieces of timber were encouraged to lash themselves  with anything they could, even pyjama cords as most were in bed. As the long hours of Friday went by a plane went over without seeing them, then the sharks arrived. They had to be beaten off with pieces of timber. Many of the survivors were injured with broken limbs and severe burns. Another day passed, and on Saturday 15th May at 1400 hours the USS Mugford was on duty escorting the MV Sussex on her voyage across the Tasman. The lookout on the USS Mugford spotted them, and in view of possible attacks by submarines the rescue had to be done speedily. 

Soon all were on board and a signal was sent to Naval Officer in charge, Brisbane breaking the news of the tragedy: "Am picking up many survivors of HMA Hospital Ship Centaur, position 27 degrees 03 minutes South, 154 degrees 12 minutes East at 04142. Ship sunk at 0410 hours Friday. It sank  taking the lives of 268 people, including 18 doctors, 11 nurses, 193 other medical personnel of the 2/12th Field Ambulance and 30 members of her crew. This was the largest loss of life on any merchant ship torpedoed in the Pacific in World War 2.There were 64 survivors were returned to Brisbane from the 332 persons on board, & they were picked up by the American destroyer USS Mugford. 

332 people were aboard that fateful journey and 64 live. Many spent some 35 hours drifting on lifer rafts before they were saved.  Of the twelve nursing sisters on board, only one survived and although she was injured she managed to assist many to survive. Sister Ellen Savage, Australian Army Nursing Service, was aboard the hospital ship Centaur when it was attacked by a Japanese submarine. She was awarded the George Medal for her bravery during the ordeal. In 1990, the ship was declared a historic wreck. Although the Australian Government protested bout its sinking it took many years for the Japanese to acknowledge its responsibility. The Japanese were notified on 5th February to state of its existence and purpose of the ship. After the war, the captain of the I-177, Lt-Cdr Hajime Nakagawa, was arrested and tried as a war criminal. He spent four years in Sugamo prison for atrocities committed in the Indian Ocean such as shooting survivors of torpedoed ships.  

I met many nurses at Concord Hospital who met and worked with the one nurse who survived. This event has always made me indeed very sad.

Having recently going to Byron Bay and Queensland I thought and wondered as I looked out at Moreton Bay how such a beautiful spot could have held such a dark piece of our history. 

These quotes come from someone who would like to remain anon: "I went to Coolangatta just after it was sunk and it was seen on the radar screens at the Unit and the girls and the CO tried to get the Navy bods at Brisbane to take some notice of their reading with no luck. You can imagine how they felt when they heard about it. more below..

' I think I went up to Q in August 1944 so this happened over 12 months earlier.  The unit stenographer, who was on duty over that period told me that the submarine had been plotted on the radar screens some hours before and the operators (girls I think) and immediately contacted Naval HQ in Brisbane.  They were 'laughed off'' and were so positive of their reading that they woke up the CO to get him to check.  He agreed with them and got on to Brisbane again. He was informed that they were mistaken and not to worry about it and there were NO subs in the area.  They were not believed and no action (as far as they knew) was taken.  What a crime! 

You can imagine how upset they were when they got news of the sinking and dreadful loss of life that occurred so soon after their sighting. I have never heard any record of this SNAFU at any other time.  It has probably in the Secret files but as over 50 years have passed I guess this no longer applies.  Evidentially all those who knew about it have kept their information to themselves. The following was taken from a Sunday paper  about Point Danger.

When I was working at veteran's Affairs a sister who had served in the Middle east told me that as a result of that disaster a special Daily Routine Order was issued.  All women in the Army were instructed that if they did not wear pyjamas they must have pants underneath their nighties.  I understand that the one nurse who survived, had used her nightie for bandages for wounded men and I gather was naked when she was rescued.  The Brass did not want that to happen again. 

I have never read any of the details that I heard about in any paper or on the radio. I guess the girls and men on the unit have never spoken out. '

It just makes you wonder and my blood boil.

Death Toll 


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