The HMAS Sydney survivor

On the 6th of February 1942, a Carley float containing a body was seen drifting off Flying Fish Cove, an inlet on Christmas Island, an Australian dependency located 1,550 kms northwest of the Australian mainland. The island has a population of approximately 2,000, and phosphate mining has been the main industry since the turn of the 20th century.

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An inquest was held to determine the possible injuries of the body, as well as how the body could have ended up in the Carley float. The harbour master, medical officer and radio station manager each contributed to the report. It is unknown if the doctor performed an autopsy; if he did, that report has never been found. The body was interred in the Old European Cemetery with full military honours in an unmarked grave.

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The body was partly decomposed, and the eyes, nose and flesh from the right arm was missing, probably eaten by birds. It was clothed in a faded boilersuit, and had no dog-tags or other personal effects. A couple of shoes were found in the life raft. The float had been damaged by shellfire, with shrapnel in the outer covering. The underside was covered in barnacles, suggesting that it had been in the water for a long time.

When WW2 broke out, the island was a possible Japanese target due to the phosphate deposits, so a naval gun was installed on the island. Japanese submarines started patrols around the island, followed by bombing raids. The Japanese landed unopposed on the 31st of March 1942, partly due to a mutiny by Indian troops, who shot their British NCOs. The Japanese stayed for a few days, loaded some phosphate and then returned to the Dutch East Indies, except for a 20 man garrison, who stayed until the Japanese surrender in 1945. Many records, including the inquest on the body, appear to have been lost during the occupation.

So the obvious question was where did the body come from?

The Carley float was named after its inventor Horace Carley, and was standard issue on RN and RAN ships during the Second World War. So it is logical to believe that the float came from an Allied ship that had been sunk, and that the body was a survivor of that sinking. The officials on Christmas Island believed that the body on the float was from the HMAS Sydney, which had sunk off the Western Australian coast on the 18th of November 1941 after a battle with the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran. The crew of the Sydney numbered 645 – there were no survivors, except for the possibility that the body was a member of the Sydney who had managed to get off the ship before it sank. Giving creedence to this possibility was the wording on the float – “LYSAGHT DUA-ANNEAL ZINC. MADE IN AUSTRALIA”. Boilersuits were available to ships officers, commissioned warrant officers and warrant officers in the RAN, and were a popular working dress at the time. The Sydney was the only RAN ship to be involved in an engagement which would result in a Carley float being damaged.

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Carley float.

The 1998 Joint Standing Committee inquiry into the loss of the Sydney stated that on the balance of probabilities, the float and the body came from the Sydney. The Committee made recommendations that the grave should be found, the body exhumed and DNA testing done with living relatives of the Sydney’s crew, to determine if the body was the lone survivor of the Sydney. The body was located in October 2006. Following an autopsy and taking of body samples, the body was reburied with full military honours in the Geraldton Cemetery in November 2008.

HMAS Sydney II Memorial Service - Reburial of the Unknown Sailor
The headstone of the unknown survivor from HMAS Sydney after reinterment at Geraldton.

 

The Cole Inquiry in 2009 officially confirmed that the body was in fact a survivor of the Sydney. Interestingly enough, the RAN from the time of when the float was located until the Cole Enquiry steadfastly stated that the float was not from the Sydney, and that the body was not a Sydney crew member. The recovered body had the legs doubled up under the knee, which matches the recollections of witnesses who saw the body when it was discovered back in 1942.

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Drawing showing the location of the skeleton in the unmarked grave on Christmas Island.

 

The Cole Inquiry determined that the cause of death of the body was brain trauma, with shrapnel found embedded in the skull. The unknown sailor was believed to be aged somewhere between 22 and 31, had size 11 feet, was right-handed and was unusually tall for his generation – between 168 and 187 centimetres in height. The ankle joints had squatting facets, which suggested that the body has spent a lot of time squatting than sitting. This suggests a person who was involved in physical work, possibly in the country. DNA testing suggested that the body had red hair, blue eyes and pale skin. The body also had unique dental work – two missing teeth, wisdom teeth intact and nine gold fillings. Using contemporary enlistment and medical records, 330 members of the Sydney’s crew were eliminated as a possible match. By January 2014 the number of possible matches had been narrowed down to 50. The major stumbling block is to identify and track down a female descendant of the maternal line, so that their DNA and the DNA of the body can be compared. The sailors direct descendants do not share the same DNA. When the RAN has located a suitable relative they have no idea that they were related to a sailor from the Sydney. Hopefully the mystery of the lone surviving sailor will be solved in the near future.

Apart from the identity of the sailor, there are still some other unanswered questions:

1. Was the sailor the only crew member of the Sydney who managed to get onto a Carley float before the ship sank?

2.If there were other survivors who managed to get on the same Carley float, what happened to them? Could they have died and been thrown overboard by the remaining survivors, until only one was left?

3. Was the sailor injured before getting on the float, or did the explosions that occurred when the Sydney sank gave the fatal injuries to the sailor, as well as damaging the float?

4. Could the body have been machine-gunned by either a Japanese aircraft or a submarine while it drifted north from the Western Australian coast to Christmas Island?

The Carley float with the lone survivor was not the only Carley float from the HMAS Sydney that has survived. One other float was washed on the Western Australian coast, but it had no bodies or survivors in it when it was found, as seen in the following contemporary newspaper account.

carley-life-floatnewspaper

The HMAS Sydney memorial website and the Department of Defence Christmas Island survivor report pages were the primary sources for this blog post.