Posted by: mcfinder | January 10, 2010

Sunk Australia WWII hospital ship Centaur: first images

An Australian World War II hospital ship, the Centaur, has been seen for the first time since it sank more than 60 years ago with a loss of 268 lives.

Images of the wreck, more than 2km (1.3 miles) below the sea, were captured by a remote-controlled underwater camera.

The ship’s location was discovered last month following a hi-tech search.

Australia says the ship, which went down in May 1943, was torpedoed by the Japanese. Japan says the circumstances surrounding its sinking are unclear.

The search team found the ship on 20 December off the Queensland coast, about 30 miles due east of the southern tip of Moreton Island. Favourable conditions allowed the crew to send down a camera on a remotely-operated submersible vehicle over the weekend. Further dives are planned.

The wreck of the Centaur - it's red cross clearly visable

The wreck of the Centaur - it's red cross clearly visable

Search director David Mearns told AFP news agency he hoped the images would “hopefully end a 66-year quest for unanswered questions and bring comfort to many families across Australia and beyond”.

“The wreck was found leaning over towards its port side at an angle of approximately 25 degrees and the bow is almost completely severed from the rest of the hull in the area where the single torpedo hit,” he said. “Although the wreck is very badly damaged, characteristic markings and features that identify the wreck as the Centaur were clearly visible.”

Among the identifying features revealed by the camera were the large red crosses marked on each side of the bow.

At approximately 4:10 a.m. on 14 May 1943, while on her second run from Sydney to Port Moresby, Centaur was torpedoed by an unknown and unsighted submarine. The torpedo struck the portside oil fuel tank approximately two metres below the waterline, creating a hole 8 to 10 metres (26 to 33 ft) across, igniting the fuel, and setting the ship on fire from the bridge aft. Many of those onboard were immediately killed by concussion or burned to death. Centaur quickly took on water through the impact site, rolled to port, then began to sink bow-first in 2,000 metres (6,600 ft) of water, submerging completely in less than three minutes. The rapid sinking prevented the deployment of lifeboats, although two broke off from Centaur as she sank, along with several damaged liferafts.

Of the 332 persons onboard at the time of the sinking, only 64 survivors were rescued.  At the time of the attack, most of the crew and passengers were asleep and had little chance to escape. It was estimated that up to 200 people may have been alive at the time Centaur submerged. Several who made it off the ship later died from shrapnel wounds or burns, while others were unable to find support and drowned.

The initial public reaction to the attack on Centaur was one of outrage, significantly different to that displayed following the loss of Australian warships or merchant vessels. As a hospital ship, the attack was a breach of the tenth section of the Hague Convention of 1907, and as such was a war crime] The sinking of Centaur drew strong reactions from both Prime Minister Curtin and General MacArthur. Curtin stated that the sinking was “an entirely inexcusable act, undertaken in violation of the convention to which Japan is a party and of all the principles of common humanity.”, while MacArthur reflected the common Australian view when he stated that the sinking was an example of Japanese “limitless savagery”. Politicians urged the public to use their rage to fuel the war effort, and Centaur became a symbol of Australia’s determination to defeat what appeared to be a brutal and uncompromising enemy. The Australian Government produced posters depicting the sinking, which called for Australians to “Avenge the Nurses” by working to produce material,  purchasing war bonds or enlisting in the armed forces.

Propaganda Poster in reaction to the sinking of the Centaur

Propaganda Poster in reaction to the sinking of the Centaur

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