Have you got a comment about this week's program? You can e-mail us or write to 60 Minutes, PO Box 600, Willoughby NSW 2068 or fax: 1300 65 99 29.
Archive Story
Transcript: a grave mistake
May 18, 2003
The Australian hospital ship Centaur
 The Australian hospital ship Centaur
It was one of the lowest acts of the war in the Pacific, an act of pure bastardry. Just off the Queensland coast, a Japanese submarine torpedoed and sank the Australian hospital ship the Centaur. Two hundred and sixty-eight people — doctors, nurses, orderlies and crew — perished, and that was 60 years ago, May 14, 1943. Tonight, the cruel aftermath of the Centaur atrocity ... The story of how we've all been fooled by a charlatan and a fraudster and of how his claim that he had found the Centaur wreck was false. Now sadly, all of this means just one thing — that what we thought was a war grave held sacred by many Australians, isn't.

RICHARD CARLETON: In Queensland and in Sydney last Wednesday, relatives and friends gathered to remember the dead. The 268 souls lost on board the Centaur. Today only eight survivors remain from that terrible night. One of them, George McGrath, is 86.

GEORGE MCGRATH: I have no doubt in my mind that that was bloody murder, the Centaur.

RICHARD CARLETON: George was an ambulance driver, just 26, and in high spirits. On the Centaur, the night she went down, there was a birthday party for one of the nurses.

GEORGE MCGRATH: The nursing sisters decided to put on a party, they had a cake and all the fittings and whatever, and the captain supplied quite a bit of beer and so forth.

RICHARD CARLETON: She was brightly lit and marked with red crosses. Obviously a hospital ship, the Centaur was heading for New Guinea. At 3.30 on the morning of May 14, 1943, navigator Gordon Rippen took a bearing off Point Lookout lighthouse on North Stradbroke Island. The Centaur was running due north, 23 nautical miles out to sea.

GEORGE MCGRATH: I was sitting and I was looking at my watch, it's probably one of the last things you usually do before you sort of lie down, and I don't … can't recollect whether I lied down or not but I know that there was this dreadful explosion and I must have been going through the bloody air for quite a distance.

RICHARD CARLETON: The torpedo was dead on target. It struck near the oil bunkers on the port side and they exploded seconds later.

GEORGE MCGRATH: I picked myself up, and I always recollect … I don't know whether it's mental telepathy … a voice, I reckon it's my wife, saying, "Mac, get off the ship, go, go, go, get out, go". That's when I took off, hit the water and I'm swimming, luckily, I'm a pretty powerful swimmer, I was going for my life. I look back and there's no Centaur. When daylight came, and of course there was the great dorsal fin, round and round, round and round. They had been taking … the screams, I do remember … recollect screams and cries for help. It was bloody pitiful, you couldn't do a thing. See, even in a float you're at the mercy of the sea and their legs being in the water, the bloody sharks, you know, you were a sitting duck. They grabbed them and pulled them under. Torn to pieces in no time. What a bloody death. What a death.

JOHN FOLEY: Here was a terrible, terrible tragedy and right on the door step of Brisbane, 50 miles off Brisbane. I mean this was the closest that the war had been to Brisbane.

RICHARD CARLETON: And to put the fear of God, so to speak, amongst people?

JOHN FOLEY: Absolutely. There could be a Japanese submarine operating not very far away, just the other side of Moreton Island.

RICHARD CARLETON: John Foley is a master mariner, a naval historian and an authority on the Centaur.

What explanation can you give as to why the Japanese did it, because, I mean, they admitted it, what, more than 35 years later?

JOHN FOLEY: Yes, they did. Nakagara, the captain of submarine, was getting close to the end of his stint of duty down here and he hadn't had any success at all. He didn't want to go back with all his torpedoes still on board.

RICHARD CARLETON: So he just let one fly at a hospital ship?

JOHN FOLEY: Perhaps a bit of frustration at the end of his tour. He hadn't had a chance to sink anything and here was an opportunity.

RICHARD CARLETON: The exact resting place of the Centaur had always been uncertain, but based on navigator Rippen's evidence and records from the Japanese Government, it has always been confidently believed that the wreck was in deep water 23 nautical miles off the coast. Then in 1995, this was all turned on its head when the wreck was found and what's more, found much closer to the coast and in relatively shallow water just nine miles off Cape Moreton lighthouse. On A Current Affair, Melbourne man Don Dennis told the nation how he had discovered the Centaur.

DON DENNIS: It began when I was out on a trawler with a friend one day. My ears happened to prick up when I heard him mention a target we were observing on the sonar was a hospital ship.

RICHARD CARLETON: Using a special underwater camera, A Current Affair showed the first pictures of the wreck lying some 170m down.

DON DENNIS: We're coming back, a good shot of the rudder. This is the part that really excited us. I mean, you can see the shape of the stern and the rudder and it just matches the photographs identically.

RICHARD CARLETON: For relatives of the deceased, like George Bracken, it was an opportunity for a formal goodbye.

GEORGE MCGRATH: I place on these waters in the place of the grave of my two brothers Paul and John, on behalf of myself and my family.

RICHARD CARLETON: Caloundra, on Queensland's Sunshine Coast, has this park to mark its closeness to the new site where the Centaur was supposedly found. The Government Gazette proclaimed the new site as approximately 27 degrees by 154. You see, Canberra had swallowed Don Dennis's story hook, line and sinker. True, they did do the most cursory of checks when they sent a couple of naval vessels up here to simply sail across the site and determine that at least there was a wreck down there. But what they didn't do was check on the credentials of their informant. You see, Mr Dennis is a man of very little repute. He has convictions for fraud and a reputation as a liar. In fact, a Victorian judge described him as "a big-noting charlatan fraudster". Dennis would not be interviewed for this story, but he did tell us that the film footage of the Centaur had been checked by the Navy, the Queensland Maritime Museum and the War Memorial, and that's not true.

So no-one at the Maritime Museum has ever seen that footage before?

DR ROD MCLEOD: Not that I'm able to find out.

RICHARD CARLETON: Dr Rod McLeod was president of the Queensland Maritime Museum for 24 years.

DR ROD MCLEOD: I certainly can say that nobody in the Queensland Maritime Museum believes that they've ever seen that tape.

TREVOR JACKSON: The guy who took the footage has claimed to some sources that he dived the wreck, some say using gases that just defy belief. He's since been convicted of fraud in Victoria and for the government to have accepted this footage as some sort of evidence is almost ridiculous.

RICHARD CARLETON: Trevor Jackson is an experienced wreck diver and, with diving physician Dr Simon Mitchell, he has dived on the Centaur, or the so-called Centaur.

DR SIMON MITCHELL: There was the mystery, the fact that this wreck was being called the Centaur, that no-one had visited it to actually verify that and that we had some doubts about the wreck's true identity that we wanted to put to rest.

RICHARD CARLETON: They did reach the wreck at 170m, but what they saw neither confirmed nor disproved Dennis's claim.

TREVOR JACKSON: When I was on the bottom, and I went over to the wreck, I couldn't see anything to positively identify it either way, but I did get the feeling, having dived a lot of wrecks before, that this wasn't a wreck of the dimensions that the Centaur was which, you know, was 100m long. It was a much smaller thing I was looking at.

RICHARD CARLETON: So we showed the wreck footage to two experts who are in a position to have informed opinions. Captain John Foley, the naval historian, and Dr Rod McLeod of the Queensland Maritime Museum.

JOHN FOLEY: Okay, there's the critical picture.

RICHARD CARLETON: What's wrong with that shot?

JOHN FOLEY: The shape of the rudder.

RICHARD CARLETON: There it is there, what's the problem with it?

JOHN FOLEY: We can tell it's too rounded. The Centaur's rudder was not like that.

RICHARD CARLETON: That is definitely not the Centaur?

JOHN FOLEY: That's definitely not the Centaur.

RICHARD CARLETON: Do you agree with that, Rod?

DR ROD MCLEOD: Yes, I don't believe that's the shape of the Centaur's rudder.

RICHARD CARLETON: Can you be 100 percent certain that that's not the Centaur.

JOHN FOLEY: Come on and I'll show you. Now if you come over here, Richard, you'll see we've got a rather good shot of the Centaur high and dry. There's quite a good photograph of the rudder there.

RICHARD CARLETON: That's the ship itself?

JOHN FOLEY: That's the Centaur. But we've also, even better than that, we've got the plan here of the general arrangement and there's the stern of the Centaur and as you can see, the rudder is square. The rudder in your picture is quite round and it wouldn't even corrode like that over the years, it wouldn't corrode in an area like that. The thing would probably fall off. But this is a very definite rectangular shape.

RICHARD CARLETON: I mean, logically, they cannot be the same ship, cannot be the same ship?

DR ROD MCLEOD: I don't believe they can.

RICHARD CARLETON: It's as good as certain that what we honour out there as a war grave is not the Centaur. But if that's the case, then what is it? Well, sometimes, you know, governments can look pretty stupid. Back in 1951 the RAAF paid £1 to the Queensland Lime & Cement Company for an old ship known as the Centaur. They took it 10km out there and sunk it, bombing practice. You must think I'm getting a bit old if I can remember what happened way back in 1951. But no. The most modern of methods — the government's own website. There it is, the Centaur, sunk 10km east of Cape Moreton, 12 May, 1951. And last week, 60 Minutes found the plans of the Centaur in the national archives. There, on the stern, is a D-shaped rudder, the same style and shape as the rudder on the wreck.

TREVOR JACKSON: By comparing the footage with the photographs of the stern of the Centaur and the stern of the Kyogle, it's apparent the footage much more closely matches that of the Kyogle. The rudders are of a different design, the rudder on the i>Kyogle is rounded, the footage rudder is rounded.

RICHARD CARLETON: In light of this, next week the Australian Navy has two mine sweepers investigating the wreck that they call the Centaur, and we call the Kyogle.

Now this is something they should have done eight years ago.

JOHN FOLEY: It was a ship on which 268 people perished. It was the worst merchant shipping disaster in Australian waters in World War II. So it has tremendous national importance and it is of such importance that it should be clarified exactly where it is and it should be protected where it is.

RICHARD CARLETON: And if we're right, then the Centaur lies just where the non-shonky evidence has always said it was, where it was sunk in a Japanese war crime 60 years ago, 23 nautical miles off the coast from North Stradbroke Island.

TREVOR JACKSON: I think that if you had a dear, lost relative and they were buried somewhere, and you were going to a Sydney cemetery when you should have been going to a Canberra cemetery, I think to the relatives of those lost there, it's very important.


Previous Stories
 Jul 2003 | Jun 2003 | May 2003Apr 2003 | Mar 2003 | Feb 2003 |

Click Index Click Headline
  Date   Story
 May 25, 2003 The spider web
  Trouble in paradise
  By George
 May 18, 2003 Transcript: new faces
  New faces
  A grave mistake
  King of the road
 May 11, 2003 Russian roulette
  Porn in the USA
  The Governor-General
 May 4, 2003 All about sex
  Posh and Becks
  Invasion of the cane toads
ninemsn sites | News | Sport | Finance | Music | Travel | Health | Video | Weather | Top sites About ninemsn - Careers at ninemsn - Advertise - Contact us - Help Terms of use - Privacy policy - Online safety © 1997- 2006 ninemsn Pty Ltd - All rights reserved