Sister Mary Hamilton McFarlane and the Tragedy of the AHS Centaur
By Ned Young
Mary McFarlane was born on the 10th of April, 1915 in Adelaide. She was the only daughter of John and Mabel McFarlane, and sister to their only son, John Norman Muir McFarlane.
Studio portrait of Lieutenant Sister Mary McFarlane, Australian Army Nursing Service
Mary grew up in Cowell on the Eyre Peninsula and attended her local primary school before moving to a private school in Port Lincoln. In her later years, she attended bo arding school at Walford House Ladies College in Adelaide (now Walford Anglican School for Girls). At school, she “loved literature and music,”[i] excelling in both areas. She graduated in 1934 and began studying to become a nurse, initially training as a probationer at the Cowell District Hospital before completing her study at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. She graduated tied for first place in her cohort.[ii] She also gained her Midwifery certificate at the Royal Hospital for Women in Paddington, Sydney, finishing first place amongst her peers once again.
After completing her nursing training, Mary travelled extensively with her uncle Brigadier Percy Muir McFarlane CBE MID. Percy served as a Trooper in the Boer War as part of the 4th Imperial Bushmen and was promoted to Captain at the beginning of the First World War, where he served as part of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade. Together, they visited Colombo in Sri Lanka[iii] and travelled to various other countries including England, where Mary was fortunate enough to be presented at Court.[iv]
Mary enlisted as a Staff Nurse in the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) on the 21st of January, 1941 at the age of 25. Her first postings after enlistment were at the Wayville and Woodside Hospitals. In June, she was promoted from Staff Nurse to Sister, and soon after was selected to work as a liaison sister aboard the AHS (Australian Hospital Ship) Oranje. Originally a luxury passenger liner, the Oranje was trapped in Batavia (modern Jakarta) capital of the Netherlands East Indies upon the outbreak of World War II. The Dutch government, not wanting her services to be wasted, offered the Oranje to the Australian and New Zealand governments for use as a hospital ship. Her conversion was completed in Sydney, and paid for entirely by the Netherlands government. They also paid to staff, run and maintain the ship. The Oranje was the fastest medical ship in the world at the time, capable of reaching 26 knots. She sailed under the Netherlands’ flag and was staffed by medical officers of the Royal Netherlands Army in the Indies.[v] In 1941, when Mary began her service aboard, there was only a small contingency of New Zealand and Australian staff that included a Consulting Physician, Consulting Surgeon, two Commanding Officers, two Senior Nursing Sisters and 12 other ranks.[vi] By the end of the war, the Oranje was predominantly staffed by Australian and New Zealand personnel.
AHS Oranje at Prince’s Pier in Melbourne
From a collection by Allan C Green, State Library Victoria
Sister McFarlane embarked on four voyages aboard the Oranje,[vii] her first leaving from Sydney on the 1st of July 1941. Mary wrote in her diary:
“The Oranje will make a splendid hospital ship…the spirit of co-operation, goodwill and friendship shown to the Australian representatives…should be no reason to doubt that this unusual arrangement will be a success”.[viii]
Mary took copious detailed notes about the Oranje’s personnel and equipment. Her accounts include descriptions of each deck onboard, including the ‘Boat Deck’, where medical equipment was stored, the ‘Sports Deck’, where patients underwent physiotherapy, and ‘C Deck’, home to Mary’s own cabin. A typical day for Mary began at 6am with a morning coffee before helping to serve breakfast to the patients. Coffee was served to patients at 10:15am, and lunch at 12 noon. They ate tea at 3:30pm, dinner at 6pm and a supper of custard pudding at 8pm.[ix] Evidently, the patients were extremely well-fed aboard the Oranje. As Mary recalled, “the food is excellent (is this a dream?)!”.[x] For the remainder of the day, Mary would do her official rounds, sometimes alongside a Matron, help load and unload patients, transport patients to and from physiotherapy and locate medical equipment in preparation for surgery.[xi]
Mary relished every minute she spent onboard the Oranje. The other Sisters described her as “a lovely girl, very pleasant to everyone, and a very good nurse”.[xii] She was granted leave on the 4th of March 1943 after her fourth voyage with the Oranje. Before reaching Sydney, the Australian liaison staff were sent-off with a final performance that included some stand-up comedy, a conjuring act and even a rendition of the Maori Haka.[xiii]
Her leave was cut short by the completion of the AHS Centaur, a Scottish cargo ship that had been transferred to the Australian military for conversion into a hospital ship.[xiv] Mary, having two years experience on the Oranje, was an obvious candidate, and was one of 12 nurses selected to serve aboard the Centaur.[xv] The Centaur was capable of carrying just over 250 patients and 75 crew members.[xvi] She transported wounded from Townsville to Brisbane and then Port Moresby to Brisbane on her maiden voyage before sailing to Sydney to prepare for her second expedition: transporting the 2nd/12th Field Ambulance to New Guinea.[xvii]
A rare colour photograph of the AHS Centaur circa 1943
Sister Mary McFarlane and 11 other nurses (of whom most had also served on the Oranje), along with 75 crew members, 8 Army Officers, 45 other Army personnel and the 192 members of the 2nd/12th Field Ambulance embarked for New Guinea on the 12th of May 1943. The Centaur was quite a bit smaller than the Oranje, and Mary was disappointed to find her cabin no longer had an ensuite bathroom. The addition of a washbasin with running water, and a steward who made her bed and brought her morning tea, nullified this inconvenience. Once again, she was astounded by the quality of food, describing it as “an absolute joy: plenty of salads, fruits, grills, lobster mayonnaise - it really is quite grand”.[xviii] Mary was the most senior of the Sisters abroad the Centaur, and deputy to Matron Sarah Anne Jewell.[xix]
There was some controversy as to whether the 2nd/12th were allowed to carry rifles onboard under Article 8 of the 10th Hague Convention which states:
“…Neither the fact of the personnel of the said ships and sickwards being armed for maintaining order and for defending the sick and wounded nor the presence of wireless telegraph apparatus on board, is a sufficient reason for withdrawing protection”.[xx]
The crew was assured the carrying of rifles was not a breach of this article as they would only be used to maintain order and defend the sick.
Two days after leaving Sydney, on the 14th of May, at approximately 4:10am, the Centaur was struck by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine 44km off Point Lookout, North Stradbroke Island in Queensland. The fuel tank immediately ignited, and the inferno quickly spread to the remainder of the ship. Within three minutes, the Centaur was completely submerged. Most on board were asleep, and had little chance of escape. The force of the torpedo likely knocked many unconscious, leaving them to either perish in the flames or drown.
Sister Mary McFarlane lost her life that day. She most likely escaped the burning ship; her calls were heard by the surviving Sister Ellen Savage,[xxi] but by the time the sun rose, she could not be located. Several others like Mary had either died of their wounds in the water or failed to find support and drowned.
Of the 332 people onboard the Centaur, only 64 were eventually saved.[xxii] The unexpected nature of the attack and the speed at which the Centaur took on water meant lifeboats and rafts could not be deployed, and the survivors were forced to clamber onto whatever upturned raft or floating debris they could find to avoid the circling sharks. Sister Savage was the only nurse on board to survive the attack. She was later awarded the George Medal for her courage and for providing medical care and boosting morale,[xxiii] all while suffering from her own serious injuries (fractured ribs, nose and palate, perforated eardrums and severe bruising).[xxiv]
The survivors spent 36 hours in the water, floating as far as 36km away from the wreckage site. During that time they attempted to gain the attention of multiple aircraft but were unsuccessful. Their rescuers were the crew of the USS Mugford, who spotted objects on the horizon at 2:00pm on May 15th. A RAAF pilot flying ahead on anti-submarine watch confirmed that they were in fact shipwreck survivors in need of rescue. Sailors dived into the water to assist the exhausted and in many cases injured survivors, while marksman lined the deck of the Mugford ready to shoot sharks if need be.[xxv]
Hospital ships are protected under the Hague Convention, and attacking one is war crime, so naturally news of the attack sparked outrage in Australia and throughout the world. The sinking of the Centaur made the front page in London, New York and Montreal. Prime Minister John Curtin labelled the attack, “an entirely inexcusable act, undertaken in violation of the convention to which Japan is a party and of all the principles of common humanity”.[xxvi] The Australian Government produced propaganda posters calling for the public to ‘Avenge The Nurses’ in whatever way they could.
A contemporary cartoon highlighting the Australian public’s reaction to the attack on the Centaur
Originally produced by Ian Gall
‘Avenge The Nurses!’
Although no crew member witnessed the attack, a number of survivors claimed to have heard a submarine patrolling on the surface while adrift. Francis Martin, the Centaur’s cook, caught a glimpse of the submarine while floating alone away from the main group of survivors. Martin described what he had seen to a naval artist upon rescue, and his descriptions matched the classification of three Japanese submarines known to be operating in the area. Opinion was long divided on which of the three vessels was responsible, but after evidence of a Japanese transmission claiming to have attacked a ship on May 14th surfaced in 1972,[xxvii] it is now widely believed to have been submarine I-177, captained by Hajime Nakagawa.
The sketch of Submarine I-177 based on accounts from Francis Martin. The report from Martin was classified as C2, that is, a reliable report from an untrained observer.
Published in ‘Australian Hospital Ship Centaur: The Myth of Immunity’ by Christopher S Milligan & John C H Foley
No one was ever tried for the sinking of the Centaur. Investigations were conducted in the 1940’s but the identity of the submarine was never proved beyond reasonable doubt. Japan categorically denied any involvement in the attack.[xxviii] Nakagawa refused to speak on the subject,[xxix] and took whatever information he knew about I-177’s involvement with him to the grave in 1991.
There remains a host of theories as to why the Centaur was attacked by the Japanese. Is it possible that Nakagawa mistook the newly refurbished Centaur, who’s proportions were unusual for a hospital ship, for another kind of military vessel? By all reports, the Centaur was extremely well lit,[xxx] so her Red Cross markings would surely have been visible to any enemy vessel. That leads to the theory that perhaps the Japanese knew that the 2nd/12th Field Ambulance were carrying weapons, and thought that meant they were a legitimate target. It is difficult to perceive how such information could have reached the enemy, and regardless, I-177 would have needed to predict the Centaur’s route, which was different to the one she had taken of her first voyage. The last theory suggests that Nakagawa, coming to the end of his tenure in Australian waters and only having sunk one enemy vessel, deliberately attacked the Centaur. Nakagawa was willing to ignore the rules of war; in 1944 he ordered the machine-gunning of survivors from three British merchant vessels torpedoed by his submarine.
The tragedy of the Centaur was deeply felt by the family and friends of Mary McFarlane. At only 28, her career in nursing was just beginning. In the words of her school friend Mary Gibson, “there is no doubt [Mary] would have made a significant contribution to the nursing profession”.[xxxi] Her “gentle manner,” and the “fun that sparkled in her brown eyes” made her “a favourite amongst all” her colleagues and patients.[xxxii] Mary’s death came as a “shock to all her knew her in Cowell”[xxxiii] and elsewhere. She is memorialised with a plaque and portrait in the Cowell District Hospital, and the hospital’s now redundant bell system was first installed in her honour. A chair and a bookcase hand-crafted from Queensland maple[xxxiv] were donated in Mary’s honour to her old school Walford, where they remain today. The chair, donated by the Old Scholars Association, was originally used by the Headmistress at assembly,[xxxv] while the bookcase, donated anonymously and inscribed with the school badge, took residence in the library.[xxxvi]
The extent to which Mary’s legacy is still honoured today is testament to the person she was: a brave, loyal and dedicated member of the Australian Army Nursing Service and an inspiration to all, especially the young women that succeed her at Walford.
[i] Pim, M, PASSING BY - Nurse Is Remembered - News (Adelaide, SA : 1923 - 1954) - 27 Dec 1945, [online] Trove. Available at: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/128316280.
[ii] Angellpro.com.au. (2014) AHS Centaur - Angell Productions brave women, [online] Available at: http://www.angellpro.com.au/centaur.htm.
[iii] Trove, (2020) Hospital Skip Torpedoed - COWELL NURSE ON BOARD. Sister Mary H. McFarlane believed to have perished - Eyre's Peninsula Tribune (Cowell, SA : 1910 - 1950) - 20 May 1943 [online] Available at: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/219491765.
[v] Mary’s personal diary, 1941-42.
[vii] Angellpro.com.au. (2014) AHS Centaur - Angell Productions brave women, [online] Available at: http://www.angellpro.com.au/centaur.htm.
[ix] Mary’s personal diary, 1941-42.
[x] Mary’s personal diary, 1941-42.
[xii] Angellpro.com.au. (2014) AHS Centaur - Angell Productions brave women, [online] Available at: http://www.angellpro.com.au/centaur.htm.
[xiii] Mary’s personal diary, 1941-42.
[xiv] En.wikipedia.org. (2020) AHS Centaur, [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AHS_Centaur.
[xv] Milligan, Christopher & Foley, John (2003) Australian Hospital Ship Centaur – the myth of immunity, Hendra, QLD, Nairana Publications.
[xvi] En.wikipedia.org. (2020) AHS Centaur, [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AHS_Centaur.
[xviii] Milligan, Christopher & Foley, John (2003) Australian Hospital Ship Centaur – the myth of immunity, Hendra, QLD, Nairana Publications.
[xx] 10th Hague Convention, article 8.
[xxi] Milligan, Christopher & Foley, John (2003) Australian Hospital Ship Centaur – the myth of immunity, Hendra, QLD, Nairana Publications.
[xxii] En.wikipedia.org. (2020) AHS Centaur, [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AHS_Centaur.
[xxiv] Angellpro.com.au. (2014) AHS Centaur - Angell Productions brave women, [online] Available at: http://www.angellpro.com.au/centaur.htm.
[xxv] Milligan, Christopher & Foley, John (2003) Australian Hospital Ship Centaur – the myth of immunity, Hendra, QLD, Nairana Publications.
[xxvi] Adam-Smith, Patsy (1984) Australian Women at War, Melbourne, VIC, Thomas Nelson Australia.
[xxvii] Rohwer, Jürgen & Hümmelchen, Gerhard (1992)  Chronology of the war at sea, 1939–1945: the naval history of World War Two, Masters, Derek (translator) (2nd, revised ed.) London, Greenhill Books.
[xxviii] Frame, Tom (2004) No Pleasure Cruise: the story of the Royal Australian Navy, Crows Nest, NSW, Allen & Unwin.
[xxix] Smith, Alan (May 1992)  Three Minutes of Time – the torpedoing of the Australian Hospital Ship Centaur (2nd ed.). Miami, QLD, Lower Tweed River Historical Society.
[xxxi] Angellpro.com.au. (2014) AHS Centaur - Angell Productions brave women, [online] Available at: http://www.angellpro.com.au/centaur.htm.
[xxxii] Milligan, Christopher & Foley, John (2003) Australian Hospital Ship Centaur – the myth of immunity, Hendra, QLD, Nairana Publications.
[xxxiii] Trove, (2020) Hospital Skip Torpedoed - COWELL NURSE ON BOARD. Sister Mary H. McFarlane believed to have perished - Eyre's Peninsula Tribune (Cowell, SA : 1910 - 1950) - 20 May 1943 [online] Available at: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/219491765.
[xxxv] Trove, (2020) NURSE'S MEMORIAL - The Mail (Adelaide, SA : 1912 - 1954) - 18 Dec 1943 [online] Available at: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/55867680 [Accessed 24 Feb. 2020].