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Remember Australia’s Hospital Ship War Disaster

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On 14 May 1943 the hospital ship Centaur was sunk off Queensland by a Japanese submarine with great loss of life. She was bound for Port Moresby with medical personnel to take off casualties from battles against the Japanese.

At 4.10 am on Friday 14 May the Centaur was east of the Cape Moreton Light on Moreton Island, off the coast of Queensland.

Seaman Matthew Morris remembers:

“I finished the twelve to four watch and I called the four to eight watch to go down, including me mate. And I was just havin' a cup of tea - and this big explosion, and the ship gave a shudder, and the skylight fell in on us. And I don't really know how I got out of the mess room ... and I'd say there was a dozen steps up to the deck. And I really can't remember going up them. But then I was washed off the back of the ship and then I realised I was in the water.”

Sister Ellen Savage was asleep in her bunk when the Centaur collapsed around her:

“Merle Morton and myself were awakened by two terrific explosions and practically thrown out of bed ...I registered mentally that it was a torpedo explosion ... In that instant the ship was in flames ... we ran into Colonel Manson, our commanding officer, in full dress even to his cap and 'Mae West' life-jacket, who kindly said 'That's right girlies, jump for it now.' The first words I spoke was to say 'Will I have time to go back for my great-coat?' as we were only in our pyjamas. He said 'No' and with that climbed the deck and jumped and I followed ... the ship was commencing to go down. It all happened in three minutes.”

The suction of the sinking Centaur dragged Sister Savage down into a whirlpool of moving metal and wood. Here her ribs, nose and palate were broken, her ear drums perforated and she sustained multiple bruises. Then she was propelled to the surface in the middle of an oil slick.

Sister Savage found her way to a raft that was part of the Centaur's wheel-house. During the 36 hours on this makeshift raft, she gave whatever medical care she could to survivors despite being badly injured herself.

Sister Savage was the only nurse to survive. For her courage and inspiring behaviour during this period she was awarded the George Medal.

Of the 332 personnel on board who had sailed from Sydney, only 64 were found in the search over the next few days clinging to rafts and debris.

The Centaur was hit by a torpedo fired from Japanese submarine 1-177 commanded by Lieutenant Commander Nakagawa. This was admitted in the 1979 official Japanese war history. The sinking seems to have been Nakagawa's decision and not the result of official policy. Later, in the Indian Ocean, Nakagawa fired on the survivors from a British merchantman. For this, and other incidents, he was tried as a B Class war criminal and spent four years in prison. At his trial the sinking of the Centaur was not raised. Fellow officers praised Nakagawa as a professional sailor who would never knowingly have attacked a protected hospital ship. Nakagawa himself never commented on the event

It is worth mentioning that eight months previously Japanese surface ships had trained their searchlights on the hospital ship Manunda at Milne Bay. The Manunda was similarly marked and illuminated to the Centaur and she was not fired on.

Few disasters during the Second World War touched Australians as deeply as the loss of the Centaur. At Caloundra, Queensland, a memorial on a cliff points out towards the Centaur's final resting place. Another memorial was unveiled at Point Danger, Coolangatta, Queensland, in 1993 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the sinking. The tragedy is also remembered in practical ways. In the late 1940s The Centaur Memorial Fund For Nurses in Queensland raised the enormous sum, for the period, of 50,000 pounds. This money was invested to fund activities in memory of the nurses who went down with the ship.

In 1943 the Centaur quickly became a symbol of Australian determination to win the war. The attack on a clearly marked and illuminated hospital ship was taken as further evidence that Australia faced a brutal and uncompromising enemy. Posters raises money for war loans, showing the sinking ship and carrying the words 'Avenge The Nurses'. And when a mosaic was put in place commemorating the women's services in the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial, it was the image of the Centaur used to illustrate the sacrifice involved in such service. It is the only reference in the Hall to an actual event in any of the wars in which Australians have fought and died.

A search led by David Mearns, who had previously led the team that found the wrecks of HMAS Sydney and HSK Kormoran, discovered Centaur’s wreck on 20 December 2009. Centaur is located about 30 nautical miles off the southern tip of Moreton Island, off Queensland’s south-east coast.

“Work, save, fight and so avenge the nurses!” The Australian government used the tragic loss of the Centaur for wartime propaganda. This dramatic poster shows that hospital ships were well-lit and clearly marked with red crosses to prevent them being mistaken for warships. (Public domain)
Stained-glass window commemorating the Centaur. Repatriation Hospital, Concord, NSW (Courtesy DiggerHistory.com)
Australian Hospital Ship Centaur in 1943. Torpedoed by Japanese submarine I-177, she was lost with 268 fatalities on 14 May 1943. (Navy) (Courtesy RAN)
Sister Ellen Savage interviewed at Greenslopes Army Hospital, Brisbane, after the sinking of Centaur. (Courtesy DiggerHistory.com)