- Swinden, Greg
- Ship histories and stories, WWII operations, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Sydney IV, HMAS Sydney II
- June 2009 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Eventually enough pressure was brought to bear within Parliament to have the Joint Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade investigate and report on the loss of the Sydney. The inquiry commenced in early 1998 and released its report in March 1999. The Government formally responded to the report in June 2000. Amongst the reams of paper was the recommendation that the body at Christmas Island should be exhumed for further analysis. In June 2001 Lieutenant Commander Richard Chartier, RAN took a small team to Christmas Island to attempt to locate the grave, with a view to returning at a later date to recover the remains.
Richard Chartier’s team included anthropologist Dr Denise Donlon (a RAAF Reserve Squadron Leader with several years of experience in the recovery of human remains including those from crashed World War II aircraft), Mr Ted McGowan and Mr Kevin Lourey. Mr Lourey had lived on the island during the period 1949-69 and stated he knew the location of the grave. In 2001, however, the now overgrown and dilapidated cemetery was virtually unrecognisable. The team cleared the undergrowth, based on Mr Lourey’s recollections, and he identified a location in the front portion of the cemetery as the likely site. Using this evidence it was decided to push ahead with a search later that year.
In late August 2001 the official expedition commenced work at Christmas Island. Lieutenant Commander Chartier had been authorised by the Government (Department of Defence and the Department of Transport and Regional Services who issued the Exhumation Order) to exhume the body of the unknown sailor. The expedition included Denise Donlon, two forensic odontologists (Lieutenant Commander Matt Blenkin, RAN and Lieutenant Russell Lain, RANR) and two pathologists (RAAF Wing Commander Johan Duflou and Army Captain Alan Cala). The team set to work and despite excavating several tonnes of soil (40 cubic metres) in the front part of the cemetery no remains were found. After two weeks of digging the expedition was called off.
Over the next few years Mr McGowan, and others, wrote frequently to the Government calling for a second search but this was to no avail. In 2004, however, Mr John Perryman became the Senior Naval Historian in Canberra and took a renewed interest in the case following the receipt of submissions from Mr McGowan and Western Australian author Glenys McDonald. John examined the previous research and a photocopy of the photo taken by Brian O’Shannassy and recommended to Navy Headquarters that O’Shannassy be interviewed. He also interviewed another Christmas Island resident, Mr Say Kit Foo, who had been born on the island and who as a child had often played in the cemetery. These interviews were conducted separately by Mr Perryman with the assistance of Lieutenant Commander John Maddock, RANR. Both Brian O’Shannassy and Say Kit Foo identified an area at the rear of the cemetery, within a few feet of each other, where they recalled the grave being located.
Brian O’Shannassy further advised that when he took the photo he used the actual headstones as markers to identify the location of the unmarked grave which he recalled was to the right of the main line of graves at the rear of the cemetery. Additionally the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was contacted to ensure that rumours that the body had been exhumed during the late 1940s and re-buried in Singapore were incorrect. They advised that no body had been exhumed from Christmas Island, although other bodies had been exhumed from other remote locations (including Cocos Island) and re-buried in Singapore when Kranji War Cemetery was opened in the 1950s.
New search warranted
John Perryman used this new data to convince the Navy that a new search was warranted and in September 2006, Captain Jim Parsons, RANR was authorised take a team to Christmas Island to commence the second expedition. The team consisted of anthropologist Denise Donlon, forensic odontologists Lieutenant Russell Lain and Commander Matt Blenkin, archaeologist Tony Lowe and Mr Brian O’Shannassy. Interestingly Denise Donlon, Russell Lain and Matt Blenkin had also taken part in the 2001 expedition to Christmas Island.
Using the new data test trenches were dug alongside the main row of graves in the locations identified by Brian and Say Kit Foo; but nothing was found. When the second dig was proving to be fruitless Captain Parsons called a halt and decided to re-check the data provided. On 29 September 2006 he stood where Brian O’Shannassy had stood over 50 years before and examined the old photograph. In 1950 the photo included a marked grave that was not there in 1942 (that of Karl Ystenes who had died in 1948). Between Ystenes’ 1948 grave and the grave in front of it (that of Bruce Stewart buried in 1909) was a three foot gap – not enough for a normal coffin but perhaps big enough for one built to conform to a body lying in a peculiar way. Parsons rang John Perryman to confer and to also advise him he was going to commence digging slightly outside the existing `dig’ area.