Unidentified body on Christmas Island

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An unidentified human corpse was found on a life raft in the Indian Ocean, off Christmas Island, in 1942. The body is widely believed to originate from the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) cruiser HMAS Sydney, which sank off Western Australia in November 1941, after a mutually destructive battle with the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran. While 318 of 399 Kormoran personnel survived, Sydney was lost with no survivors from the 645 aboard. The location of both ships' wrecks were unknown until they were rediscovered in March 2008.

The body was found on 6 February 1942. It is reported that an inquest was held on Christmas Island, soon afterwards. The remains were later buried with military honours, in an unmarked grave, in the Old European Cemetery on the island. Christmas Island was captured by Japanese forces on 31 March 1942 and remained in their hands until 1945. Relevant records, including any relating to the inquest, appear to have been lost or destroyed during this period.

A RAN archaeological expedition in September–October 2006 recovered the body. Although DNA has been recovered from the remains, DNA testing to determine the identity of the body has so far been unsuccessful. Researchers are attempting to locate relatives of crew members from Sydney, for the purposes of DNA matching.

Discovery[edit]

During the late afternoon of 6 February 1942, lookouts on Christmas Island spotted an object out at sea.[1] Initially thought to be a Japanese submarine, closer inspection from a pilot boat found it was a carley float with a dead person inside. The float was then towed ashore.[1]

With the island under threat of invasion, after brief examinations by the island's harbour master, the medical officer, and the gentleman in charge of the radio station, the body was buried in an unmarked grave near Flying Fish Cove.[2][3] Reports were written by these men, but were destroyed when Japanese forces occupied Christmas Island, and later recreated from memory.[3][4] An inquest was not convened until mid February and was still ongoing when evacuation began on 17 February with Japanese forces occupying the island on 23 March. It is unknown if the doctor on Christmas Island had performed an autopsy; if so it was never found.[5]

Examination[edit]

The deceased appears to have been a young adult male caucasoid, and tall by the standards of his time.[6]

A preliminary examination in 1942 by the island's Medical Officer, Dr J. Scott Clark, found that the remains were partly decomposed: its eyes, nose and all of the flesh from the right arm were missing and believed to have been consumed by fish or birds.[7] There are several accounts regarding clothing. According to the island's Harbour Master at the time, Captain J. R. Smith, the body was clothed in a blue boilersuit which had been bleached white by exposure with four plain press studs from neck to waist.[7] According to J.C. Baker, who was in charge of the Radio Station at Christmas Island, the body was clothed in a white boilersuit.[5] The body was not carrying "dog tags" or personal effects.

A shoe was found beside the body, which Clark did not believe belonged to the dead man.[1] Later recollections of the shoe varied: Clark stated that it was "probably branded "CROWN BRAND PTY 4", although he had some doubts about "CROWN" and "4". Captain Smith, recalled a canvas shoe of a brand named "McCOWAN PTY" or "McEWAN PTY", which also carried symbols representing a crown and/or a broad arrow. A sergeant with the party who recovered the raft later contradicted the finding of a single shoe stating that a pair of boots were found on the raft.[8]

In Captain Smith's opinion, the life raft was a naval carley float, which had come from Sydney.[9] The wooden decking was manufactured and branded with the word "PATENT"[10] while the metal framework was branded; LYSAGHT DUA-ANNEAL ZINC. MADE IN AUSTRALIA INSIDE.[11] The float had been damaged by gun or shellfire, with shrapnel embedded in the outer covering, and the underside was covered with barnacles and other marine growth, indicating that it had been at sea for some time.[9]

On 23 April 1949, the Director of Naval Intelligence wrote to the Director of Victualling in regards to whether the clothing (3a) and carley float (3b) could have come from the Sydney. The Director of Naval Victualling replied to 3a in a hand written note that while a rating may have worn a blue boilersuit, suits with press studs "had never been adopted" by the navy. However, R.A.N. officers purchased their own boilersuits which would be either white or brown in colour with press studs. Additionally, the shoes described "definitely" corresponded with R.A.N. issue "provided they were leather not canvass." There is no record of a reply regarding the carley float.[12]

Relocation and recovery[edit]

The 1998 Joint Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade inquiry into the loss of HMAS Sydney recommended that attempts be made to find the grave, in order to exhume the body and acquire DNA for comparison with relatives of personnel from Sydney, in order to determine if the unknown sailor was from the cruiser.[13]

The R.A.N. performed an unsuccessful search of the graveyard in August–September 2001, and a second, successful search in October 2006.[14][15] When it was found, the body was in an unusually-shaped coffin, which appeared to have been constructed around it as the body was buried "with legs doubled under at the knee," the same position it had been in when found on the raft, possibly due to mummification. In addition to human remains, press studs and small fragments of clothing were found in the coffin.[16]

Tests on the studs and fragments showed that the press studs were manufactured by Carr Australia Pty Ltd in the 1930-40s and that the material of the boilersuit had never been dyed and was probably white. The Dress Regulations published in the Navy List of December 1940 do not mention white boilersuits at all. Investigations indicated that Officers, commissioned warrant officers and warrant officers wore white boilersuits as an alternative working dress while Engineer officers often wore white boilersuits all the time. Other officers wore them as required. Two former R.A.N. officers confirmed being issued with white boilersuits twice a year which were fastened with either four or five press studs, some with press studs at the wrist and some without. The R.A.N stated that white canvas shoes had not been issued in WWII and recollections of the former officers confirmed this, with both also stating that they had never seen sailors wearing white shoes. However, photographs of sailors show some wearing white canvas shoes, and dress regulations for December 1940 state that sailors were issued with a pair to be worn only on "foreign" (tropical) stations. The Australian War Memorial’s experts concluded that the boilersuit and shoe found with the body were both available to ship’s officers, commissioned warrant officers and warrant officers senior enough to have a watch keeping certificate.[17]

During an autopsy of the body, a shell fragment (initially believed to be a small-arms bullet, but later determined to be shell shrapnel of German origin) was found embedded in the skull, which was believed to have caused the man's death through brain trauma.[18][19] Regarding the unknown man's injuries, Bruce Billson (Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence) reported that:

...it was found that the shrapnel struck the front of the skull and lodged in the left forehead. In addition to this injury, the pathologist identified a second major skull injury, with bone loss on the left side of the skull, above and behind the left earhole, which is also believed to have occurred around the time of death... The analysis also identified multiple rib fractures, but it is unknown whether these occurred around the time of death or long after death with the settling of the grave. No other shrapnel or projectiles have been found elsewhere in the remains

The remains of the unknown sailor were reburied in the Commonwealth War Graves section in the Geraldton Cemetery on 19 November 2008 with full military honours.[20][21] DNA comparison testing was underway as of 2009, but did not produce definite results before the publication of the Cole Inquiry.[22] DNA analysis has since shown that the man was of European ancestry, had red hair, blue eyes and pale skin. His skeleton indicates he was right-handed and had size-11 feet, was tall for his generation, standing between 168.2 centimetres and 187.8 centimetres and was aged between 22 and 31. Isotope analysis indicates he lived in eastern Australia prior to enlistment and had likely grown up in a coastal environment. The remains had unusual features in both ankle joints called squatting facets, which is very unusual for a person of European ancestry. It was speculated that he had grown up in an area where it was normal to squat rather than use chairs.[16]

As of 2014, the identity of the unknown sailor had been narrowed to 50 sailors.[23]

Connection to Sydney[edit]

The island's inhabitants believed that the float and sailor were of naval origin, and had come from Sydney.[9] A post-war investigation by the RAN, including reconstructions of the reports from the memories of those who wrote them, determined that although the body could possibly be a naval rating, the description of the covering of the raft did not match those used by Australian warships and thus could not have come from Sydney although it is unclear how this conclusion was reached, as the only extant description of the covering was that it was grey.[24] Despite this, several parties consider the float to come from Sydney. Christmas Island's assistant harbour master, captain E. Craig, stated that "the Carley float was typical of those in service with the R.N. and R.A.N."[25] Winter states that a carley float starting from the believed location of the battle and left to drift in the currents of the Indian Ocean would have propelled the float into proximity of Christmas Island around the time of its discovery.[2] Olson claims that the reports compiled after the float was discovered were vague, and that there were inconsistencies between reports.[25] However, he states that the rope used on the float, markings on the float, boilersuit, and shoe were of naval origin, and the descriptions of marine growth correspond with the time a float from Sydney would have been in the water.[26] The government inquiry concluded that "on the balance of probability, that the body and the carley float ... were most likely from HMAS Sydney."[27] In his book, Frame was sceptical of the raft's origins and stated that its connections to the cruiser were circumstantial only, but Olson claims that evidence presented at the 1998 inquiry had changed Frame's mind.[4][25]

Citations[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Olson, Bitter Victory, p. 328
  2. ^ a b Winter, H.M.A.S. Sydney, p. 241
  3. ^ a b Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 324-6
  4. ^ a b Frame, HMAS Sydney, p. 203
  5. ^ a b Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 323.7
  6. ^ Chase 2006
  7. ^ a b Olson, Bitter Victory, pp. 328-9
  8. ^ Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 328
  9. ^ a b c Olson, Bitter Victory, p. 329
  10. ^ Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 325
  11. ^ Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 326
  12. ^ Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 327
  13. ^ Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 331-2
  14. ^ Mearns, The Search for the Sydney, p. 112
  15. ^ Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 332
  16. ^ a b Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 335.6
  17. ^ Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 346 - 351
  18. ^ Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 336-9
  19. ^ a b Billson 2007
  20. ^ Mearns, The Search for the Sydney, p. 238
  21. ^ Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 323
  22. ^ Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 356
  23. ^ Smith, Bridie (4 January 2014). "Mystery HMAS Sydney sailor narrowed to one of 50 crew". SMH.com.au (The Sydney Morning Herald). Retrieved 11 January 2014. 
  24. ^ Olson, Bitter Victory, pp. 329-30
  25. ^ a b c Olson, Bitter Victory, p. 330
  26. ^ Olson, Bitter Victory, pp. 331-2
  27. ^ JCFADT, Report on the loss of HMAS Sydney, p. 118

References[edit]