- Stephens, Tony
- Ship histories and stories
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- RAN Ships
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- June 1988 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
MAY 14 1988 marks the 45th anniversary of the sinking of the Australian hospital ship Centaur, with the loss of 268 lives. Tony Stephens, who was three years and eight months old when his father died on the Centaur, looks at one of the Australia’s greatest wartime disasters.
We will never know why the Centaur was sunk. The short answer, of course, is that it was an act of war. Japan was at war with Australia. It will not be surprising to many people, therefore, that a Japanese submarine sank an Australian ship on her way to war zone. That would be in line with the policy that all is fair in love and war.
The ship in question, however, was a hospital ship. According to the best available evidence, she was fully illuminated, with freshly painted red crosses. International law should have ensured her safe passage from Sydney to Port Moresby.
After news of the sinking broke across the nation, Australians and their allies reacted with outrage. Prime Minister John Curtin described it as ‘deliberate, wanton and barbarous’. General Douglas MacArthur, Commander in Chief of allied forces in the Pacific, expressed his ‘revulsion’ but said Allied strength was not so much of the body as of the soul, suggesting Allied souls would be strengthened by the act. The NSW Premier, William McKell, spoke of ‘human savagery’. Billy Hughes, leader of the United Australian party, said: ‘The callous sinking of the Centaur will fill every Australian with horror. We are fighting against savages, not civilised men, and this tragedy will have served an end if it makes us realise more clearly what we are facing.’
Our family felt bewilderment and grief rather than horror. I was too young to understand. Armed with the optimism of the young, I believed for years that Harold Britton Stephens of the 2/12 Field Ambulance would swim to one of those lovely islands off the Queensland coast, unharmed by the burning ship, the torpedo, the oily water or the marauding sharks. He would then hail a passing boat and come home. My younger brother, Jerry, was to turn two years old a few days after the disaster and understood even less about it. Older brother Don, however, was nearly nine and his father’s mate. He would suffer. Our mother suffered most, quietly drawing on her reserves of strength to protect her children.
The official history published by the Australian War Memorial reports: ‘She sank in three minutes. There was no time to launch the lifeboats. Of those who managed to get off the burning ship, some were killed in the water by flying metal, some pulled down by the suction and others burned by the flaming oil. After 36 hours, during which sharks swam round the rafts, survivors were rescued by an American destroyer.’ There were only 64 survivors.
It was the biggest individual loss by far from a Japanese torpedo in Australian waters during the war. In view of all this, the sense of outrage is understandable. Yet it does not help explain the reasons for the tragedy.
Apart from the official war histories and the published accounts of survivors, there has been only one attempt to get to the heart of the mystery. Chris Milligan, of McGill University, Montreal, became interested in the Centaur when trying to trace the fate of an uncle, David Ireland Milligan, who went down with the hospital ship. During his search for information, Milligan’s curiosity shifted from the narrow concerns of his family history to the Centaur itself.
One rumour to circulate at the time of the sinking was that the Centaur was carrying ammunition and/or troops. According to this rumour, Japanese intelligence became aware of the presence of the ammunition and/or troops and alerted submarines in the area. The evidence is overwhelming that there were no troops on board – only medical personnel and crew.
As to the possible presence of ammunition, the rumour was given some support by the fact that the ship caught fire immediately and sank so quickly. The best explanation for this, however, is that the torpedo hit the Centaur in the fuel bunkers. The rumours also grew because ambulance drivers were allowed to carry a rifle each without contravening the Geneva Convention.
Milligan’s monograph, published in 1981, attracted little publicity. Yet it came close to quashing the rumours. It said: ‘Everyone on board was committed in his or her way to relieving pain, not to inflicting it; to fighting to save lives, not to destroying them; to the dispensation of comfort and compassion, not to spreading misery and suffering. Centaur was the antithesis of war – a floating speck of sanity on a sea of insane times.’
Australian war histories say that the submarine I-178 could have been responsible for the loss of the Centaur. I-178 was sunk by US warship Patterson south-east of the Solomon Islands on August 25, 1943. The submarine I-180 was also thought to be a possible attacker.
The histories seem to have erred here. The only reference to the Centaur in the 104 volume official war history published by the Japanese Self-Defence Agency appears in volume 96, where a brief passage records that ‘I-177 sank the British hospital ship Centaur.’ The weather off the Queensland coast was clear on the morning of May 14, 1943 – the Centaur was hit at about 4.15am – but it was winter and it would have been dark. One of the writers of Japan’s official war history, Kanemi Sakamoto, pointed out in 1981 that, although the official record acknowledged that the Centaur was a protected ship, this was not to say that the submarine’s skipper, Hajime Nakagawa, or the crew were aware of that at the time.
‘I believe that if Mr. Nakagawa knew that the Centaur was a hospital ship, he would not have attacked. In those days, every captain believed strongly in rigidly observing international law.’
Tadashi Obori, the submarine’s weapons officer, said: ‘I am positive in saying that at the time we didn’t see any sign to indicate the ship was a hospital ship.’ He said of another incident: ‘I remember one case when we were in just the right position to fire the torpedoes. As soon as we realised it was a hospital ship, the captain and I quickly abandoned the attack and retreated.’
Nakagawa was later tried as a B class war criminal and spent four years at Sugamo prison – the jail where Japan’s war leaders, including Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo, were executed. The charges against Nakagawa related to his activities later in the war in the Indian Ocean, where Japanese submarine officers were ordered to fire on survivors from torpedoed ships.
Sakamoto said: ‘I believe that no one other than the skipper can confirm that they knew it was a hospital ship’. But Nakagawa turned down offers to talk about it.
Curiously, the day after the Centaur was sunk, Tokyo Radio claimed that Italian hospital ships had been attacked in the Mediterranean. The announcement could have been an attempt to deflect criticism over the Centaur. Or it could have been a coincidence.