75th Anniversary of the sinking of Australian Hospital Ship, The Centaur

Starboard bow of Hospital Ship Centaur

At approximately 4.00am on 14 May 1943, without warning and despite being clearly marked with red crosses, Australian Hospital Ship The Centaur was sunk by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine. She sank three minutes after being struck.

332 people were embarked at the time she was struck, she was also carrying stores and equipment for the 2/12th Field Ambulance.  Only 64 people survived, enduring over 30 hours in shark infested waters before being rescued.  Sister Ellen Savage, despite being injured herself, tended to the injuries of survivors on rafts following the sinking.  For her efforts she was awarded a George Medal, a civilian award for acts of great bravery.  Sister Savage was the sole survivor of the 12 nurses aboard The Centaur.

The sinking of a well-lit and appropriately marked Hospital Ship caused much anger in Australia and was widely regarded as an atrocity in breach of the Hague Convention of 1907.  Prime Minister John Curtin described the sinking of The Centaur as: “an entirely inexcusable act, undertaken in violation of the convention to which Japan is a party and of all the principles of common humanity“.  American General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific Area, stated the sinking was an example of Japanese “limitless savagery“.  The sinking was used to motivate the Australian home front to further support the war effort to “Avenge the Nurses!”

The incident was investigated by the War Crimes Tribunal after the war, but the responsible submarine was not able to be identified.  In 1978 historical research established that Submarine 1-177, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Nakagawa had sunk the Centaur. Lieutenant Commander Nakagawa was convicted as a war criminal for firing on survivors of British Chivalry on 22 February 1944, Sutlej on 24 February 1944, and Ascot on 29 February 1944 in the Indian Ocean by the War Crimes Tribunal in 1948.

The wreck of the Centaur was discovered on 20 December 2009 approximately 30 nautical miles off the southern tip of Moreton Island.