THE CENTAUR STORY
It was at 4.10 on the morning of May 14, 1943, that a lone torpedo struck the hospital ship Centaur and the horrors of the Second World War — already in its fourth year — were suddenly and terrifyingly brought home to the Australian nation.
Most of the 332 people aboard the Centaur were asleep in their bunks when the torpedo hissed from its housing on a Japanese submarine to strike the ill-fated ship’s side with a massive, terrifying explosion.
The only crew awake and alert at that time included the watchkeepers in the machinery rooms, the officer of the watch on the bridge with his lookouts and the steering and navigational watchkeepers.
All was quiet, the sea quite calm and the watchkeepers were looking forward to their breakfast and a well deserved rest.
They were never to do so again!
While the men were anticipating the luxury of a hot cup of cocoa and a shower, Lieutenant Commander Hajime Nakagawa was jostling his Japanese Navy submarine I-177 into attack position, carefully tracking and noting his prey’s speed and direction, calculating the running time of his torpedo and estimating where best to strike the vessel to exact the most terrible damage.
The explosion, when it came, was shattering. Amid a storm of terrifying fire, water and death the Centaur quickly began to sink by the bow. In the minutes that followed, while Nakagawa watched carefully through his periscope, 268 innocent non-combatants, doctors, crew, nurses and orderlies died.
It was the worst crime in Australia’s maritime history.
After spending almost thirty-six hours in the shark-infested waters off Queensland’s coastline only sixty-four oil-stained people survived the torpedo attack.
There had hardly been time for the radio officer aboard the Centaur to knock out a quick series of S.O.S. signals. Exhausted and cold, the survivors were finally rescued by an American destroyer, the U.S.S. Mugford.
Ever since that day the question has been posed and never answered. Why was hospital ship Centaur sunk?
At this time — and throughout the war — the Japanese regarded such ships as distinctly non-combatant and submarines were instructed not to attack under any circumstances.
The attack was the sole decision of the commander of submarine I-177 who was at the controls of his craft throughout the entire attack pattern.
Did Nakagawa know at the moment of the attack that he was about to send a hospital ship to its doom?
During the period 1942-43, twenty-two ships were sunk in Australian waters by the Japanese, and seven were badly damaged. However, as can be seen from the pictures included on this website, the Centaur’s side was clearly marked with three bright red crosses signifying its pacific role.
Did Nakagawa fail to see the international Red Cross symbol, and, if not, why did he give the command for the attack to continue?
History has since proved that the Japanese war machine was completely ruthless. The atrocities committed during the capture of Hong Kong and Singapore give a more than fair indication of the extremely cruel attitudes of the Japanese to total war at that time.
Those under scrutiny within the Japanese military have always fallen back on the excuse that they were acting under orders from their superiors. Nakagawa was also guilty of this although the standard command that
Japanese submarines were not to attack hospital ships was never withdrawn.
The following year Nakagawa was responsible for the careful attack and sinking of three British merchant ships. As the surviving crews struggled desperately in the water, clinging to any discarded scrap of flotsam, Nakagawa ordered his crew to surface the vessel, the machine-guns were
manned, and those who had survived the attack were coldly machined-gunned to death.
After the war the submarine’s commander was arrested and tried as a war criminal. He subsequently spent four years at Sugamo prison in Tokyo. At one point in his trial he was almost sentenced to be hanged. Many other war criminal were arrested by the Allies and executed in the same prison. One of them was the Japanese prime minister, Hideki Tojo. Most of the crew of the I-177 were killed when the submarine was sunk shortly after the sinking of the Centaur. However, by that time Nakagawa had been transferred from the vessel.
In Japan, the sinking of the Centaur was a closely kept secret through the war because the Tojo administration feared strong public reaction if news of this atrocity were ever released.
2013 marks the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the Centaur and only the question, ‘why’ remains to remind us of the many senseless deaths all those years ago.
As we now all know, the remains of the Centaur were discovered by international shipwreck hunter David L. Mearns aboard the Seahorse Spirit in December 2009. The site has now been designated a war grave.