75th anniversary of the sinking of the Centaur: Sister Ellen Savage

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Just before dawn on 14 May 1943, the Centaur was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine off the coast of Queensland, despite being lit up and clearly marked with large red crosses as a hospital ship. Many of the passengers were sound asleep in their bunks. The ship sank in minutes, and of the 332 people on board only 64 survived.

From October 1942, nurses were posted to military hospitals in New Guinea to treat hundreds of sick and wounded soldiers, many from the Kokoda and Buna campaigns against the Japanese. In May 1943 the hospital ship Centaur set out from Sydney for its second voyage to New Guinea, to drop off supplies and staff, and bring patients back to hospitals in Australia. Sister Ellen Savage was one of the 12 nurses on board, recently appointed to the ship’s medical staff. Ellen was the only nurse among the 64 survivors.

Ellen (pictured below left) recalled details of this tragedy:

“My cabin mate, Myrle Moston and myself, were awakened by two terrific explosions … We rushed to the porthole, looked out, and saw the ship ablaze”.

 

As the Centaur was sinking, Ellen and Myrle (pictured above right), still in their pyjamas, jumped overboard. Myrle was struck by a piece of falling timber and died in the water.

With sharks circling around them, the survivors spent more than 30 hours on makeshift rafts. Some of the people were badly burned, and they had little food or fresh water. Although seriously injured herself when sucked down with the sinking ship, Ellen did what she could to treat their injuries and keep their spirits up, encouraging them to sing hymns and pray. Help eventually came and they were rescued by the American destroyer USS Mugford.

A propaganda poster depicting the sinking of the hospital ship Centaur moments after the ship was torpedoed. Two women are pictured in the foreground floating on a piece of debris whilst the flaming ship in the background is abandoned by those on board

A poster depicting the sinking of the hospital ship Centaur moments after the ship was torpedoed (AWM ARTV09088).

This tragedy touched Australians deeply and caused a public outcry. Prime Minister John Curtin referred to the sinking as “an entirely inexcusable act”.

For her “conspicuous service, high courage and fortitude” throughout the ordeal, Sister Ellen Savage was awarded the George Medal.