Surviving the Centaur sinking.

A poster urging Australians to “Avenge the Nurses” after the sinking of the Centaur in 1943. Image courtesy Australian War Memorial.

On a quiet Saturday afternoon on 15 May 1943, the senior Royal Australian Naval officer in Brisbane received a message stating that a USN destroyer had picked up survivors from the Australian Hospital Ship (AHS) Centaur.    This was the first anyone knew of the tragedy that had unfolded a short distance off the Queensland coast.

Around 4 AM the previous day AHS Centaur had been steaming north from Sydney with a full crew, and members of the 2/14th Field Ambulance.   In all, there were 332 people on board bound for Port Moresby.   As the ship was about 30nm (55kms) off Moreton Island she was struck by a torpedo fired by a Japanese submarine.

Merchant seaman Alfred Ramage had just finished his watch and was climbing into his bunk when he was rocked by the powerful explosion.   Ramage knew instantly what had happened so he quickly donned his lifebelt and began making his way to the boat deck, urgency spurred by the unfortunate knowledge that he had never learned to swim.     

The torpedo had struck the portside fuel bunker which sent flames ripping through the ship burning and trapping many people below decks.     Those same flames soon engulfed the boat deck and then the bridge as the crew struggled to get the lifeboats away.

Steward Frank Drust was standing outside the ship’s pantry when the floor collapsed and a wall of flames separated him from the closest companionway leading to the deck.   By now, the Centaur was sinking by the bow.   He waded through swirling waist-deep water and eventually made it onto the deck.   He and a few comrades began throwing hatch covers and life rafts over the side to help those already floundering in the water.   They continued their efforts until they too were washed off their feet as the water rose around them.

AHS Centaur. Photo Courtesy State Library of Queensland

Sister Ellen Savage, one of twelve nurses on board, was woken by the loud explosion reverberating through the ship.   She and fellow nurse Merle Morton fled their cabin in their pyjamas and were told by their commanding officer to get topside as quickly as they could.   They had no time to retrieve warm clothing or anything else from their cabin before they took flight.  

By the time they reached the deck the Centaur was already going down by the bow. The suction dragged Ellen Savage down into a maelstrom of whirling metal and timber cracking her ribs, breaking her nose and bruising her all over.   But, suddenly she found herself back on the surface in the middle of a thick oil slick.   She never saw her cabin mate or her commanding officer again.

Savage could see a large piece of wreckage a short distance away and swam for it.   It turned out to be a portion of the ship’s wheelhouse that several others had already taken refuge on.    In time as many as 30 or more survivors climbed onto the fragile floating island.   Others who had managed to escape the ship before it sank kept themselves afloat on pieces of debris or the few rubber rafts that had been deployed in the few hectic minutes after the torpedo struck.   

Sister Ellen Savage GM. Image courtesy AWM.

Ship’s cook Frank Martin survived by clinging to a single floating timber spar.    Half-naked and without anything to eat or drink, he held on for dear life for nearly 36 hours until he was finally rescued.      

Seaman Matthew Morris was a little luckier.   At first, he found himself alone in the water blinded by salt and oil stinging his eyes.   But when his vision returned he spied a small raft a short distance away so swam over and climbed into it.   Then he spotted his mate Walter Tierney and hauled him onboard.   As daylight came the pair saw something large floating in the distance and made for it.   It turned out to be the wheelhouse so they lashed their raft to it and joined the 30 or so people already there.

They spent all that day huddled on the makeshift raft.   There was less than 10 litres of water on hand and that was doled out sparingly.    Several of the survivors had serious burns to their bodies.   One was Captain Salt, a pilot from the Torres Strait Pilot Service, who had run through a wall of flame to escape the sinking ship.   Despite his painful injuries, he kept morale up reassuring everyone that help would soon be on the way.   

Matthew Morris led choruses of “Roll out the Barrel,” “Waltzing Matilda” and other wartime favourites to keep people from thinking about their plight.   Sister Savage tended to the wounded as best she could with what little that was at hand never complaining of her own injuries.   She had remained silent about her broken ribs until after they had been rescued.

One poor man, Private Jack Walder, had been badly burned.   He drifted in and out of consciousness until he passed away on the raft.   Savage prayed over his body, which was then gently pushed away to sink from sight.   

The Brisbane Telegraph front page, 18 May 1843.

According to several of the survivors, sharks were constant, and unwanted, companions circling survivors clinging to wreckage or perched precariously on makeshift rafts.

The survivors spent all that day and the following night clinging to life hoping to be rescued.   Several saw or heard aircraft flying overhead or saw ships passing in the distance but the Centaur survivors went unseen.    At one stage, those on the wheelhouse considered sending one of the rubber rafts to try and make landfall to raise the alarm.  But that was eventually dismissed owing to the large ocean swells.

On Friday night the Japanese submarine surfaced briefly near the wheelhouse sending a chill through the survivors.   Everyone remained quiet and a short time later the sub disappeared below the waves again without inflicting any more casualties.    The survivors never gave up hope that they would be rescued.   Then, on Saturday afternoon an Australian Airforce aircraft on a routine flight saw something strange floating in the water.   On investigation, the pilot realised it was wreckage and guided the US Navy destroyer, USS Mugford, to the location.   They quickly began searching the nearby waters for survivors.  

AHS Centaur survivors being cared for in hospital. Telegraph, 18 May 1943, p. 2.

In all, 64 people were saved but another 268 lost their lives.   Sister Ellen Savage was awarded the George Medal for her efforts during the ordeal.

Lest We Forget.

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2023.

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