The Australian Hospital Ship ‘Centaur’ was en route to New Guninea from Sydney to collect casualties of war. As a marked Hospital ship she was entitled to be respected as a non combatant under the Geneva Convention. Japan had not signed the Geneva Convention but had declared that she would abide by it in 1942. Japan also had obligations under 1907 Hague Convention, to which she had been a signatory.
The Japanese had demonstrated on many occasions that the international Conventions meant little to them. The most likely culprit was submarine I-177 under the command of Hajime Nakagawa which was one of three submarines on patrol in the area and the only one to record a sinking on the 14th May.
The torpedo tore a large hole in the hull of Centaur and set fire to the fuel tanks. This combination of events was to cause heavy casualties. The ship quickly caught fire and then sank rapidly.
Seaman Matthew Morris had just finished his watch at 4am:
I finished the twelve to four watch and I called the four to eight watch to go down, including me mate. And I was just havin’ a cup of tea – and this big explosion, and the ship gave a shudder, and the skylight fell in on us. And I don’t really know how I got out of the mess room … and I’d say there was a dozen steps up to the deck. And I really can’t remember going up them. But then I was washed off the back of the ship and then I realised I was in the water.
Sister Ellen Savage was the only survivor from 12 female nurses on board:
Merle Morton and myself were awakened by two terrific explosions and practically thrown out of bed …I registered mentally that it was a torpedo explosion … In that instant the ship was in flames … we ran into Colonel Manson, our commanding officer, in full dress even to his cap and ‘Mae West’ life-jacket, who kindly said ‘That’s right girlies, jump for it now.’ The first words I spoke was to say ‘Will I have time to go back for my great-coat?’ as we were only in our pyjamas. He said ‘No’ and with that climbed the deck and jumped and I followed … the ship was commencing to go down. It all happened in three minutes.
There was no time to send an SOS message. Of the 332 persons on board only 64 survived.
General Douglas Macarthur expressed the feelings of many when he wrote to the Australian Government:
I cannot express the revulsion I feel at this unnecessary act of cruelty. Its limitless savagery represents the continuation of a calculated attempt to create a sense of trepidation through the practice of horrors designed to shock normal sensibilities.
The brutal excesses of the Philippines campaign, the execution of our captured airmen, the barbarity of Papua, are all of a pattern. The enemy does not understand – he apparently cannot understand – that our invincible strength is not so much of the body, as it is of the soul, and rises with adversity.
The Red Cross will not falter under this foul blow. Its light of mercy will but shine the brighter on our way to inevitable victory.
A post war War Crimes investigation failed to conclusively link I-177 and Hajime Nakagawa with the crime, although subsequent evidence has pointed more firmly in this direction. Nakagawa died in 1991 without making any further comment on the issue.
For more see Australian Department of Veterans Affairs.