Remembering the Centaur 80 years on

Published 2:00pm 25 April 2023

Remembering the Centaur 80 years on
Words by Ashleigh Howarth

As a documentary filmmaker who specialises in preserving war stories, North Lakes' Jeff Hughes, wasn’t going to let the 80th anniversary of the sinking of the AHS Centaur pass by without recognition.

Jeff, who is the Chief Executive Officer of This Story Australia, has spent the past year interviewing people who lost family members aboard the Centaur, as well as other significant identities involved in the search and writing the history of the WWII hospital ship.

There is also audio commentary from two people who survived that fateful night, recorded in 1979, but have since passed away.

The Australian Hospital Ship Centaur was enroute from Sydney to Papua New Guinea carrying members of the 2/12th Field Ambulance when it was sunk by a Japanese submarine south of Moreton Island on May 14, 1943.

“The Centaur sunk at just after 4am after it was hit by a single torpedo from a Japanese submarine,” Jeff says.

“The Japanese ruthlessly sunk the Centaur while most people were asleep, and despite it being lit up like a Christmas tree with powerful spotlights and red crosses identifying it.

“There were 332 people on board the ship and 268 people lost their lives in the tragedy.

“There were only 64 survivors, including one nurse who survived (Sister Ellen Savage) of the 12 on board.

The Centaur was travelling north on a mission of mercy, and in fact had previously carried Japanese prisoners of war back to Australia.

Following the attack, those who managed to survive spent more than two days at sea before they were rescued.

“After 54 hours in the water, the survivors were spotted by an Australian Air Force Plane who radioed an American destroyer the USS Mugford who was patrolling in the area, to go and pick them up,” Jeff explains.

“They were taken back to Brisbane and Greenslopes Hospital for medical treatment.

“Many people were ordered to return back to Sydney and back to work within seven days.”

One of the people Jeff interviewed would not be here today if his father hadn’t fallen ill while on the train back to Sydney.

“I interviewed one gentleman named John Argent from Thornlands whose father was injured in the attack on the Centaur,” Jeff says.

“He got his orders to return to Sydney straight away, so he caught the train just days after being at from Greenslopes.

“During the journey, he got an outbreak of hives around Armidale. He didn’t know what the problem was, so he got off the train at Tamworth and went to the hospital.

“While in Tamworth, he fell in love with the nurse taking care of him and later married. It’s incredible to think if John’s father wasn’t onboard that ship, he wouldn’t be here today.”

There is a very strong link between the AHS Centaur and Queensland. Memorials can be found along the coast and stretch from Caloundra to Deception Bay down to Point Danger just over the NSW border.

As past Prime Minister Kevin Rudd AC states: “There is something quite local about it if you’re from Queensland. There is something quite local about it if you’re from Brisbane. There is something quite local about the fact that this atrocity was committed 30 miles off the coast here. And Centaur still lies 2000m down. So let’s reflect on those lost, 268 lives and what they could have been.”

Remembering the Centaur 80 years on
Above: A memorial for the Centaur can be found in Deception Bay, opposite the Deception Bay Library.

Ship discovered six decades after sinking

The Centaur was found off the coast of Moreton Bay in 2009 by shipwreck hunter David Mearns OAM, who is featured in the documentary.

David, who lives in West Sussex, UK was one of two interviews that took place overseas, lending to the international contribution to the documentary.

“David was brought in to find the Centaur because he has found many other important shipwrecks like the German battleship Bismark and the HMAS Sydney,” Jeff explains.

“He was able to find the ship thanks to a wide variety of resources. One committed citizen is Erica Costigan who resides in Caloundra. She took it upon herself to research, collect information and repeatedly agitate politicians to search for the wreck. Erica received an OAM in 2013 for her service to the community through contributions to the remembrance of the AHS Centaur.

2nd Mate Gordon Rippon (whose recording is featured in the documentary) actually told authorities days after the sinking that he had taken a bearing when it had passed Point Lookout Lighthouse on North Stradbroke Island, and he could identify an approximate location where it went down.

“When the Centaur was found in 2019, it was only 1km from where Gordon’s original estimate said it was.

“It’s commissioned as a war wreck, and a plaque has been placed at the site.”

Remembering the Centaur 80 years on

Screening to coincide with the anniversary

Jeff and This Story Australia partnered with the Caloundra RSL Sub Branch to create this commemorative documentary.

A private screening will be held for the families who had loved ones on the Centaur at the Caloundra RSL on May 12, two days before the 80th anniversary.

There are plans to screen the documentary for the public in Caloundra on the 80th anniversary May 14th and these will be made public soon via This Story Australia’s website and social media accounts.

Funding for the project was granted by Queensland Remembers (Queensland Department of Veterans Affairs).

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