Shipwreck hunter combs archives for Centaur clues
A British shipwreck hunter says he wants to find answers for the loved ones of those killed when the World War II hospital ship the Centaur sank off the Queensland coast.
The Centaur was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine off south-east Queensland in 1943, with the loss of 268 lives.
Martin Pash, 87, was on board the Centaur the night it went down. Of the 268 people who were killed, only 64 returned home, and Mr Pash is one of three survivors that are still alive.
“I was the last one out the quarters and I got sucked back into the ship’s hull,” he said.
“We tried to get the life boats away and couldn’t get them away.
“I left and I said, ‘grab something safe until the ship’s gone under’ and I left and went up to grab the rail on the side of the ship, and before I had a chance to do it, the suction took me down number one hatch.
“And with the lights on the red crosses illuminating the water, I found my way out from there.”
Shipwreck expert David Mearns discovered HMAS Sydney off the Western Australian coast last year and has been given the task of finding the Centaur.
Mr Mearns flew to Australia to gather information to prepare for the search, and spent yesterday combing through the archives of the War Memorial in Canberra.
“[I’m looking for] anything to do with the sinking of Centaur, anything that gives me a clue about where she may have sunk,” he said.
“There’s lots of information in the archives about the history of Centaur and the people on board, and while all of that is very interesting, my absolute focus is on any obscure or direct piece of information which will help me assess where I believe it may have sunk.”
‘A lot of grief’
There have been a number of false findings over the years, but the families of those killed hope this new expedition will find the Centaur.
Richard Jones lost his uncle in the attack.
“For me personally, I really do feel it’s an important event in Australian history, a very difficult thing to talk about now, even after all these years, and in the family of course at the time it caused a lot of grief,” he said.
“Mind you, many other people had the same grief to deal with at the end of World War II, but it doesn’t make it any easier.”
Jan Thomas was a young girl when her father, who was a doctor on the ship, was killed.
She says claims that the Centaur had been found in 1995 led to further grief when the claims turned out to be incorrect.
“Families had been casting wreathes and scattering ashes over something totally unrelated,” she said.
“So it will be a huge help in the healing process for those whose lives were affected to find out exactly where it is, to know that it can be adequately protected, and there can be no further false claims.”
Mr Mearns has been given $4 million from the Federal and Queensland Governments to conduct the search.
He says a large part of the project is helping those left behind.
“You can’t really get a stronger argument or a stronger incentive to try to find a shipwreck,” he said.
“This is what I do, I’m a shipwreck hunter, but in an instance where a relation is requesting your help to give them that knowledge they haven’t had, and you fill that void in their life or solve a question, I don’t need much more than that, really.”
Those like Jan Thomas who are still wondering where the Centaur lies on the ocean floor hope Mr Mearns can finally help close the door on a part of history they wish never occurred.
“In a sense, those of us who were children, our fathers went off to war and didn’t come home,” she said.
“So we spent our lives looking for them.
“And if we at least know where they ended up, it will in a sense, figuratively speaking, be bringing them home.”