Sinking of the AHS Centaur
Just after 4am on May 14, 1943, the Australian Hospital Ship Centaur was attacked without warning by a Japanese submarine, despite being well-lit and marked with the red crosses that should have assured her safety.
A torpedo fired at the ship struck the oil fuel tank on its port side, resulting in an explosion that set it ablaze. Water rushed through the hole in her side causing her to roll, then sink, bow-first, within three minutes. The hospital ship was near Moreton Island, en route from Sydney to Cairns, with her final destination Papua New Guinea, transporting medical staff and supplies.
Among the staff were 192 soldiers of 2/12th Field Ambulance and 12 female nurses from the Australian Army Nursing Service. Also on board were 74 civilian crew, eight army officers, 45 other army personnel and a Torres Strait ship pilot. Most of those aboard were asleep at the time of the attack; many were either killed outright or unable to escape the sinking vessel.
Of the 332 souls aboard, only 64 survived. The survivors had to wait in damaged lifeboats and on rafts and wreckage for up to 36 hours before being rescued. According to newspaper reports they “whiled away the hours by singing and telling stories. They sang Roll Out the Barrel and Waltzing Matilda and one group conducted a ‘bob-in’ sweepstake on the length of time it would take for them to be rescued”.
Sister Ellen Savage was the only one of 12 nurses to survive. During the ordeal Savage tended to the injuries of others, while concealing the fact that she was badly injured herself, including fractured ribs, burst eardrums and a fractured nose. In August the following year Ellen Savage was awarded the George Medal for her bravery.
Ellen Savage cartoon, published in The Argus (Melbourne) , 9 June 1945
The final resting place of the Centaur remained undiscovered until December 2009. Lying 56km east of Moreton Island, the site is protected under commonwealth law by the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976.
In 1948 the Centaur Memorial Fund for Nurses was established in Brisbane in memory of the nurses who served in the World Wars and on the home front. The administrative records for the Centaur Memorial Fund for Nurses are held by the State Library of Queensland. For more information about the collection see the Centaur Memorial Fund for Nurses series of blog posts:
- Avenging the Nurses: Government's Response to the Sinking of 2/3/ Australian Hospital Ship Centaur
- Centaur Day, 14 May, and Red Roses for Remembrance
- Queen of the Nurses Quest
- How to Crown a Queen
- At the Brisbane Ekka, 1950-1977 - the Centaur Memorial Fund's Money Spinner
- Len Shillam's 2/3 AHS Centaur Memorial, 1957
- Flotsam from the 2/3 Australian Hospital Ship Centaur
- Centaur House, Queen St, Brisbane: A Memorial Edifice to Queensland's Nurses in Two World Wars
- Centaur House, Mt Gravatt 1949: Almost the First Raffle of Real Estate in Queensland
- Centaur House Memorial Hostel, Magnetic Island
Myles Sinnamon - Project Coordinator, State Library of Queensland