Tuesday, July 16, 2013

AHS Centaur

Figure 1:  Starboard bow view of the Australian Hospital Ship (AHS) Centaur taken at Sydney, Australia, circa 1943. Note the prominent red crosses and the lines (which were painted green) on her hull. Red crosses were also attached to her funnel. Centaur was torpedoed and sunk with heavy loss of life by Japanese submarine I-177 on 14 May 1943. Royal Australian Navy photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2:  AHS Centaur, date and place unknown. Photograph can be found at http://www.ssmaritime.com/centaur.htm. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3:  AHS Centaur one month prior to her loss, location unknown. Photograph is credited to S. Givens and it appears in Ross Gillett's book, Australian and New Zealand Warships 1914-1945, Doubleday Sydney, 1983, page 245. The photograph is held in the Naval Historical Collection, Australian War Memorial, Number 302796. Copyright has expired and it is in the public domain. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4:  AHS Centaur as it looked before its fateful last mission of mercy. Exact date and location unknown.   This photograph clearly shows that Centaur was easily identifiable as a hospital ship. Photograph can be found at http://centaur.org.au/finding-the-centaur/. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 5:  An artist’s impression of AHS Centaur leaving a harbor during World War II. The artist is unknown. Photograph can be found at http://www.ssmaritime.com/centaur.htm. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 6:  A painting of AHS Centaur, commissioned for Port Adelaide's 2009 ANZAC “Light on the Water” commemoration, was completed by renowned Birkenhead maritime artist, John Ford (F.A.S.M.A.). Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 7: An artist’s impression of the end of AHS Centaur at 0410 hours on Friday, 14 May 1943. Artist is unknown.  Photograph can be found at http://centaur.org.au/finding-the-centaur/. Click on photograph for larger image.

The 3,222-ton passenger steamship Centaur was built for the Ocean Steamship Company (a subsidiary of Alfred Holt’s Blue Funnel Line) by the Scotts Shipbuilding and Engineering Company at Greenock, Scotland. The ship was completed in 1924 and was equipped to carry passengers, livestock, and general cargo. Centaur was approximately 315 feet long and 48 feet wide, had a top speed of 12.5 knots, and had a peacetime crew of 68 officers and men. As a cargo liner, Centaur usually carried 72 passengers (50 first class, 22 second class) and 450 head of cattle. Cargo was carried in four holds, and while two decks within the hull were primarily used for livestock, they could instead be used as additional cargo space when needed.
As soon as Centaur entered service towards the end of 1924, she was assigned to the Fremantle, Australia-Java-Singapore trade route. Centaur was considered to be a cross between a tramp steamer and a cargo liner and from 1928 to the mid-1930s was the only ship of the Blue Funnel Line to service this route. As trade and travel between these destinations began to increase, the Blue Funnel Line added two more ships to assist Centaur in the Fremantle-Java-Singapore circuit.
A sad bit of irony is that in November 1938, Centaur came to the rescue of the 385-ton Japanese whale-chaser Kyo Maru II. The Japanese ship had developed boiler problems while returning from the Antarctic and was drifting towards the Houtman Abrolhos Islands, which are a chain of 122 islands and coral reefs in the Indian Ocean off the western coast of Australia. Centaur happened to be in the area and responded to Kyo Maru II’s distress signal. Centaur towed the Japanese whaler to Geraldton on Australia’s west coast.  Less than five years later, another Japanese ship came into contact with Centaur, with much more tragic results.
After Great Britain entered World War II in early September 1939, Centaur, as a vessel in the British Merchant Navy, was taken over by the Royal Navy. The ship was armed with a stern-mounted 4-inch gun and two Vickers machine guns which were located on the bridge wings for protection against enemy warships and aircraft. Centaur was also equipped with port and starboard paravanes and degaussing equipment for protection against naval mines. The Royal Navy kept Centaur on her original trade route as an armed cargo ship.
On 26 November 1941, Centaur was one of the ships searching for the missing Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney. During the search, Centaur discovered a lifeboat with survivors from the German raider Kormoran, which had been sunk along with Sydney in a mutually destructive battle just seven days earlier on 19 November.  Among the survivors in the lifeboat was Kormoran’s captain, Theodor Detmers. Centaur brought the German crewmen to Carnarvon, western Australia, where they became prisoners-of-war, along with roughly 100 other Kormoran survivors who were rescued by other ships. Not one of Sydney’s 645 crewmen was ever found.
After the start of the war in the Pacific on 7 December 1941, Centaur mainly steamed to ports along the western coast of Australia. On 6 October 1942, Centaur was ordered to sail to Queensland, Australia, where she began carrying cargo between the east coast of Australia and New Guinea. At that time, Australia had only three hospital ships and none of them was able to operate in the shallow coastal waters of Southeast Asia. Of the Australian Merchant Navy vessels able to operate in this region, none was suitable for conversion to a hospital ship. So the Australian government asked for assistance from the British Ministry of Shipping. On 4 January 1943, the British Ministry of Shipping responded by making Centaur available to the Australian military for use as a hospital ship.
Work began on converting Centaur into a hospital ship on 9 January 1943. During this conversion, Centaur was painted with all the international markings of a hospital ship. She was given a white hull with a green band interspersed by three large red crosses on each side of her hull. Her superstructure was also painted white and multiple red crosses were positioned so that the ship could be easily identified from both sea and air. At night, the ship’s markings were illuminated by a combination of internal and external lights. Data on the ship’s markings and a description of her layout was provided to the International Committee of the Red Cross during the first week of February 1943, who passed this information on to the Japanese on 5 February. This information was also circulated and promoted by the press and media.  All weapons were obviously removed from the ship, although the anti-mine countermeasures were kept for defensive purposes. The ship was commissioned on 1 March 1943 as the Australian Hospital Ship (AHS-47) Centaur.  The newly remodeled vessel could carry a total of 252 patients as well as passengers and cargo.
Centaur began her duties as a hospital ship on 12 March 1943. During her first voyage sailing from Melbourne to Sydney, Australia, a large number of defects were noted on Centaur by the captain, chief engineer, and chief medical officer. Centaur went back into the dockyard to have these defects repaired and, once they were, the ship went on her first major assignment. Centaur carried cargo and medical personnel to Port Moresby, New Guinea, and returned to Brisbane, Australia, with Australian and American wounded along with a small number of injured Japanese prisoners of war. 
Centaur then steamed to Sydney on 8 May 1943. Once there, she received cargo and provisions, as well as passengers. Centaur carried a totally of 332 people: 75 civilian crew, 8 Army officers, 12 female Army nurses, 45 other Army personnel, and 192 soldiers from the 2/12th Australian Field Ambulance unit. Since Centaur was traveling to New Guinea to pick up wounded soldiers, there were no medical patients on board the ship. Centaur left Sydney for Cairns, Queensland, Australia, on 12 May 1943. Once there, she was to continue her voyage to Port Moresby.
At 0410 hours on 14 May 1943, as Centaur was heading north towards Cairns, the hospital ship was suddenly torpedoed by a submarine. Centaur was approximately 50 miles east north east of Brisbane and the torpedo hit the port side oil fuel tank. The resulting explosion created a huge hole roughly 33 feet long and ignited a horrific fire. The fire quickly spread from the bridge aft. Many on board the ship were killed instantly by the concussion of the blast or were incinerated by the fire. Also, since the attack took place so early in the morning, most of the passengers were asleep and didn’t have time to get off the ship. Water poured through the large hole in the ship and Centaur quickly rolled over to port and sank, bow first, in less than three minutes.  
Of the 332 people on board Centaur, only 64 were rescued. Reports later indicated that up to 200 people may have survived after the ship went down, but that many who made it into the water later died of shrapnel wounds, burns, or simply drowned because they couldn’t find a lifeboat or a life raft to support them. The survivors spent 36 hours in the water, clinging to barrels, wreckage, and two damaged lifeboats and several life rafts which broke free from Centaur as she went down. The survivors drifted roughly 22 miles north-east of Centaur’s calculated point of sinking and were spread out over a two-mile area. Of the 12 female nurses on board the ship only one, Sister Ellen Savage, survived. Although badly injured herself, Sister Savage concealed her severe injuries and gave what help she could to the other injured survivors. As sharks circled the raft she was on, Savage organized a sing-along to help keep up the spirits of the other survivors. She also provided medical care to the other wounded victims and displayed great personal courage throughout the entire ordeal. For her bravery and gallantry, Sister Ellen Savage was awarded the George Medal, a major decoration presented to civilians during the war by the United Kingdom.
On the morning of 15 May 1943, a Royal Australian Air Force patrol aircraft spotted the survivors and the floating wreckage in the water. The plane radioed an American destroyer, USS Mugford, which was steaming in the area and directed it towards the survivors. Armed sailors were placed around Mugford to shoot at any prowling sharks, while other American sailors stood ready to dive into the water to assist the wounded. As the destroyer began picking up survivors, Mugford’s medics examined each of them as they came on board the ship and provided medical care when needed. Mugford’s crew learned from the first group of survivors that they were from the hospital ship Centaur. Mugford quickly radioed Brisbane to inform authorities there that Centaur had been sunk. The rescue of all 64 survivors took approximately one hour and twenty minutes, although Mugford remained in the area until dark searching for any additional survivors. After the search was concluded, Mugford brought the survivors to Brisbane.
Australia was shocked and outraged over the sinking of an unarmed and clearly marked hospital ship. The Australian government delivered an official protest to Japan over the incident. The Japanese did not acknowledge responsibility for the attack and for many years the Allied War Crimes Tribunal could not identify the submarine responsible for the sinking. But as author Tom Frame points out in his book, No Pleasure Cruise: The Story of the Royal Australian Navy, Volume 83 of the official Japanese War History Series published in 1979 named the culprit: “I-177 sank the British hospital ship Centaur.” The captain of I-177, Commander Hajime Nakagawa, survived the war to face war crimes charges. Ironically, although he refused to confirm that his submarine sank Centaur, he was tried for ordering his men to fire on survivors from torpedoed ships in the Indian Ocean while he was in command of submarine I-63. Nakagawa was subsequently found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to only six years in jail. He was never convicted for killing anyone on board the unarmed hospital ship Centaur. Nakagawa’s defense was that he was only following orders issued by his superior, Vice Admiral Shiro Takasu.
The tragic loss of AHS Centaur was one of many atrocities committed at sea during World War II. Her loss certainly galvanized the Australian people and made them even more determined to defeat the Japanese. But the sinking of Centaur was also part of the relatively new concept of “total war,” one waged against both civilians as well as the military. It was adopted by the Axis powers at the very start of the war, and came to its terrible conclusion at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. World War II proved once and for all that either side would do just about anything to win and, sadly, they did.