The sinking of an Australian hospital ship and the deaths of 11 nurses outraged a nation and has spurred on efforts to ensure their sacrifice is not forgotten. By Madonna Grehan and Linda Shields.
Sixty nine years have passed since the loss of the 2/3 Australian Hospital Ship (AHS) Centaur in the Second World War, during its second trip to New Guinea to retrieve injured service personnel.
In compliance with the Geneva Convention, the Centaur was well marked and fully lit, when at 4.10am on May 14, 1943, just off the coast of Queensland to the east of Cape Moreton, it was struck by a torpedo fired from a Japanese submarine.
The Centaur burst into flames and sank rapidly. Among the 268 personnel from the Centaur who died either in the initial explosion or in the sea were eleven Australian Army Nursing Services (AANS) nurses.
All of Centaur nurses were experienced surgical sisters; in fact six of them had served previously on the AHS Oranje. Their average age was 34 years, and between them, they had more than 120 years of service as nurses.
Those who died were: Matron Sarah [Ann] Jewell (trained Perth General Hospital) and Sisters Margaret Adams (trained Children’s and Allied Hospitals Melbourne), Mary McFarlane (trained Adelaide Hospital), Eileen Rutherford (The Alfred Hospital Melbourne), Jenny Walker (Royal Melbourne Hospital), Doris Wyllie (Sydney Hospital). The training hospitals of Myrle Moston, Alice O’Donnell, Evelyn King, Edna Shaw, and Helen Haultain have not been confirmed.
Ellen Savage (trained Newcastle Hospital) was the only survivor of the AANS nurses aboard the Centaur. After drifting on a makeshift raft for about 36 hours, Savage and several others were rescued. During that day and a half on the Pacific Ocean, despite her own serious injuries, Sister Savage attended the wounded and dying with her on the raft. Her bravery was recognised with the award of the George Medal.
Although more than 250 men had died in the same atrocity, the Australian nation was particularly shocked at the deaths of the 11 women by this barbarous act. The federal government immediately exhorted the nation to “Work, save, fight and so avenge the nurses!”. Public appeals were launched, too, to establish memorials to the nurses.
Some of those memorials continue today, supporting nursing education and research. In Queensland, the Centaur Memorial Fund for Nurses supports Queensland nurses undertaking a PhD. In Victoria the Centaur Nurses Memorial Education Trust continues as an annual grant, available to Victorian nurses and administered by the RCNA.
These memorials were complemented by others. The Nurses Memorial Centre at 431 St Kilda Road in Melbourne was established in 1949 as a “living” memorial. It housed the College of Nursing Australia and the Royal Australian Nursing Federation offices, as well as club rooms, accommodation and teaching facilities.
Western Australia and South Australia had their own Nurses Memorial Centres. In 1999, the Australian Service Nurses National Memorial was dedicated, recognising the contribution of all service nurses in war and peacekeeping. It stands in Anzac Avenue, the street leading to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
Since the Second World War, nurses have remembered their friends and colleagues who died on active service. But as those who knew the deceased nurses come to the ends of their lives, remembering that the Centaur nurses were vibrant human beings becomes less easy.
In her recent address at the Centaur Memorial Service in Brisbane, Professor Linda Shields quoted the words of Sister Mavis Hannah, a survivor of the bombing and sinking of the SS Vyner Brooke in February 1942. Hannah recalled her visit to the Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore: “The names of our sisters, who have no known graves ... I thought of them as I knew them, young and beautiful, and of all the love, laughter and courage. All they have now, except the love that is theirs, from relatives and friends who knew them, is a name on a piece of marble.”
Research supported by the RCNA is aiming to lift the memory of the 12 Centaur nurses from the marble memorials around Australia. Dr Madonna Grehan, an Honorary Fellow in Nursing at the University of Melbourne was awarded the RCNA’s Bequest Grant to research and write biographies of the 12 nurses. When completed, their biographies will be mounted on the Australian Nursing and Midwifery History website. The project also aims to draw out the foundation of Victoria’s Centaur War Nurses Memorial Trust.
Grehan is recording as many details as she can locate about each nurse, including where they went to school, where they undertook training, what positions they held in both civilian work and AANS deployments as well as the location of memorials specific to the Centaur nurses.
Through the Centaur Association and other avenues, several families have shared with Grehan what information they have, particularly photographs and the whereabouts of known memorials. For example, a sundial in the grounds of St Catherine’s School in Melbourne acknowledges Sister Jenny Walker, a former pupil. Sister Alice O’Donnell is remembered in a stained glass church window in the north-east Victorian town of Myrtleford.
The chapel at John Hunter Hospital bears Ellen Savage’s name, as does the staffroom of Queensland’s Centaur Memorial Health Precinct at the Metropolitan South Institute of TAFE Loganlea Campus. Jewell House in Perth, now the home of the YMCA, was named for Sarah Jewell.
As Shields remarked in her recent address, it is important that the profession of nursing to which these women gave their lives does not forget them. Grehan would love to hear from anyone who knows any detail, no matter how small, of any of these 12 nurses. It is possible that letters, photographs, certificates and other items may exist in private or public collections. Information about the training hospitals of: Myrle Moston, Alice O’Donnell, Evelyn King, Edna Shaw, and Helen Haultain is welcome. Grehan can be contacted at [email protected] or 03 9484 8076.
Dr Madonna Grehan is an honorary fellow in nursing at the University of Melbourne and Linda Shields is professor of tropical health nursing at James Cook University.
Centaur Memorial Fund for Nurses: www.centaurnursesfund.org.au
Centaur Nurses Memorial Education Trust: www.rcna.org.au
Email [email protected]