Friday, May 15, 2015

14th May

This week, in 1943, the hospital ship "Centaur" was torpedoed and sunk off the Queensland coast. Clearly marked as a hospital ship its sinking and the loss of over 200 lives saw it became an emotive image for Australian wartime propaganda... 

Rob's dad Allan was one of  only 64 survivors of this disaster........



The 72nd anniversary of the loss of the "Centaur", and so many doctors, nurses and field ambulance officers, was commemorated at the Australian War Memorial last night.


This is part of the address read at the ceremony.....

Built in the early 1920s on the River Clyde in Scotland as a merchant vessel, in early 1943 Centaur was converted to a hospital ship. It had a fully equipped operating theatre and dental surgery, and could carry 252 patients. Centaur was also clearly marked as a hospital ship. Around its freshly painted white hull ran a thick green band, broken in several places by large red crosses. At night, the vessel was brightly illuminated by powerful spotlights. 

Centaur completed only two voyages with patients, before beginning its ill-fated third and final voyage. In the early afternoon of 12 May 1943 the hospital ship steamed from Sydney for Cairns, carrying members of the 2/12th Field Ambulance. Shortly after 4 am on 14 May, while most aboard were asleep, a torpedo fired by a Japanese submarine struck Centaur's port side, hitting the oil fuel tank, which ignited in a massive explosion. 

The bridge superstructure collapsed and the funnel crashed onto the deck. Everything was covered with burning oil and a fire quickly began to roar across the ship. Water, meanwhile, rushed in through the gaping hole in her side. Many of those on board who had not been killed in the explosion or fire were trapped as the ship started to go down bow first, and then broke in two. In just three minutes Centaur was gone.

Of the 332 people on board, only 64 survived. The survivors were at sea for a day and half before they were rescued. 

For a few years before he died in 1999 Allan was the only remaining Queensland survivor of the disaster (atrocity)  and was regularly featured in news stories each May.


It was ironic really because it was a topic never discussed with the family until Allan was well into his sixties - when he started to open up about the experience.  He escaped a flooded cabin, fires caused by the explosion, and a 20 metre drop into the ocean  before eventually making his way onto a makeshift raft on that fateful night. The survivors were rescued, a day and a half later, by the American destroyer USS Mugford. 

Allan was only 22 years old when this happened. He ignored injuries from his fall for many years - but later in life his injuries certainly made their presence felt, resulting in spinal surgery and a great loss in mobility.




The Last Post ceremony at the Australian War Memorial is very dignified - and quite moving despite the spare simplicity of the setting.

 Wreaths were laid on behalf of the Centaur Association and the Canberra RSL.


Schoolchildren and other visitors are all very respectful.....although the cockatoos and galahs shrieking across the clear skies above the pool of remembrance were a distracting presence at times.



 The 2/12th Field Ambulance members who died on the Centaur in 1943 are listed on Panels 87, 88 and 89 of the Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour - way too many names.