A Centaur memorial event at State Library of Queensland, Monday 14 May 2018

Guest blogger: Dr Madonna Grehan – 2015 John Oxley Library Fellow.

Monday 14 May 2018 marks the 75th anniversary of the sinking of an Australian Hospital ship (AHS) by enemy action, 100 km off the coast of Queensland, east of Moreton Island.

The ship was the newly commissioned 2/3 AHS Centaur. On 14 May 1943, it was travelling to New Guinea to retrieve wounded soldiers and resupply the battlefield with fresh support. On board Centaur was a complete unit of 2/12th Field Ambulance Officers, 8 doctors, 12 nurses of the Australian Army Nursing Service, a representative of the Red Cross, and ship’s crew. Being fully lit and bearing the requisite signage of a hospital ship in war time, Centaur was protected under the tenets of the Geneva Convention.

Centaur (ship), John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 60917

2/3 AHS Centaur, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 60917

At 4:10 am, a torpedo from a Japanese submarine struck Centaur. Extensively damaged, the ship caught fire and sank rapidly. Of the 332 personnel on board, 267 were killed. The 65 survivors made their way to floating debris where they waited afloat in the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by a slick of oil, circling sharks, and human remains. One young man died subsequently from extensive burns, his body committed to the sea.

Thirty-four hours after the sinking, the rafts and their cargo were spotted by an Avon Anson aircraft from 71 (CAF) squadron. It had launched from Lowood airfield. An American Bagley class destroyer USS Mugford (DD-389) then retrieved the 64 remaining survivors.

Sister Ellen Savage was the only one of 12 nurses to survive. Image from Australian Women's Weekly, 29 May 1943

Sister Ellen Savage was the only one of 12 nurses to survive. Image from Australian Women’s Weekly, 29 May 1943

This incident brought the reality and the gravity of the Pacific War home to Australians, especially to Queenslanders. A blatant contravention of the Geneva principles, and later deemed a war crime, it had been committed on their doorstep. Memories of those events thus stayed with some who expressed their sorrow in commemorative artistic works. For example, Colin Brumby and Patrick Thomas published their choral piece Centaur for High (or Low) Voices in 2009, when the search for the wreck of Centaur was underway.

Another work is an epic poem by Paul Sherman. In 1943, as a nine-year old boy in Brisbane, Sherman read of the Centaur’s loss in the Courier Mail while devouring his breakfast. The reports and the images captured by the newspaper stayed with him. In 1993 Sherman marked the 50th anniversary of Centaur’s sinking penning a 12-sequence epic poem. The work was short-listed for the Warana Prize for Poetry. In 1994, Sherman extended the poem, publishing his beautiful and haunting epic as Hospital Ship Centaur.

‘Work, save, fight and so avenge the nurses!’. From Australian War Memorial Collection, ID ARTV09088

‘Work, save, fight and so avenge the nurses!’. From Australian War Memorial Collection, ID ARTV09088

On Monday 14 May 2018 at 2 pm, State Library of Queensland will mark the 75th anniversary of the sinking of the 2/3 AHS Centaur with a reading of Paul Sherman’s poem followed by the Last Post and the Rouse played on the bugle, punctuated by a minute’s silence. This 30 minute event is open to anyone wishing to attend. Lest We Forget.

Dr Madonna Grehan

Dr Madonna Grehan was the 2015 John Oxley Library Fellow. Her previous research on the Centaur Memorial Fund can be found here: