AHS Centaur following her conversion to a hospital ship. The Red Cross designation “47” can be seen on the bow. Of the 332 medical personnel and civilian crew aboard, 268 died, including 63 of the 65 army personnel.
At 4.10 a.m. on 14 May the Centaur was off Moretan Island, Queensland when a Japanese torpedo struck home with deadly effect. Most of the medical staff was asleep at the moment of impact, as an enormous explosion shook the ship violently, and she caught fire and started to sink by the stern. Seaman Matthew Morris of the Centaur’s crew recalled those terrifying few moments as the ship foundered:
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.
In the ensuing panic Morris was able to get clear of the rapidly sinking Centaur:
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, one of twelve members of the Australian Army Nursing Corps onboard the Centaur, was woken up by the torpedo slamming into the ship:
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.
Lurching through the stricken ship onto the boat deck, the young nurses were unsure of what to do next:
…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 greatcoat?’ as we were only in our pyjamas. He said ‘No’ and with that climbed the deck and jumped and I followed.
Savage recorded that the Centaur sank in only about three minutes, providing little time for the crew and passengers to abandon ship, and no time to launch any of the ship’s lifeboats. Hundreds of terrified soldiers and sailors leaped into the roiling sea, and the Centaur disappeared taking scores of lives with her, many already dead from the torpedo impact or trapped below with no way out. The suction created by the ship plunging to the depths dragged hapless swimmers deep underwater, including Savage. She eventually surfaced in a patch of oil, suffering from an assortment of painful injuries after having been tossed and battered in the underwater whirlpool created by the Centaur. As Savage gasped air at the surface pain wracked her body from broken ribs, perforated eardrums and severe bruising all over. Her nose was also broken, along with her palate, but she had survived. Now came the awful realization, shared with the hundreds treading water around her, that they were far out to sea, many were injured, and there was no immediate hope of rescue.
The I-177 was seen to surface close to the point where the Centaur had gone down, and many of the survivors wondered what the next Japanese move would be. The Japanese, however, made no move towards the survivors, and shortly afterwards the submarine was seen to submerge and depart from the scene, leaving the survivors to their fate.
Seaman Morris, after being washed off the stern of the Centaur as she sank, also found himself alone. Fortunately, Morris came upon a small, damaged life raft and clambered aboard. Later, Morris saved his friend, Seaman Teenie, by pulling him onto the raft. For many of the men and women who had managed to throw themselves clear of the Centaur their fates were terrible. Many could not swim and drowned after failing to find life jackets or rafts. The noises emitted by the sinking Centaur, as well as the thrashing of survivors in the sea and the smell of blood everywhere around the area attracted dozens of large sharks. The sharks probably scavenged floating bodies, but soon moved on to hapless swimmers and people clinging to bits of wreckage. High pitched screaming continued for hours after the sinking as people were killed by sharks and devoured. Morris and Teenie drifted on their small raft amid the horror, comforting one another, until the dawn light revealed a much more substantial raft drifting close by. It was on this raft that Savage had managed to pull herself, along with many others, to get clear of the sharks and rest. Morris and his companion paddled over and joined the others aboard what came to be christened ‘Survival Island’.
Second Officer Rippon of the Centaur was the senior officer to have survived the sinking and he took charge of the raft. Rippon knew that the Japanese attack had been so sudden that no distress call had been sent before the ship sank. The survivors were in dire straights unless help arrived quickly as they possessed only a little food and fresh water, and no medical supplies with which to treat the many injured lying around them. Most of the survivors were dressed in nightclothes and would suffer from exposure and hypothermia over the coming hours. Sharks constantly bumped against the raft with their snouts, or patrolled the waters all around, attacking an occasional person still in the water, or a corpse floating at the surface. Rescue was to be thirty-six hours later, and in the meantime still more of the survivors who had managed to get off the ship and onto a raft died. Morris lay next to a badly burned soldier who had ceased moving. Morris caught Savage’s attention, knowing that she was a nurse, and said, ‘I think this young chap’s dead.’ Savage leaned over and closely examined the man, confirming Morris’s suspicions. Morris: ‘…took his identification disc off him and his name was John Wälder…I gave his…disc to Sister Savage and she said: “Will you answer the Rosary?” I said: “Yes, I’ll do my best.”’ Private Walder was one of many buried at sea, though most likely this was more of a gesture than a possibility as bodies put over the side of the raft would have been attacked by the patrolling sharks.
Eventually Morris, Savage and the other survivors were plucked to safety by the American destroyer USS Mugford on 15 May, and Australia began to count the cost in lives occasioned by the loss of the Centaur. Of the 332 men and women on board when the ship departed from Sydney on 12 May, only sixty-seven men and one woman had been rescued by the Mugford four days later. It has been estimated that over 200 survived the torpedo strike and made it into the sea, but just over a quarter of those would live. Sharks, injury, drowning and despair took care of the rest, including eleven of the twelve nurses who were aboard the Centaur. The sinking of the Centaur stands as Australia’s worst disaster from a submarine attack.
As for Sister Ellen Savage, the sole surviving nurse, she had spent thirty-six hours on ‘Survival Island’ working tirelessly to ease the suffering and pain of her companions, even though she was badly injured herself. For her courage she was awarded the George Medal. Australian Prime Minister Curtin lodged an official complaint through the neutral powers with the Japanese government over the ‘barbaric’ attack on an Australian hospital ship. Initially, Curtin called upon the Japanese to punish those officers responsible for the attack, but was later forced to tone down his outrage as he and other politicians feared that the Japanese might have exacted revenge on the thousands of Australian prisoners-of-war in their hands.
The man responsible for all the suffering of the people aboard the Centaur, Hajime Nakagawa, had actually behaved in a restrained manner considering what he was later to inflict on innocent civilians who fell into his grasp. In December 1943 Nakagawa had assumed command of submarine I-37 (though he had still not been promoted to commander), and by February 1944 was on patrol in the Indian Ocean. On 22 February he torpedoed and sank the grain tanker British Chivalry. After taking the captain prisoner he ordered machine-gun fire opened up on the helpless crewmen, who were in a pair of lifeboats and lying on four rafts. Bullets rippled backwards and forwards over the defenceless survivors, the hapless captain forced to watch the massacre. Twenty sailors were killed in cold blood, and for no reason. Nakagawa struck again on 26 February, sinking the British freighter Sutlej, and he once again ordered his crew to machine-gun the survivors. On 29 February the I-37 sank the British merchant ship Ascot, and the crew had taken to lifeboats, life rafts or were swimming in the sea. The Japanese skipper first ordered his submarine to deliberately ram the Ascot’s lifeboats, killing some of the survivors and tipping the rest into the ocean. Machine guns were turned once more upon the fifty-two men struggling in the sea, other Japanese took pot-shots at their bobbing heads with pistols, some were even dragged aboard the deck and carved up with swords and a few finished off by being pounded to death with sledge hammers before their bodies were dumped back into the sea. Forty-four men were killed in this manner before the Japanese slunk away.
Judged in the light of these appalling later crimes, it is intriguing as to why Nakagawa did not let loose his evident bloodlust upon the survivors of the Centaur eight months before. Combined Fleet Headquarters had issued an order to submarine skippers on 20 March 1943 which stated: ‘Do not stop with the sinking of enemy ships and cargoes; at the same time that you carry out the complete destruction of the crews of enemy ships, if possible, seize part of the crew and endeavour to secure information about the enemy.’ The application of this chilling order appears to have been left to the discretion of individual commanders. Nakagawa, when placed on trial in 1949 for the various outrages he had ordered committed, used the ‘I was only following orders’ plea to attempt to deflect his guilt. Sadly, much of the evidence entered in the trial was disallowed, and this meant that Nakagawa was classed as a Category B war criminal and only received eight years hard labour. In 1954, after only six years, the mass murderer submariner was released, and continued to deny that he had ever sunk the Centaur up until his death. Indeed, the Japanese government only officially acknowledged that the I-177 had sunk the Centaur in 1979.
After sinking the Centaur Nakagawa took the I-177 back to Truk and made a second war patrol to the Australian east coast in June, but went to Rabaul in July after making no further attacks on Allied ships.
On 29 April the I-180 found the small Norwegian freighter Fingal that was on her way from Sydney to Port Darwin under Australian government contract, transporting ammunition to Coffs Harbour, New South Wales. The Fingal was not such an inviting opportunity as she was under escort by the powerful American destroyer escort USS Patterson. Kusaka pressed home his attack regardless of the risk and managed to place a torpedo portside aft, with another smashing into the engine room tearing the guts out of the 2,137-ton ship. The Norwegian sank in less than one minute, taking several of her crew with her. The Patterson eventually rescued nineteen out of the crew of thirty-one.
The I-180 continued to lurk around Coffs Harbour into May, and Kusaka’s patience was rewarded with another good target that presented itself on the 12th. Convoy PG50, consisting of fifteen ships, was sailing from Cairns to Sydney. Kusaka fired a spread of torpedoes, and would have been more successful if not for torpedo malfunction. One torpedo detonated inside the 5,832-ton American freighter Ormiston, loaded with bagged sugar, blowing a hole in her portside. A second torpedo struck the Australian ship Caradale, but the contact exploder fitted to the warhead failed to detonate and the torpedo did nothing more than leave a dent in the freighter’s hull before sinking to the seabed. Two Australian and an American warship took the Ormiston in tow, and after temporary repairs were effected in Coffs Harbour the freighter continued on her way to Sydney. By the end of May Kusaka and the I-180 were back in Truk after a disappointing patrol.
Meanwhile, the I-178 returned to Australia for a second war patrol, and on 17 June while the submarine was sixty-five miles south-east of Coffs Harbour, a Beaufort of 32 Squadron, RAAF, pounced on her. A second Beaufort joined in the attack on the surfaced submarine, inflicting some damage. The aircraft left the scene after reporting that the submarine was trailing a large oil slick in her wake, and the I-178 was never heard from again. It was a notable kill for the Australians, eighty-nine Japanese losing their lives.
Formerly the I-74, the re-numbered I-174 under the command of Lieutenant Nobukiyo Nambu departed Truk on 16 May 1943 with orders to patrol off the east coast of Australia. In her earlier incarnation as the I-74 she had participated in the Pearl Harbor operation, as well as assisting with the flying boat raid on Pearl Harbor in May 1942, all under her then skipper, Lieutenant-Commander Kusaka. Nambu assumed command of the boat on 12 November 1942, as Kusaka had left to assist with the working-up of the I-180 and was later to command the giant I-400. On 27 May 1943 Nambu and the I-174 appeared off the Australian coast at Sandy Cape and began patrolling for targets along the coast. The next day the submarine was spotted on radar by a Bristol Beaufort of 32 Squadron, RAAF, which was on antisubmarine patrol from Bundaberg. Sharp-eyed lookouts on the Japanese boat spied the Beaufort as it attempted to creep up on the submarine and Nambu was able to crash-dive and escape.
On 1 June the I-174 was seventy miles east of Brisbane, hoping for an encounter with an enemy ship. Sailing towards the Japanese hunter was a lone merchant ship, and Nambu immediately began manoeuvring his submarine into an attack position. The vessel was a 3,303-ton American freighter, Point San Pedro, sailing towards Brisbane from the Panama Canal. When the merchant captain sighted the submarine he immediately began zigzagging in a desperate attempt to throw off the Japanese officers’ aim, but four torpedoes were nonetheless launched at the ship. By sheer good luck, and perhaps because of the ship’s erratic movements, all four torpedoes completely missed, and the radio operator was instructed to inform the Australian authorities of a Japanese submarine lurking close to Brisbane. The Australians reacted with the dispatch of an Avro Anson maritime bomber of 71 Squadron, RAAF, with orders to seek out and destroy the boat. A further six Anson’s left the airfields at Lowood and Coffs Harbour to join in the search but found no trace of the I-174.
Nambu was a submarine skipper of some temerity and, some might say, suicidal impulses. On the afternoon of 3 June he sighted a small convoy of six freighters being escorted by three destroyers off Brisbane, and he decided to attempt an attack. Coming to the surface at 6 p.m., he ordered his diesel engines full ahead, and grinding hastily through the waves Nambu began to pursue the convoy. Not surprisingly his submarine was soon spotted by lookouts on the various ships, and the destroyers swung around and began to close the distance between the convoy and the I-174. The Japanese submarine crash-dived and fled from the scene before the convoy escorts could plaster the boat with depth charges and Hedgehog mortar bombs.
The next day Nambu attempted to intercept another lone ship, this time a US Army transport named the Edward Chambers, another ship on her way from the Panama Canal to Brisbane loaded with supplies. Nambu spotted the 4,113-ton merchantman at 8.45 a.m. off Cape Moreton while his submarine was submerged, and he made belaboured efforts to close the distance between the two vessels in order to launch his torpedoes. Deciding instead to blow the Edward Chambers out of the water with his deck-gun Nambu ordered the I-174 to the surface. At 9.48 a.m. the gunners unmasked their fire, nine shells sailing past the merchant ship without achieving a single hit. In fact, the army gunners aboard the Edward Chambers returned fire using a 3-inch gun mounted on the stern, and twelve American shells splashed into the sea close to the submarine, which caused Nambu to break off his attack and submerge. By now large numbers of Australian aircraft had been sent aloft to search out the errant submarine, and the I-174 remained submerged for the rest of the day fearing aerial attack.
At 10.25 a.m. on 5 June the I-174 was still submerged sixty miles north-east of Coffs Harbour, the hydrophone operator listening for enemy activity. What was clearly discerned were the propeller sounds of several ships that were apparently moving in a convoy several miles from the submarine. Nambu moved the I-174 behind convoy PG53, and surfaced in poor weather. The weather was bad enough to have concealed the approach of Nambu’s boat, but he decided to take no chances so when a shadowing patrol aircraft came close he submerged and waited for it to move off before he resumed closing in on the convoy’s tail. The pursuit took Nambu all day, and by the time the sun was beginning to fade on the horizon he had managed to bring his vessel to within 6,000 yards of the convoy without being spotted. Creeping ever closer Nambu prepared to fire but an escorting destroyer spotted the shadowing Japanese submarine and turned hard about and charged. His approach ruined, Nambu had no choice but to crash-dive once more. No depth charges followed the submarine’s descent, and at 9.45 p.m. Nambu brought the I-174 back to the surface for another try at the convoy. Another charge by a destroyer forced him back beneath the waves, but Nambu had already noted the convoy’s course and speed and he decided that instead of constantly popping up behind the ships, and attracting the unwanted attentions of the escorts, he would instead pile on the speed and attempt to place his submarine in a position by first light ahead of the convoy. Running his diesels at the surface Nambu brought the I-174 to the position where he estimated the convoy would eventually appear and then settled down at periscope depth to wait.
On the morning of 6 June the I-174 ascended to the surface, but Nambu’s careful planning had placed him at too great a range to intercept the convoy passing in front of him in the distance without risking being caught by patrolling Australian aircraft as he tried to close the gap. Undoubtedly disappointed he abandoned stalking convoy PG53 and instead motored off towards the south, heading for the waters around Newcastle and Sydney that he hoped would be teeming with ships.
The next day the I-174 was 100 miles east of Sydney. Lookouts spotted a single ship at 4.50 a.m., and Nambu began once more to plan his approach and attack. The ship was the John Bartram, a 7,176-ton American Liberty approaching Sydney after crossing the Pacific from San Francisco. As the submarine charged down the distance between the two vessels the American captain began zigzagging to stall the inevitable torpedo attack that was to follow. Nambu managed to get the I-174 ahead of his target and launched a spread of four torpedoes at 6.06 a.m. In a confused attack two of the torpedoes definitely missed the ship, and another exploded prematurely, rocking the I-174. Perhaps wanting to finally record a kill, Nambu erroneously believed that he had struck the John Bartram. The I-174 departed the scene in some haste, its commander satisfied that he had sunk his target. The John Bartram sailed on undamaged.
Nambu next spent several days hanging around the approaches to Sydney without sighting a single ship, which was unusual considering the density of merchant and warship traffic travelling in and out of the port. At 2 p.m. on 13 June Nambu finally sighted a small convoy of approximately six transport ships, escorted by a pair of destroyers, about thirty miles east of the Wollongong Lighthouse. Once again, the I-174 surfaced too far from the ships to allow an interception to be attempted and Nambu was forced to submerge again and wait. The next night, another Beaufort on anti-submarine duty pounced on the I-174, and the submarine narrowly avoided a hail of bombs. After staying submerged for over half an hour Nambu resurfaced only to discover that the Australian aircraft was still circling the area and he was attacked again and forced once more beneath the waves.
On 16 June, when the I-174 was south-east of Coffs Harbour, Nambu finally discovered a convoy that he was in a position to attack. Five corvettes screened the convoy, including HMAS Deloraine, but the I-174 slipped past the warships and, at 5.20 p.m., fired two torpedoes at a pair of transports. The first torpedo Struck the 5,000-ton Landing Ship Tank, LST 469 in the starboard side, towards the stern. The detonation completely destroyed the vessel’s steering gear and also killed twenty-six men, but LST-469 remained afloat. A few moments later the second torpedo struck the starboard side of the 5,551-ton US Army transport ship Portmar. The detonation of the Japanese torpedo set a massive fire in the Portmar’s holds, which in turn set off ammunition stored aboard the ship. The crew soon abandoned the stricken ship, and after only seven minutes the Portmar sank. Two of the escorting corvettes ineffectually depth-charged the I-174. Lieutenant Nambu goes down in history as the last Japanese submarine skipper to successfully sink a ship off the east coast of Australia, and on 20 June the I-174 was ordered back to Truk. Nambu was later reassigned as commander of the submarine aircraft carrier I-401, and American aircraft east of Truk destroyed his former command, the I-174, on 12 April 1944.