AHS Centaur

centaur

The Disaster

Centaur was steaming north from Sydney on her second voyage to New Guinea as a hospital ship in May 1943. On board 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. These latter troops were passengers, travelling to New Guinea to set up field medical units. At 0410 hrs on the third day, 14 May, of her voyage north, whilst fully illuminated in accordance with the Geneva Convention, a torpedo from the Japanese submarine I-177 struck the Centaur on the port side, near her oil bunkers. A tremendous explosion rocked the ship and fire broke out.
Most of the personnel on board were asleep below decks. With the precarious list of the ship and with the sea flooding in they were trapped in their bunks and unable to escape. Many who managed to gain the upper decks were sucked down as the ship floundered.
Of the 332 persons on board, perhaps less than a hundred actually found themselves floating on the surface when the ship disappeared. Many were badly burned or injured, and most had ingested oil which covered the sea in the vicinity.
Only one doctor and one nurse survived. In the ensuing 34 hours before rescuers arrived, injuries and attacks by sharks caused the death of a number of survivors.
About mid afternoon of the 15th May, an RAAF Anson search aircraft sighted the survivors, who had drifted about 20 miles to the north-east. The destroyer, USS Mungford was directed to the scene, and the Commander, showing great courage in waters threatened by enemy submarines, ordered his vessel to heave to and proceeded to pick up the remaining 64 survivors. All were given first aid, and were taken ashore in Brisbane for hospital treatment.

History of the Ship

Centaur was launched at Greenock, Scotland in 1924, for the Ocean Steamship Coy, later known as the Blue Funnel Line. She was designed with a strengthened flat bottom, to service ports along the Western Australian coast, where the large tidal range could leave vessels lying in the mud at low tide.

Her trading route was from Singapore, through the ports of the Netherlands West Indies, to Australia. In 1938 she picked up a distress call from the Japanese whaler, Kyo-Maru and was able to tow the vessel to Geraldton.

On the 19th of November 1941 Centaur came across survivors of the German armed merchant cruiser, Kormoran. A few hours before, this ship had sunk the Australian cruiser, HMAS Sydney off the Western Australian Coast. Centaur towed the Kormoran’s lifeboats, containing 62 German Navy crew members, to Carnarvon.

Early in 1943 the Australian Government required a small, shallow draught vessel for hospital ship duties, for short voyages between Australian East Coast ports and New Guinea. Centaur was ideal for this role, and the UK authorities made her available.

Conversion to a hospital ship configuration was carried out in Melbourne. The conversion was completed in record time, and the Centaur sailed from Melbourne for Sydney on 12 March, 1943.

The ship’s medical staff joined the vessel in Sydney and she sailed from that port for Brisbane on the 21st March, 1943. At Brisbane various improvements and changes were made to make her accommodation more suitable for patients travelling in tropical conditions.

Centaur made a coastal voyage to Townsville to take on board sick and wounded servicemen, for treatment in the main city hospitals of Brisbane. At Brisbane she embarked American and Australian medical personnel as passengers to Port Moresby.

Wounded Australian and American soldiers were then taken onboard at Moresby, and the ship proceeded to Sydney, where she arrived on the 8th May 1943. None could know that this vessel of mercy had only six more days of service.

Centaur departed Sydney on her final voyage at 10.44 am on Wednesday 12th May 1943. Tugs nudged her out from the wharf, shown so graphically in the painting at the top of this page. All those on board felt safe in Centaur protected by the Red Cross and the rules of the Geneva Convention.

The heroes and heroines lost in the Centaur tragedy gave their lives for their country. They have been deprived of the future we have all experienced. As we read these lines, our hearts must go out to the loved ones who lost their dear husbands, brothers, sisters and friends.

Images and text reproduced from “Centaur Memorial and Walk of Remembrance Unveiling Ceremony Booklet” of 14 May 1993

Map

Roll of Honour

MERCHANT NAVY

Abbot, D. Grainger, R. Milligan, D.I.
Alexander, G.M. Hall, H.R. Morris, A.J.
Behan, T. Hart, R.F. Morris, T.V.
Bowden, J.O. Hughes, T.S. Murray, G.A.
Brandin, G. Kaki, L. Page, E.C.
Buck, J.C. Laird, R.M. Pearl, S.O.
Capper, J. Lamble, H.E. Pritchard, T.E.
Carey, G.E.J. Le Blanc, J. Rayner, A.
Clark, C. Lee, M.J. Siddons, F.
Cockerhill, D. Lockhart, V. Simpson, E.B.
Cuthill, W.D. Long, G.E. Spence, R.J.
Downie, W.R. Longden, S. Strack, S.L.
Fox, F.W. Lyons, J. Summers, E.J.
Gallagher, J. MacLean, D.R. Sykes, K.
Gannon, F.J. McKinnon, W.J. Warner, W.A.

SHIPS MEDICAL STAFF

Adams, M.L. Johnson, L.G. Ockwell, L.G.
Aitchison, G.F. Kerr, J.A. O’Donnell, A.M.
Burrett, W.E. King, E. O’Sullivan, J.C.
Burroughs, S.P. Laverick, E.G. Perry, N.E.
Clark, J.M. Law, R. Phillips, N.E.
Clark, W.F.D. LeBrun, C.R. Rutherford, E.M.
Clegg, P.L. McFarlane, M.H. Shaw, E.A
Collins, L.F. McLean, N. Smellie, M.A.
Cooke, A.J. Manson, C.P. Thomas, G.L.
Cooley, G.G. Maynard, A.F. Walker, W.
Haultain, H.F.J.C. Maynard, J.C. Williams, L.L.
Hindmarsh, B.F. Melbom, E.E. Williams, M.A.
Holland, L. Moore, D.W. Wyllie, D.J.
Howson, A. Moss, L.J.
Jewell, S.A. Moston, M.

2/12th FIELD AMBULANCE

Anderson, F.W.C. Fehrenbach, H.S. Lowe, H.H. Salmon, L.J.
Annis-Brown, J. Findlay, R.W. Lucas, J. Sender, I.H.
Annis-Brown, R. Fishwick, C.E. Lynagh, F.J. Skafte, L.R.
Baily, W.H. Foley, S.D. Lynne, C.E. South, A.E.
Barlow, T.D.H. Forrest, J.M. Lyttleton, S.F. Stanley, J.E,
Barnes, W.E.C. Friedrich, V. McCaskie, T.E. Stephens, H.B.
Bedkober, L.L. Garbutt, D.R. McDougall, W.O. Stevens, J.A.
Benton, K.E. Garfit, W.D. McGuire, H.J. Stewart, J.
Black, W.C. Geaghan, W.T. McKay, C.S. Stubbs, R.G.
Blackman, R.McG. Goffett, C.A. McSkimming, S.G. Swan, L.R.
Bladen, H.A. Gordon, C.T. Marshall, J.B. Swinburn, R.
Bourchier, K.P. Gore, W.H. Miles, R.W. Taggart, J.
Bowen, D.L. Gunning, A. Miley, T.H. Taylor, J.
Boyd, A. Haynes, K.R. Miller, C.O. Thelander, C.E.
Bracken, P.J. Hayward, C.E. Montgomery, C.G. Thomas, J.V.
Bracken, J.W. Hembrow, J.H. Moran, J. O’N. Thompson, D.L.
Brewer, B.W.H. Henderson, L.J. Mort, R.F. Thompson, H.W.
Brown, A.V. Hewison, R.J. Mycock, F.J. Thorpe, J.
Browne, J.McG. Hoare, J.W. Newell, E.L. Upton, G.H.
Bush, G.R. Hodgkindon, N.A. Oakley, H.V. Vincent, E.C.M.
Butt, W.J. Holloway, S.G. O’Brien, M.J. Walder, J.J.
Carey, W.R. Jackman, V.M. O’Connor, R. Walker, N.L.
Chadwick, L.N. Johnston, R.C. O’Neill, T.W. Wattus, E.O.
Chapman, E.A. Johnston, S.R. Overett, H.H. West, W.C.
Clark, L.S. Jones, G.R. Owens, E.L.V. Westendorf, R.H.G.
Clark, N.S. Kemp, A.R. Perrett, E.R. Wheeler, N.E.W.
Claydon, J.A. Key, J.J.R. Povey, A.R. Williams, A.H.
Cripps, L.J. Lambert, C. Power, E.J. Williams, D.K.
Cross, H.R.T. Le Grand, P.M.P. Reid, A. Williams, E.F.
Cummings, M.H. Leask, A.R. Richardson, C. Wilson, A.
Denne, F.J. Leask, H.M. Richardson, H.F. Wood, A.
Doherty, J.P. Leask, H.H. Roberts, H.O. Wood, L.S.
Donohoe, H.M. Lee, T.A. Robinson, C.M.S. Woods, C.
Dutfield, C.C. Lesnie, N.M.G. Robinson, R.L. Wright, G.
Fawcett, G. Loader, J.J.J.

ATTACHED PERSONNEL FROM AASC

Adams, A.T. Etheridge, G.R.G. Lawson, W.T. Sheard, H.E.
Alexander, J.R. Evans, J.K. Lillas, R.L. Shepherd, G.P.
Bayley, A.N. Evans, W.A. Long, A. Simpson, E.J.
Bond, S.R. Ferrow, J.W. Lotze, E.L. Sweeney, S.E.
Burns, W.R. Fortier, A.D. Lyneham, H.L. Thomas, A.K.
Bush, G.F. Fortier, F.L. McGuire, C.P. Trigg, B.S.
Cavanagh, R.C. Fowler, C.A. Mansfield, J.K. Westhorp, S.B.
Colefax, B.D. Galvin, S.G. Murphy. G.G. Wilson, G.A.T.
Colemane, W.J. Hayward, T.H. Pain, R.A. Winder, G.A.
Collins, H.S. Hogan, K.F. Palmer, V.A. Winterflood, A.A.

Last Modified: July 24, 2015