The Heroism of Nurse Ellen Savage During the Sinking of the Centaur in Moreton Bay

Amidst the turmoil of World War II, Ellen Savage emerged as the sole surviving nurse from the devastating sinking of the hospital ship Centaur by a Japanese submarine off Moreton Bay.

Departure and Ambush

On the 12th of May 1943, as night descended upon Sydney Harbour, the hospital ship Centaur set sail on its final voyage towards Port Moresby. Its mission was to aid those injured in the intense battles of Buna and Gona.

The Centaur, with its bright lights and clear Red Cross markings, served as a symbol of hope and a safe haven amidst the chaos of World War II. On board were 332 individuals, including the crew, medical staff, Australian Army Nursing Service nurses, and soldiers from the 2/12th Field Ambulance. All of them were united in a common purpose of providing care and comfort to those in need. 

Centaur in Moreton Bay
Photo Credit: State Library of Queensland

Nurse Ellen Savage was one of the twelve nurses aboard the ship, fully aware of the dangers ahead. The waters through which they would be passing were a dangerous battleground, haunted by the ghosts of merchant ships that had previously been sunk by enemy submarines. However, the Centaur’s clear identification as a hospital ship provided a semblance of protection. It gave hope that even in war, humanity’s respect for the sanctuaries of the wounded and sick would prevail.

Whilst sailing through the night, the Centaur relied on traditional methods of war to protect itself. Nurse Savage and her coworkers went about their work determined and focused, getting ready to treat the wounded they would soon receive. Despite the underlying tension, there was a sense of camaraderie among the crew and medical personnel, all united in their mission to help those in need.

However, the tranquillity of their passage was shattered in the early hours of the 14th of May. Without warning, a torpedo fired by a Japanese submarine commanded by Lieutenant Commander Nakagawa struck the Centaur. The attack was a surprise, a brutal reminder of the unpredictable nature of war. 

Nurse Savage was thrust into a fight for survival whils resting in her bunk. The explosion that rocked the ship was just the beginning of a night of terror and tragedy.

In those first moments following the attack, Nurse Savage’s training and instincts as a nurse and a soldier kicked in. Despite the chaos that enveloped her, she remained focused on the safety and well-being of her colleagues and the wounded under her care. 

As the Centaur began to succumb to the sea, Nurse Savage, with remarkable presence of mind, assisted in evacuating patients and fellow staff members, even as the prospects of their own survival dwindled.

Rescue and Aftermath

The survivors of the Centaur tragedy were stranded in the Pacific for over a day, clinging to fragments of what was once a hospital ship. Finally, after 32 harrowing hours, the USS Mugford, an American destroyer, spotted them. The Mugford arrived as an unexpected saviour on the horizon, bringing hope to the survivors after their long ordeal.

The aftermath of the rescue was a time of mixed emotions. The grief of loss tempered relief at being saved; out of the 332 individuals who had boarded the Centaur in Sydney, only 64 were plucked from the ocean’s grasp. The survivors, including Nurse Savage, bearing the physical and emotional scars of their ordeal, were returned to the Australian mainland, where news of the disaster and the heroic rescue operation was met with shock and mourning across the nation.

Nurse Ellen Savage
Nurse Ellen Savage interview after the rescue
Photo Credit: Australian War Memorial

The sinking of the Centaur was Australia’s biggest loss to submarine warfare in the war. It prompted a national outpouring of support for survivors and families. Funds were raised to help the wounded and bereaved. The rescue operation became a celebrated chapter of heroism, highlighting the courage of the Allied forces.

Honouring the Lost

In 1947, Nurse Savage received a Florence Nightingale Memorial scholarship that allowed her to pursue further studies in England. She achieved a diploma in nursing administration from the Royal College of Nursing. She continued her nursing career in Sydney until the 1950s and was a pivotal figure in the foundation of the College of Nursing, Australia.

In Brisbane, Nurse Savage was also instrumental in establishing the Centaur Memorial Fund for Nurses in 1948. This fund was a tribute to the medical personnel who perished. The fund continues to support nurses to this day.

Nurse Ellen Savage retired in the late 1960s due to her failing health and shortly after an ANZAC Day reunion in 1985, she passed away in Sydney.

Discovery of the Wreck in 2009

The discovery of the Centaur wreckage after 66 years was an emotional event for Australia. After years of speculation and tireless search, the ship’s final resting place was finally found on the 20th of December 2009. 

In the late 2000s, a team aboard the Seahorse Spirit search vessel used advanced technology to locate the Centaur off Moreton Island. Their goal was to honour the memory of those who were lost.

The team faced vast challenges searching for the lost Centaur ship in the ocean’s depths, alongside numerous other sunken ships. However, their determination and calculated approach narrowed down the search area.

After seven days, sonar equipment detected a large, upright, mostly intact vessel. Excited but cautious, the team awaited confirmation from divers that this was the Centaur. Unique features and Red Cross markings identified the ship. 

The discovery was both bitter and sweet, as it served as a reminder of the tragedy. The announcement was made with respect, recognising the site’s significance to the crew’s and passengers’ families. The Australian government declared the wreckage a war grave, providing protection and respect for generations to come.

Published 11-April-2024