On May 14th, 1943, AHS Centaur, an Australia hospital ship sailed off the coast of Queensland towards Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. The ship had 332 medical personnel and crew on board. She was marked with large red crosses and sailed without military escort as per the Geneva Convention requirements. The vessel would not survive to see dawn. The Japanese submarine I-177, commanded by Hajime Nakagawa, torpedoed AHS Centaur in an early morning attack, taking 268 lives. Now, the discovery of her wreck on December 20th has resurfaced the sensitive issue between Australia and Japan.
The sinking of AHS Centaur violated international war law and is considered one of Australia’s worst wartime tragedies. Her demise turned the vessel into a martyr for Australians, confirming the brutality of the Japanese in the public’s mind. General Douglas MacArthur claimed the attack showed the “limitless savagery” of the Japanese. The Australian government used the sinking to enrage public opinion and rally Australians in support for the war effort.
I-177’s captain was never tried for the sinking, but was convicted on other war crimes by the Allies. The attack has long been a sore subject for the Japanese, who only acknowledged in 1979 that I-177 did indeed sink the hospital ship, after denying involvement since 1943. Furthermore, Tokyo claims it never ordered the attack, a fact if false would likely lead to Australian pressure for additional war crime charges. In a statement on the search for AHS Centaur, Japan said it “made the greatest efforts for world peace and prosperity as a responsible member of the international community and has also developed a close relationship with Australia.” To their credit, the Centaur Association, the RSL, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have all made statements that Japan does not need to apology for the sinking of AHS Centaur. Apparently 66 years of good relations is enough time for some countries to let history be history.