He was badly wounded and dying, but somehow he made it into the Carley Float. Whether he fell into it, was blown in by a bursting shell or was placed there by his shipmates we will never know. When the light cruiser HMAS Sydney was sunk off the Western Australian coast on 19 November 1941, in her final battle with the disguised German raider Kormoran, it was the start of one man’s long journey home.
A few months later on 6 February 1942 a battle damaged naval pattern Carley Float (a metal tubular life raft covered with cork and canvas) was spotted drifting off Christmas Island (then British Territory administered from Singapore). The Harbour Master, Captain James Smith, ordered his assistant Edward Craig to bring the float ashore and the badly decomposed body of a man wearing a white boiler suit was found in the raft. The Island’s doctor (Dr J. Scott Clark) ascertained that the body was of a Caucasian male who had been dead for some time and the description of the Carley Float later given by Smith indicated it was from a naval vessel and that the float had been in the water for several months.
Also found in the raft was a shoe or boot with the broad arrow (indicating Government property) and the manufacturer’s name of McCowan or McEwen stamped on it. First hand evidence suggests that the shoe size was not compatible with the body and it was speculated that there may have been another man in the raft prior to it being recovered.
The overalls worn were described as both white or blue, that had been bleached white by the sun, and with four press stud fasteners at the front as opposed to buttons. The body had lain in the raft in a peculiar position and the Assistant Harbour Master later stated, in 1981, that a coffin had to be built to conform to the way the remains were preserved. In mid February 1942 the body was buried in an unmarked grave in the Old European Cemetery with military honours. A report on the incident was delivered to the RAN by Captain Smith when he returned to Fremantle later that month. On 31 March 1942 Christmas Island was invaded and occupied by the Japanese and there the matter and the unknown sailor rested for many years to come.
In 1949 the matter was examined by the RAN when one of the men who had been present at the funeral (Sergeant J.W. Brown of the Christmas Island volunteer platoon) wrote an article for a WA newspaper but nothing came of this investigation. Again the matter was consigned to the footnotes of history being only briefly mentioned in the RAN’s Official History for the War 1939-1945 (published in 1957). At Christmas Island the unknown sailor lay in his unmarked grave, but every now and then Mr Jack Pettigrew (who had been on the island in 1942 and returned there in 1946) would take interested people to see the grave site. One day in late 1950 he took Mr Brian O’Shannassy (an ex RAN Signalman working on the island as an accountant) to see the grave and Brian took a photo of the cemetery. Pettigrew is alleged to have also made a comment that he recalled the body had a `perfect set of teeth’ (or words to that effect). Brian O’Shannassy’s photo was to prove to be of significant value some 55 years later.
In the early 1980s there was resurgence in interest regarding the loss of Sydney and two books on the matter were published. These were Michael Montgomery’s Who Sank the Sydney (1981) and Barbara Winter’s HMAS Sydney – Fact, Fantasy and Fraud (1984). Both mentioned the sailor buried at Christmas Island. From these two books the pressure began to mount to have the wreck of Sydney located and the body at Christmas Island exhumed. Throughout the 1990s more books on the loss of Sydney were written and more Australians became interested in the whole story. One of these was Mr Ted McGowan whose older brother (Able Seaman Thomas McGowan) had been lost with the ship. He had heard the rumour that the body had a perfect set of teeth and, linked with the details of the shoe found in the raft, he believed that the body could be that of his brother. His efforts over the next 15 years were to prove to be one of the main catalysts in having the body exhumed.