Centaur finding stirs war memories
THE discovery of the wreck of the Australian hospital ship Centaur, torpedoed by the Japanese in World War Two, has stirred memories of a mystery for South Grafton resident Jim Robb.
The wreck was discovered last month in more than 2000 metres of water off North Stradbroke Island, where she has rested since she was struck by a Japanese torpedo in the early hours of May 14, 1943.
Mr Robb believes he may have information that may shed some light on the mystery of why the Japanese submarine I-177 attacked on that fateful night, despite the fact that the Centaur was well lit and displaying large red crosses, denoting her role as a hospital ship.
“I was serving in Perth when I met a sailor who had served on the Centaur on the mission before she was sunk,” Mr Robb said.
“He said he had been sworn to secrecy, but he told me that on that voyage a Japanese submarine stopped them and demanded to search the ship’s cargo for what they called contraband.
“By that I mean some sort of cargo of military value that a hospital ship should not be carrying.
“They searched the ship and found some contraband. The Japanese captain said he was not going to do anything about it this time, but next time he said he would send the ship to the bottom.
“There were a number of incidents in the war that showed the Japanese navy could be humane as well as brutal.”
Mr Robb said his friend told him everyone who served on the ship was sworn to secrecy about this incident.
“I had no reason to suspect he was not telling me the truth,” he said.
The final voyage of the Centaur began in controversy when Australian Ambulance personnel attempted to board the ship carrying their rifles.
A survivor of the sinking, Corporal Peter Thomas, told investigators he saw four men from the AASC attached to the 2/12 Field Ambulance come on board Centaur in Sydney carrying their rifles.
Sailors on the ship are believed to have complained to their commanding officer that their ship should not carry armed men.
There have been many unsubstantiated rumours about armed troops on board Centaur and about her carrying stores of weapons and ammunition.
The carrying of rifles by the AASC soldiers was in accordance with Article 8 of the ‘Convention for the Adaptation of the Principles of the Geneva Convention to Maritime Warfare’ which allowed for the carrying of arms ‘for the maintenance of order and defence of the wounded and sick’.
There is a theory that a spy who saw what appeared to be armed soldiers on the ship sent a message to Japanese submarines that the Centaur was fair game.
While agreeing that torpedoing the Centaur was a ‘brutal’ act, Mr Robb said that if she was carrying war materials it was ‘a bloody sneaky thing to do’.
He will be taking a keen interest in the findings from the wreck to see if they substantiate what his friend told him all those years ago.