Australian War Memorial marks 80 years since the loss of AHS Centaur

Photograph taken by Marcus Fillinger Order reference AWM2023.4.76.1 contact:

The Australian War Memorial has revealed “frozen in time” watches which stopped during the loss of Australian Hospital Ship Centaur.

The watches, along with flares, life jacket lights and a scalpel, tell the story of the loss of Centaur 2/3rd Australian Hospital Ship on 14 May 1943, when it was attacked and sunk by a Japanese submarine.

“The loss of Centaur and the majority of her crew was a tragedy at the time and remains so 80 years on,” Director of the Australian War Memorial Matt Anderson said.

“This is an event that truly speaks to the horror of war. Today we pause to honour the memory of those we lost.

“Such was the impact on Australia of the loss of innocent life on the Centaur, it was included in the Memorial’s Hall of Memory. Artist Napier Waller incorporated a mythical depiction of a centaur in the mosaic of the servicewoman to signify their service and sacrifice. It is the only reference in the Hall of Memory to any specific event.”

Memorial Curator Dianne Rutherford said: “The watches have stopped at the time their wearers went into the water. Their radium paint means that they are radioactive and must be handled and displayed with great care. They serve as a poignant reminder of the shock felt at this event.”

The Memorial will host members of the 2/3 AHS Centaur Association at the Last Post Ceremony on Sunday where the story of Private Clement Edward Lynne will be told.

Private Lynne was a member of the 2/12th Field Ambulance who drowned during the sinking.

More than 80 per cent of the vessel’s passengers and crew died when the clearly marked hospital ship was struck by a Japanese torpedo about 80 kilometres east north-east of Brisbane.

This included 178 members of the 2/12 Field Ambulance. This unit lost 200 members during the war, the highest figure for a non-combatant unit in Australian history.

There were 12 nurses onboard, one of whom – Sister Ellen Savage – survived.

On 12 May 1943, Centaur sailed unescorted from Sydney, carrying her crew as well as stores and equipment of the 2/12th Field Ambulance, but no patients.

Shortly after 4 am on 14 May a torpedo struck Centaur‘s port side, hitting the fuel tank which ignited a massive explosion.

Many of those onboard not killed in the explosion or subsequent fire were trapped as the ship started to sink bow first, and then broke in two. In just three minutes Centaur was gone.

After spending 35 hours in life rafts awaiting rescue, 64 of those onboard survived.

The sinking was regarded as an atrocity, and the Australian government delivered an official protest to Japan over the incident. The Japanese government did not acknowledge responsibility for the incident for many years and the War Crimes Tribunal could not identify the responsible submarine.

However, the Japanese official war history makes clear that it was submarine 1-177, under the command of Lt Commander Nakagawa, which had sunk the Centaur. Lt Commander Nakagawa was subsequently convicted as a war criminal for firing on survivors of the British Chivalry, which his submarine had sunk in the Indian Ocean.

Ms Rutherford said: “Centaur is known for its demise, but the history is more nuanced. In November 1941 it rescued survivors of the German cruiser Kormoran after it had sunk HMAS Sydney off the coast of Western Australia.

“The life jacket lights were collected by a crew member of USS Mugford who had shot down Japanese zeros during the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Mugford rescued survivors of the Centaur disaster, creating an oblique link between the three events.”

The phrase “avenge the nurses” became a rallying cry throughout the remainder of the Second World War and continues to be recognised today through famous artworks of the time, much like “Remember Pearl Harbor” in the United States.

On 20 December 2009 Centaur was located about 30 nautical miles off the southern tip of Moreton Island, off Queensland’s south-east coast.


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