Our History | Plaque at Yass ambulance station recalls The Centaur sinking

Have you noticed the plaques on the wall of our Yass Ambulance Station?

One marks a tragic event which happened exactly 75 years ago on Monday this week.

This plaque is a memorial to Sergeant Paul Bracken and Staff Sergeant (David) Kevin Williams, two ambulance officers who had worked at Yass Ambulance Station prior to enlisting for World War II together on May 20, 1940.

TORPEDOED: Australian ship ‘AHS Centaur’ with its clear markings as a hospital ship, 1943. Photo: National Archives of Australia.

TORPEDOED: Australian ship ‘AHS Centaur’ with its clear markings as a hospital ship, 1943. Photo: National Archives of Australia.

Paul and Kevin died when the Australian hospital ship ‘The Centaur’ was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine about 50 miles north-east of Brisbane.

It caught fire and sank after three minutes about 4am on May 14, 1943. It sank so quickly no SOS was sent. Three hundred and thirty-two lives were lost with only 62 survivors. 

They were picked up by ‘The USS Mugford’ after 35 hours in the sea on rafts and wreckage in bitterly cold weather. Mugford was providing escort to another ship when its RAAF lookout providing air support spotted the survivors in the sea.

NEVER FORGOTTEN: Memorial plaque for Paul Bracken and Kevin Williams. Photo: Yass & District Society Historical Collection.

NEVER FORGOTTEN: Memorial plaque for Paul Bracken and Kevin Williams. Photo: Yass & District Society Historical Collection.

The loss of ‘The Centaur’, its Merchant Navy crew, medical officers including 12 nurses and 149 men of 2/12 Field Ambulance with 44 attached, personnel greatly affected Australia at the time.

Despite being fully illuminated and clearly marked with large red crosses in accordance with international law for hospital ships in time of war, ‘The Centaur’ was attacked.

Prime Minister Curtin described the sinking as “…deliberate, wanton and barbarous…” 

Paul was survived by his widow, and Kevin by his wife and two year-old daughter. 

Sadly, also lost on ‘The Centaur’ was Paul’s brother Private John Bracken, Lance/Sergeant GR Bush 2/12 Field Ambulance and Sister Edna Shaw.

Both Brackens were born in Yass and had five brothers and two sisters. Paul and John had attended St Augustine’s School.

Lance/Sergeant GR Bush from Galong attended Yass Public School. He later became a teacher at Yass High School in 1939-40, before enlisting in 1940.

Sister Edna Shaw was the sister of Lieutenant Shaw who had been on the Main Roads Board Yass.

RECOGNITION: Yass Ambulance Station c.1960 showing both plaques. Photo: Yass & District Historical Society Collection.

RECOGNITION: Yass Ambulance Station c.1960 showing both plaques. Photo: Yass & District Historical Society Collection.

Flags were flown at half mast at Yass Memorial Hall on May 20, 1943 in tribute to these five service personnel with Yass connections.

A contract for a new ambulance building in Yass was let in August 1954.

It was announced a month later that a memorial would placed on the new building honouring Paul Bracken and Kevin Williams, the two Yass ambulance officers who died on ‘The Centaur’.

The wreck of ‘The Centaur’ was found in 2009. It is now protected as a war grave, and as a memorial to all who died on it on May 14, 1943.

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