The Hospital Ship 'Centaur' sunk by the Japanese on 14/5/1943

Sinking Of A Hospital Ship
'Japanese Submarine Sinks The Centaur' The Courier-Mail 29/5/09

QUEENSLAND'S worst maritime disaster was a direct consequence of the war and remains an enduring mystery to this day.

The sinking of the hospital ship AHS Centa, pictured, on May 14,1943, by a Japanese submarine crew was also a terrible war crime, and something for which Japan has never apologised.

The Centaur was on its fourth voyage as a converted hospital ship at the time. The torpedo struck in the pre-dawn dark, but the vessel was lit up like a Christmas tree in what turned out to be a vain effort to alert enemy shipping.

In the end the unarmed ship, its crew and passengers stood little chance.

A torpedo from submarine I-177 lanced the port side oil fuel tank, sparking a devastating fire which caused the vessel to sink in only a few minutes.

Of the 322 souls on board, only 64 survived, including only one of the 12 army nurses, Sister Ellen Savage. Most of the survivors were found in life-rafts or clinging to debris, some after enduring up to 36 hours in the water.

The first hint of danger was detected by a female operator at a RAAF Radar Station, who noticed a blip east-north-east of Stradbroke Island characteristic of a surfaced submarine. She was told to ignore it.

A RAAF plane based at Lowood, west of Ipswich, eventually spotted survivors in the water the following afternoon. The ensuing search effort, led by the USS Mugford, which had almost simultaneously noticed the survivors, lasted another day but was hampered by fears that the submarine was still in the area.

Now, 66 years later, the state and federal governments have finally contributed $4 million to a search for the Centaur's final resting place, believed to be on a sloping seabed about 2km under the waves.

Search leader David Mearns recently revealed that the accuracy of the last bearing taken by the Centaur's navigator, Gordon Rippon, would be crucial. Rippon, one of the 64 survivors, has remained convinced about his bearing's accuracy.

The attack sparked immense public outrage at the time. Both Australia and Britain complained to the Japanese authorities about the incident, but it was not until 1979 that a Japanese submarine historian confirmed that the I-177 was the culprit.