Unidentified body on Christmas Island

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The unidentified body on Christmas Island was actually found on a life raft in the Indian Ocean, off that island, in 1942. He 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 locations of the shipwrecks 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. His remains were 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.

Eyewitnesses on Christmas Island believed that the float and sailor had come from Sydney.[1] A post-war investigation by the RAN, including attempts to reconstruct the lost records by those who wrote them, determined that the body could possibly be a naval rating.[2] Christmas Island's assistant harbour master, Captain E. Craig, stated that "the Carley float was typical of those in service with the RN and RAN".[2] A government inquiry concluded "on the balance of probability, that the body and the carley float ... were most likely from HMAS Sydney."[3]

A RAN archaeological expedition in September–October 2006 recovered the body. Although a DNA profile and other data about the man's background have been recovered from the remains, researchers have not been able to match this to known relatives of personnel from Sydney.

Discovery of the body[edit]

During the late afternoon of 6 February 1942, lookouts on Christmas Island spotted an object out at sea.[4] 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 towed ashore.[4]

With the island under threat of invasion, after brief examinations by the harbour master, the medical officer, and the man in charge of the radio station, the body was buried in an unmarked grave near Flying Fish Cove.[5][6] Reports were written by these men; they were destroyed when Japanese forces occupied Christmas Island and later recreated from memory.[6][7] An inquest was not convened until mid-February and was 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.[8]

Initial investigations & research[edit]

A preliminary examination in 1942 by the island's medical officer, Dr J. Scott Clark, found that the deceased was reported to have been a young adult male caucasoid who was tall by the standards of his time.[9]

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.[10] There are several accounts regarding clothing. According to the island's Harbour Master, 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.[10] According to J.C. Baker, who was in charge of the radio station at Christmas Island, the body was clothed in a white boilersuit.[8] 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.[4] 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 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.[11]

In Smith's opinion, the life raft was a naval carley float, which had come from Sydney.[1] The wooden decking was manufactured and branded with the word "PATENT"[12] while the metal framework was branded "LYSAGHT DUA-ANNEAL ZINC. MADE IN AUSTRALIA" inside.[13] 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.[1]

On 23 April 1949, the Director of Naval Intelligence wrote to the Director of Victualling in regard 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, RAN officers purchased their own boilersuits which would be either white or brown in colour with press studs. Additionally, the shoes described "definitely" corresponded with RAN issue "provided they were leather not canvass." There is no record of a reply regarding the carley float.[14]

Controversy regarding raft[edit]

The RAN claimed that the covering of the carley float did not match those used by Australian warships and thus could not have come from Sydney. Historian Tom Frame was also sceptical regarding the raft's origins and stated that its connections to the Sydney were circumstantial.

For many years, other authors, like historian Barbara Winter (1984) and independent researcher Wes Olson (2000) disputed the official view put forward by the RAN. According to Olson, it was unclear how the RAN decided that the float cover was anomalous, as contemporary accounts of the float were often vague and/or contradicted each other.[2] In addition, said Olson, the only available detail of the covering in eyewitness descriptions appeared to be that it was grey.[15] Winter suggested that the currents of the Indian Ocean would have propelled a carley float, launched at the location and time of the battle, to the vicinity of Christmas Island, at around the time of its discovery.[5] According to Olson, the rope used on the float and markings on the float were of naval origin, and the descriptions of marine growth on the float matched the period that a float from Sydney would have been in the water.[16] In 2000, Olson claimed that evidence presented at the 1998 inquiry had changed Frame's mind.[7][2]

Investigations since 1998[edit]

Recovery of the body[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, to exhume the body and acquire DNA for comparison with relatives of personnel from Sydney, to determine if the unknown sailor was from the cruiser.[17]

The RAN performed an unsuccessful search of the graveyard in August–September 2001 and a second, successful search in October 2006.[18][19] 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.[20]

Following an autopsy and the taking of samples from the body to assist in identification, the remains of the unknown sailor were reburied in the Commonwealth War Graves section in the Geraldton Cemetery with full military honours on 19 November 2008.[21][22]

Autopsy and subsequent research[edit]

Brain trauma caused by a shell fragment of German origin has been identified as the cause of death.[23][24] Regarding the unknown man's injuries, Bruce Billson (then Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence) reported that:

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.[24]

The fragment, which was thought initially to be a small-arms bullet, was found embedded in the man's skull during autopsy work in 2006.

Anatomical analysis indicated that the unknown sailor was aged between 22 and 31 when he died, was right-handed, had size 11 feet, and was tall for his generation — between 168.2 and 187.8 centimetres (66.2 and 73.9 in).

Bone isotope analysis shows that he had lived in eastern Australia — most likely NSW or Queensland — before enlistment and most probably grew up in a coastal area. The unknown sailor had acquired an unusual feature in both ankle joints, known as squatting facets; these indicated that he was more used to squatting than sitting on chairs.[20] As squatting was unusual at the time in urban, western communities, it was speculated that the man had spent significant time:

  • in a rural area of Australia;
  • amongst members of an ethnic group in which squatting was more common than sitting (such as people from Asia or Eastern Europe), and/or;
  • involved in a sporting or similar activity that required the ankles to be flexed towards the back of the thighs for prolonged periods.[25]

Attempts to extract a DNA profile from the remains began in or before 2009, although the results were not published before the Cole Inquiry.[26] Analysis of the partial genetic profile recovered has since suggested that the man had red hair, blue eyes and pale skin, suggesting that he was of European descent. He belonged to a mitochondrial haplogroup — an ancient female line of descent — known as haplogroup J1c12.[27]

The boilersuit and shoe found with the body were, according to evidence provided by the Australian War Memorial, available to ship’s officers, commissioned warrant officers and warrant officers senior enough to have a watch keeping certificate.[28] Tests on the remains of the boilersuit showed that the fabric had never been dyed, was probably white and the press studs were of a type manufactured by Carr Australia Pty Ltd in the 1930s and 1940s. RAN Dress Regulations published in the Navy List of December 1940 do not mention white boilersuits. There is evidence, however, that during the period, boilersuits were a popular working dress among RAN personnel. Many RAN engineer officers wore white boilersuits most of the time, and other officers, commissioned warrant officers and warrant officers also wore white boilersuits. Two former RAN officers recalled being issued with a white boilersuit twice a year, that these were fastened with four or five press studs and that some had press studs at the wrist, while others did not. Dress regulations for December 1940 state that RAN personnel on "foreign" (tropical) stations were issued with a pair of white canvas shoes, to be worn only on those stations. While veterans did not recall being issued with them or seeing them worn, photographs of RAN personnel from the period show some of them wearing white canvas shoes.

By 2014, the identity of the unknown sailor had been narrowed to 50 members of the crew of HMAS Sydney.[29]


  1. ^ a b c Olson, Bitter Victory, p. 329
  2. ^ a b c d Olson, Bitter Victory, p. 330
  3. ^ JCFADT, Report on the loss of HMAS Sydney, p. 118
  4. ^ a b c Olson, Bitter Victory, p. 328
  5. ^ a b Winter, H.M.A.S. Sydney, p. 241
  6. ^ a b Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 324-6
  7. ^ a b Frame, HMAS Sydney, p. 203
  8. ^ a b Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 323.7
  9. ^ Chase 2006
  10. ^ a b Olson, Bitter Victory, pp. 328-9
  11. ^ Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 328
  12. ^ Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 325
  13. ^ Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 326
  14. ^ Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 327
  15. ^ Olson, Bitter Victory, pp. 329-30.)
  16. ^ Olson, Bitter Victory, pp. 331-2
  17. ^ Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 331-2
  18. ^ Mearns, The Search for the Sydney, p. 112
  19. ^ Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 332
  20. ^ a b Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 335.6
  21. ^ Mearns, The Search for the Sydney, p. 238
  22. ^ Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 323
  23. ^ Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 336-9
  24. ^ a b Billson 2007
  25. ^ Greg Swinden, 2009, "The Long Journey Home: The Story of the Unknown HMAS Sydney Sailor", Headmark: Journal of the Australian Naval Institute, p. 11.
  26. ^ Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 356
  27. ^ Template:Http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-06-11/navy-searches-answers-identify-unknown-sailor-hmas-sydney/7493144
  28. ^ Cole, The Loss of HMAS Sydney II, vol. 2, pp. 346 - 351
  29. ^ 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.