This blog post (part one) will address some factual matters surrounding identifying the body of an Unknown Sailor which was found off shore Christmas Island on 7 February, 1942. Many believe him to have been a member of the crew of HMAS Sydney (II). Some background is required to gain an understanding of the issues.
(Photo from RAN)
The pain felt by relatives of Sydney crew members has endured even as the decades have passed. There are strong emotions involved relating to the sense of loss, a perceived inaction and lack of care by our Government about appropriately commemorating the loss of the crew, indeed how best to commemorate and memorialise the loss, and how best to deal with the case of the Unknown Sailor of Christmas Island with respect to finding and identifying his remains, and then a re-interment. There have in the past been accusations of a cover-up by the Government which have hopefully now been allayed.
It seems inconceivable that a nation such as Australia, with its magnificent military history, can permit the fate of one of its most famous warships to remain shrouded in mystery and for the fate of 645 of her crew to remain unverified. It is, in short, a national disgrace and a scandal ... When a country such as Australia refuses to engage in a search for its lost heroes just off the shore of its own continent, it defies belief.1
What we say is that it is irrelevant how the Sydney was sunk. It will not change history ... What I, my mother, her brothers and sister (and I am sure all the wives, children, brothers, sisters and loved ones - plus one surviving mother of one of the Sydney's crew) would like to know is where the wreck of the Sydney is lying on the ocean floor, and if the body on Christmas island is that of one of the Sydney's crew.2
In November 2004 the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne held an exhibition in tribute to the lost crew of HMAS Sydney. My friend MacKenzie Gregory was a member of the organising committee for that exhibition and noted these emotional reactions to the exhibition:
"... Captain Burnett's daughter was one of our visitors, only 4 years old when her Dad died.
This lady, naturally enough became quite tearful when talking about the action which claimed her Father, she indicated that she was not in favour of finding the wreck, and would prefer to let her lay where ever she may be in peace.
On the other hand, many relatives with whom we talked would like to know the last resting place of their individual loved ones. "
With respect to the Unknown Sailor of Christmas island, the 1999 Parliamentary Report noted that,
For many who made submissions to the inquiry, the body on Christmas Island was a central concern. If the body was indeed that of one of HMAS Sydney's crew, there was a strong feeling that it should no longer lie in an unmarked grave in a remote part of the Indian Ocean.
In October 2006 a Royal Australian Navy search team led by Captain Jim Parsons visited the Old European Cemetery of Christmas Island. After an exhaustive yet targeted search they successfully located the grave of the Unknown Sailor, exhumed the remains which included a complete skeleton, and the ability to identify dental work via fillings and missing teeth. The remains were transported to the Shellshear Museum at the University of Sydney and they have subsequently been subject to dental, anthropological, pathological, ballistic, metallurgic and DNA analysis at a variety of locations. Here's a transcript of the Media conference given on 26 October 2006 by Captain Jim Parson, Commander Matthew Blenkin, and Jo Button.
"Yes there's one other point that I missed, with the recovering of the remains, there were a couple of things we found. One was press-studs - certainly what appears to be press-studs. they're badly corroded but that's what they look like.
Again, history tells us that when the sailor was recovered he was wearing blue overalls, bleached white by the sun, with press-studs down the front. Again, another piece of evidence that suggests it's the right person."
"These are all part of the artifacts that we handed over to the Australian War Memorial earlier this week for analysis because it appears that both the eyelets and the press-studs have some minute traces of material still jammed between where they're pressed together and we're hopeful that we might be able to analyse something out of that."
In the photo at left (supplied by the Defence Department) Captain Jim Parsons, team leader for the Christmas Island Project, hands over artifacts found at the gravesite of the unknown sailor to the Australian War Memorial's Assistant Registrar Georgina Cunningham. click on photo for larger image, and see one of the press studs in the sealed clear plastic bag closest to camera.
Since the remains of the Unknown Sailor were exhumed in October 2006 much work has been done by the team and associated scientists and technicians.
METALLURGICAL ANALYSIS OF SHRAPNEL FOUND IN THE SKULL
This indicated that the shrapnel was of German origin, not Japanese as it contained silicon and manganese which were known to be used by the Germans to harden metals in 1941. The shrapnel did not contain either nickel or copper, which were characteristically used in Japanese hardening techniques in 1941. The implication is that this is consistent with the attack by the German raider Kormoran on HMAS Sydney (II), and also seems likely to rule out the Unknown Sailor being a victim of a Japanese attack. Some historians have postulated that the ship was sunk by a Japanese Submarine, however this is a minority view.
This has shown that death occurred between 50 and 100 years ago, again consistent with the skeleton being that of the Unknown Sailor from 1942. It has also revealed shrapnel struck the front of the skull and lodged in the left forehead. Additionally there was a second major skull injury with bone loss on the left side of the skull, above and behind the left earhole believed to have occurred around the time of death. There were multiple rib fractures, but these may have occurred post mortem due to settling of the grave.
"White fabric and the particular weave of that fabric found within an overall stud recovered with the body pointed to an engineering officer from Sydney II" according to this report in NAVY.
Forensic odontological reports and anthropological reports excluded more than 500 of the crew of HMAS Sydney (II) according to this Defence Department media release.
Breaking those numbers down in this media release, we see that "... post mortem dental examination of the remains was carried out. Regrettably only half the crew dental records are available, the remainder having been lost with the ship. While no positive match was achieved, this analysis resulted in more than 300 of the crew being excluded."
"The next stage involved an anthropological examination of the skeleton. This effectively excluded a further 200 members on the bases of indicative age at death and height. This left about 100 of HMAS Sydney II crew as potential matches for the remains. "
SEARCH FOR DNA MATCHING AMONGST POSSIBLE SURVIVING RELATIVES BEGINS
On 23 June 2007, the Defence Department announced that the attempt to match DNA was commencing with a search for surviving relatives of 3 Engineering Officers from the crew. There were also widespread announcements in Australian media at that time.
The announcement also mentioned:
In particular Australian War Memorial (AWM) analysis of cloth fragments found within press-studs resulted in the assessment the man had been buried wearing white coveralls.
Historical research by the AWM and the Navy's Sea-Power Centre-Australia concluded that the sailor was therefore most likely to be an Officer or Warrant Officer from one of the technical categories.
Mike Cecil of the Australian War Memorial said this conclusion is based on the assumption that the sailor was dressed in accordance with Naval regulations and indeed was wearing his own coveralls.
"it must be noted that it remains quite possible that these assumptions may prove to be incorrect," Mr. Cecil said.
There is no doubt that all concerned in finding the remains of the Unknown Sailor and in attempting to effect an accurate identification are discharging their Sacred duty in a very thorough manner.
SEARCH FOR DNA MATCHING AMONGST POSSIBLE SURVIVING RELATIVES CONTINUES
On 6 August 2007, the Defence Department issued an update announcing that the attempt to find matching DNA with relatives of 3 short-listed sailors had been unsuccessful. Hence the search was being widened to locate surviving relatives of 11 other Officers and Warrant Officers who were entitled to wear white coveralls and 2 civilian canteen workers who may be potential matches due to uncertainty of what they may have been wearing during battle stations.
It was hoped that relatives may be able to provide additional biographical, physiological or medical information which would further assist the identification process.
Again, this received wide media coverage.
Again, admirable thoroughness.
Shortly after this release on 6 August 2007 Australia entered Federal Election mode, and due to caretaker government provisions few media announcements occur during that period. However as at time of writing today, there seems to have been no further information released about the search.
My problem with this? I think that the historical record in the National Archives of Australia show the Unknown Sailor was found off Christmas Island wearing blue coveralls which were bleached white by exposure. Consequently the team striving to identify the remains should be concentrating on a different segment of the crew. Those who would have been most likely to wear blue coveralls.
Let's explore that in Part Two.