The holdings of the National Archives of Australia (NAA) on matters related to the disappearance of HMAS Sydney (II) are vast. They have also been trawled by many professional and amateur historians.
Let's concentrate here on what the archives have to show us about what the Unknown Sailor was wearing when he was found floating in a Carley raft off Christmas Island on 6 February, 1942. (The photograph at left shows a Carley float typical of the period. This one was from HMAS Shropshire.)
Mr. Richard Summerrell, then Assistant Director of the NAA in 1997 produced a guide to Commonwealth Government Records on this matter called The Sinking of HMAS Sydney (ISBN 0 642 34412), and it is available online here. this guide is a very significant work of research in its own right.
The eyewitness accounts of the recovery of the Carley float/raft off Christmas Island are contained in the NAA as reference [ NAA: AA1980/700, NID 194/222 ] "Carley float and Corpse Recovered Off Christmas Island." It is available for viewing online at the NAA website via the "Recordsearch feature." Images of this file follow, which I have downloaded from the NAA site as Bitmap images and then converted to JPEG. Technically, there was some image compression required to load onto this blog, so if you want the higher resolution image you will need to go to the NAA site.
In early May, 1949 Mr. J. W. Brown was staying at the Carlton Hotel, Perth, Western Australia and made contact with Mr. J. K. Atkinson of the West Australian newspaper. Mr. J. W. Brown had been a resident on Christmas Island at the time of the recovery of the Unknown Sailor in February 1942.
And who was Mr. Brown? According to the Parliamentary report section 7.53, he was former Sergeant of the Christmas Island Platoon of the Singapore Volunteers.
"... It was a Carley raft with one body on board, the body of an engine room rating in blue overalls very much decomposed. Seabirds from above and fish from below had done their share to make identification impossible. A pair of boots was also on the raft which our resident medical officer said could not have been worn by the dead man, this led us to believe that there may have been others on the raft. ...." (my emphasis added)
Mr. Atkinson of the West Australian went to the Naval Staff Office in Fremantle, West Australia and sought comment. The Naval Officer In Charge at Fremantle sent his own agent to interview Mr. Brown. Mr. Brown was at that time absent, so his wife was interviewed, and she substantiated that they were residents of Christmas Island in February, 1942.
In February and March 1942 Christmas Island was in turmoil. The Japanese military were advancing. On 7 March the Japanese shelled the island. On 11 March the 27 Indian troops staged a mutiny murdering Captain Leonard Williams and four British NCOs , all part of the British Army garrison who were to protect the island. On 31 March 1942 the Japanese invaded the island, interning the Europeans, including Tom Pearson Cromwell (District Officer).
On 23 February 1942, the Naval Staff Officer (Intelligence) compiled Shipping Intelligence Report No. 137/1942. Of note was that the ship S/S Islander had arrived in port.
"The "ISLANDER" brought a total of 48 evacuee passengers from Christmas Island. From Captain J. R. Smith, Harbour Master from the Island, the following information, which throws further light on the report by J. C. BAKER (reference "HERMION" in this report), was gathered.
... The corpse was clothed in a boiler suit which had originally been blue, but was bleached white by exposure. There were four plain press studs from neck to waist. "
"On board this vessel were J. C. Baker and wife, passengers from Christmas Island. Mr. Baker, for the last six years, has been in charge of the Radio Station at Christmas Island. ...
"The corpse was clothed in a white boiler suit, the pockets were empty and there was nothing to establish identity. the Shore doctor established that the body was that of a white man. All the flesh was gone from the right arm, also the eyes and nose were missing. Otherwise the corpse was decomposed in parts. ..."
Here we have a conflict between the accounts of Smith and Baker concerning the colour of the boiler suit worn by the Unknown Sailor.
Smith said, " ... boiler suit which had originally been blue, but was bleached white by exposure."
Baker said, " ... a white boiler suit ..."
Well, the Naval Staff Officer (Intelligence) wrote about this conflict, " ... without any suggestion of discrediting Baker's statements, which were given in good faith, it is suggested that those made by Captain Smith should prove the more reliable."
In response to the request for information from the Naval Officer In Charge at Fremantle, the Director of Naval Intelligence, who was then Captain, later Rear Admiral George C. Oldham wrote to the RAN's Director of Victualling and Director of Naval Stores seeking remarks on paragraphs 3 (a), (b) and (c) of the W.A. Shipping Intelligence Report No 137/1942.
I cannot tell from my reading of the NAA's online file if the whole of W. A. Shipping Intelligence Report No 137/1942 was forward for reading and consideration by the D. of V. and the D. N. S. , or merely the page containing the account of Mr. Baker, which stated that the corpse was wearing " ...a white boiler suit." The fact that the D. of V. has commented on the topic of "pressed studs" and "press studs" infers that he also read the account of Smith who said, "there were four plain press buttons from neck to waist."
The Director of Naval Stores (D.N.S.) has replied ,
" Regarding Par 3(a), the boiler suit does not coincide with ratings' type stocked in R.A.N. as pressed studs had [ illegible words ] been adopted. A naval rating may have worn the type described although not officially uniform. R.A.N. officers purchased their own or had them made up privately. White & brown in colour [illegible word] press studs.
2. The markings on the shoes described by Captain J. R. Smith as underlined in blue pencil definitely correspond with supplies from our stores, provided they were leather not canvas shoes. I should think they had been supplied to an officer or rating."
Let's look at the conclusions which were made by Captain G. C. Oldham, the Director of Naval Intelligence. He replied to the Naval Officer in Charge at Fremantle on 2 August, 1949:
Captain Oldham concluded that the clothing could have been that of an R.A.N. rating, but that the Carley float did not belong to an H.M.A. Ship.
Captain Oldham's conclusion about the origin of the Carley float is now believed to be incorrect. Based upon substantial further evidence which Oldham did not have at his disposal, the Joint Parliamentary Committee drew the conclusion that the Carley float may well have come from an H.M.A. Ship. See the report sections 7.8 through 7.50.
One eyewitness in 1942 said that the Unknown Sailor was wearing a blue boiler suit which had been bleached white by exposure to the sun.
One eyewitness in 1942 said that the Unknown Sailor was wearing a white boiler suit.
One eyewitness in 1949 said that the Unknown Sailor was the body of an engine room rating wearing blue overalls.
For this reason, I think that the current efforts to identify the Unknown Sailor by finding his surviving relatives should be concentrating on those members of the crew who would most likely have been wearing blue overalls/boiler suit - not those members of the crew who would most likely have been wearing white overalls/boiler suit.
Recall from my first post on this topic that analysis of the fabric remnants from between press studs found upon the exhumation of the Unknown Sailor's remains was conducted at the Australian War Memorial, and the conclusion was that the colour of the fabric was white. This together with the weave of the fabric led to the conclusion that the clothing had been of a type issued to officers, most likely in the Engineering branch.
Part Three coming soon.