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Imagining Centaur

2/3 Australian Hospital Ship Centaur, 1943
Second World War (1939-45)
Navy, Nursing services

This article is reproduced courtesy of The Hive (Magazine of the Australian College of Nursing), No 31, Summer 2020, pp.30-31.

Titled Imagining Centaur, the exhibition draws on an incident from World War II in which an Australian hospital ship on its way to New Guinea was torpedoed by enemy fire. The ship, as many readers will know, was the 2/3 Australian Hospital Ship Centaur.

Built as a merchant vessel, Centaur was requisitioned in January 1943 for transport of casualties from Pacific War zones. At Williamstown Naval Dockyard in Melbourne, Centaur was stripped and fitted out for her new role. The ship had a shallow draught, suited to navigating waters around the New Guinea coast. This made travel aboard Centaur not for the fainthearted, because its pitching and rolling could produce severe seasickness in staff and passengers. Two senior nurses, Matron Anne Jewell and Senior Sister Mary Hamilton McFarlane oversaw the nursing component of the fit out in March 1943. Their appointments occurred just as nurses were officially ranked as officers.

Major Anne Jewell was an experienced and well-liked nurse. Originally from Perth, for some years she was first-aid sister, an early industrial nurse, at HV Mackay Massey Harris Pty Ltd, colloquially known as the Sunshine Harvester Factory in Melbourne, an engineering works. In November 1940, Jewell was employed by a pioneering rehabilitation specialist, Dr Frank May, also from Perth. May ran physical-therapy practice in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond where Jewell had a highly technical role involving ultra-short-wave diathermy. After enlisting, she was attached to 115 Australian General Hospital at Heidelberg in Melbourne and later appointed Sister-in-charge of the Sea Ambulance Transport Unit.

Likewise, Captain Mary McFarlane was a highly capable and popular individual. She was from the South Australian coastal town of Cowell. McFarlane began her hospital ship service in 1941, aboard 1 Netherlands Military Hospital Ship Oranje. The Dutch East Indies government gifted this new passenger liner to the Australian and New Zealand governments. Initially, nurses and doctors from the Netherlands staffed Oranje, aided by a small liaison team of personnel from Australia and New Zealand. McFarlane was the first Australian nurse to serve on Oranje, as Nursing Liaison Officer for the Australian troops. It was a logical choice, given that she spoke French and was of a military family.

Five colleagues from Oranje were attached to the Centaur in March 1943: Lieutenants Margaret Adams, Eileen Rutherford, Jenny Walker (VIC), Cynthia Haultain, Eva King, Myrle Moston, and Ellen Savage GM (NSW). Lieutenants Ali O’Donnell (VIC), Edna Shaw (NSW) and Joyce Wylie (QLD) made up Centaur’s contingent of 12 Australian Army Nursing Service nurses. Dummy runs tested the ship’s capabilities, during which the nurses had to ensure that cots where soldiers would sleep were secure and that theatre tables, dressing trolleys, instrument cupboards and other items of essential equipment would not move. In mid-April, an inaugural retrieval voyage to New Guinea was successful. Centaur then embarked on its journey to Sydney, 12 May 1943, for its second retrieval run. On board with the nurses were 10 medical practitioners, two dental surgeons, a dispenser, a chaplain, a Red Cross representative, more than 190 members of the 2/12 Field Ambulance going to resupply the war zone, and merchant seamen.

On the evening of 13 May, Matron Jewell’s birthday was celebrated with a small party. The next morning, before sunrise, the kitchen staff were preparing breakfast and Merchant seamen were on duty. At 4.10am, Centaur was struck without warning by a torpedo. An inferno erupted. The ship sank in three minutes, going down by the bow. Of the 332 personnel on board, 267 died in the sinking. Badly burned Jack Walder, an ambulance driver, died aboard a raft and his body committed to the sea. Walder’s death took the total to 268. The remaining 64 survivors huddled on makeshift rafts were found 34 hours after the sinking. The USS Mugford retrieved them and delivered them to Pinkenba Wharf in the Brisbane River. From there, the injured were ferried to Brisbane hospitals.

With the distance of years, it is hard for most of us to imagine the reality and brutality of events that occur during war. Equally difficult is to imagine the burden of grief borne by survivors, families and friends who lost someone as a consequence of service, as did Sister (Lieutenant) Kathleen Gardner and other staff from Oranje.

A keen photographer, Gardner’s black and white photographs captured snippets of life aboard Oranje where she had served many journeys with Jewell, McFarlane, Rutherford, Adams, Haultain, King and Savage GM. After Centaur’s sinking and the horrific news of Prisoner of War nurses, many Australians sought to make meaning from these deaths. They funded memorial gates, sundials, stained glass windows, scholarships, prizes in hospitals and seating in parks. Practical memorials were sponsored, too, with public support. These were physical centres, fostering the nursing profession across Australia, in Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia. On the back of these memorial centres, our profession blossomed, making possible the expansion of postgraduate education and facilitating networking. With the passage of time, generations and particularly training schools located in hospitals, the memorial nature of these gestures and edifices has gradually faded from memory.

The Shrine of Remembrance’s exhibition, Imagining Centaur, provides a timely opportunity to reflect on the making of meaning following war. The exhibition is a curatorial collaboration, featuring art works, multi-media, performance, sound, images, objects and ephemera. Central in the exhibition is a short animation of artwork by Dean Bowen, in naïve style. The animation is a purposeful exercise in reconciliation, thanks to a collaboration with Ayumi Sasaki, a Japanese anime artist in Kyoto.

We hope that the exhibition, while recalling the loss of the Centaur, takes viewers and particularly contemporary nurses to a deeper sense of the meaning of memorialising.

Given the COVID-19 restrictions, the exhibition’s launch date is yet to be announced. Research on the 12 nurses who served aboard Centaur was made possible via a Royal College of Nursing Australia (now ACN) Bequest Fund Grant, awarded to the author in 2011. The author is the co-curator of the exhibition.


Dr Madonna Grehan is an independent historian, a Registered General Nurse and Midwife and Honorary Fellow in Nursing at the University of Melbourne. She is an oral history interviewer for the National Library of Australia and advisor to the television series Who Do You Think You are? In 2012, with support from the Royal Australian College of Nursing, Madonna researched Centaur’s complement of twelve Australian Army Nursing Service nurses, only one of whom survived the sinking. In 2015, as the John Oxley Fellow at State Library of Queensland, Madonna investigated the Centaur Memorial Fund for Nurses, Queensland tribute to nurses who served the state during the two World Wars, on the military and home fronts.