HMAS
Sydney
(II) - Part 6

The Unknown Sailor of HMAS Sydney (II)

By John Perryman

1942

 

On 6 February 1942 a shrapnel damaged, grey-painted Carley Float, described as being of the same pattern as that recovered from Sydney by HMAS Heros during the search for survivors (see below) was spotted drifting close inshore off Rocky Point, Christmas Island (Indian Ocean). The assistant harbour master, Captain E Craig, accompanied by two Malay marine staff, set off in a motor boat and recovered the raft in which was found the remains of a deceased male dressed only in overalls. The raft was lifted ashore by crane and the body, found lying with legs doubled rigidly under at the knee, was removed. This proved to be an important observation made at that time.

According to Captain Craig, the exposed parts of the body seemed well preserved but the underside, that was partially immersed in water, was not so. The body was clad in blue overalls bleached almost white by the sun and exposure to the elements. They were fastened with press studs and there was nothing present on the person, or in the raft, to identify the body that was removed to the hospital for temporary storage. Captain Craig’s assessment of the life raft was that it was a Carley Float typical of those in service with the Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy. A closer inspection of it revealed markings indicating that it was ‘MADE IN N.S.W.’ Other witnesses to the event provided similar descriptions and some additional information concerning footwear found in the raft. The float was marked No. 2 on the outside and the description of it made at the time indicates it was a Type 20 raft measuring 5ft x 10ft. All indications are that it was later disposed of. Captain JR Smith, the island's Harbour Master ,was later to file a report encapsulating the incident and many of the particulars that were observed by those concerned at the time.

Amplifying details can be found in Volume II, Chapter 15, of the Official Inquiry into the Loss of HMAS Sydney (II), over which Commissioner the Honourable Terence RH Cole, AO, RFD, QC presided in July 2009. The report is readily available online in the public domain and may be accessed in the Cole Inquiry.

With Japanese occupation imminent, the unidentified body was buried in the Old European Cemetery with military honours in an unmarked grave overlooking the sea. The war in the Indo-Pacific then overtook events with the Japanese landing two weeks later.

1949

 

Interest by the RAN in the Christmas Island episode was rekindled after the war on 4 May 1949. At that time the Naval Officer in Charge - Fremantle, Captain HL Howden, CBE, RAN, a former captain of Sydney’s sister ship HMAS Hobart, wrote to the Director of Naval Intelligence, Melbourne, Commander George Oldham, DSC, RAN requesting a statement or further information in connection with a story submitted by Mr JK Atkinson of the West Australian newspaper. That story featured the recollections of former Sergeant JW Brown of the Singapore Volunteers who was present when the Carley Float washed up at Christmas Island and who confirmed the notion that it held the body of an Australian naval rating. Commander Oldham’s response dismissed the notion that the Carley Float could have come from Sydney based on the description provided in shipping intelligence report (No 137/42) of 23 February 1942. This then appears to be the baseline for the Navy’s position on the matter until 1998.

The correspondence exchanged between Captain HL Howden, CBE, RAN and the then Director of Naval Intelligence Commander George Oldham, DSC, RAN.
The correspondence exchanged between Captain HL Howden, CBE, RAN and the then Director of Naval Intelligence Commander George Oldham, DSC, RAN.

1998

 

In 1998 a Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade conducted an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the sinking of HMAS Sydney (II) in response to a ground-swell of public opinion wishing to better understand what led to the cruiser’s disappearance without trace. Significantly, the story of the Christmas Island sailor was examined closely and the committee concluded:

On the balance of probability, that the body and the Carley Float found off the shore of Christmas Island in February 1942 were most likely from HMAS Sydney (II).

The committee recommended that an attempt to locate the grave of the unknown sailor on Christmas Island be made and, if the attempt was successful, there be an exhumation of the remains for the purpose of identification. The recommendation was accepted.

2001 - The First Search

 

Between 24 August and 7 September 2001 Lieutenant Commander Richard Chartier, RAN, a naval aviator and specialist in air crash investigation, led a small team comprising former Christmas Island resident Mr Ted Lourey; Mr Ted McGown (the brother of one of the ratings who died in Sydney); forensic anthropologist Dr Denise Donlan (Squadron Leader RAAF); forensic dentists Lieutenant Commander Matt Blenkin, RAN; and Dr Russell Lain (Lieutenant RANR) to excavate a site in the Old European Cemetery, Christmas Island, in search of the body from the Carley Float. They were later joined by Dr Alan Cala and Dr Jo Duflou, also Reserve offices in the ADF. It was hoped that by finding the body, the riddle concerning who he was might be solved.

During the first search a total area of 38 square metres of the cemetery was excavated and about 20 cubic metres of material weighing 32 tonnes removed. Disappointingly, in spite of their collective efforts, the search was to prove unsuccessful and thereafter the Australian Government adopted the position that no further search would be conducted unless credible and compelling new evidence concerning the location of the grave was forthcoming.

The 2001 dig team. L-R: Denise Donlon, Russell Lain, Richard Chartier, Professor Johan Duflou and Matt Blenkin.
The 2001 dig team. L-R: Denise Donlon, Russell Lain, Richard Chartier, Professor Johan Duflou and Matt Blenkin.

2006

 

In early 2006 advice from two different sources, Mr Ted McGowan and Mrs Glenys McDonald, both avid researchers, citing credible new evidence was received by the RAN and forwarded to the Sea Power Centre - Australia for evaluation. Chief amongst that was the existence of a photograph taken of the burial site in 1950 by Mr Brian O’Shannassy coupled with evidence from a former Christmas Island resident, Mr Say Kit Foo, who had intimate knowledge of the graveyard. These submissions resulted in the Senior Naval Historical Officer Mr John Perryman and Lieutenant Commander John Maddox, RANR, interviewing Mr Brian O’Shannassy and Mr Say Kit Foo, in March 2006, both of whom were happy to reveal what they knew concerning where the unknown sailor was buried.

Mr O’Shannassy, a former RAN signalman, had taken a photograph of the cemetery where the unknown sailor was interred during the post-war period (1950). In the photograph could be seen a line of graves that he claimed included the unmarked grave. He indicated on a map provided by Mr Perryman where he believed it to be. Mr Say Kit Foo, the son of a cook who worked for the British Phosphate Commission, and who used to play in the cemetery as a child also indicated where he believed the body to be by placing a mark on the same map. Both marks were within 3 metres of the other and this was sufficient for Mr Perryman to take the matter forward to government and argue that it constituted new credible evidence and that a further attempt to find the body was feasible and ought to be undertaken.

Left: Signalman Brian O'Shannassy, circa 1946. Right: The photograph taken by Brian while working on Christmas Island in the 1950s. The grave in the foreground is the Johnson grave that Brian used as a reference point. Beyond it is the Stewart grave, a space left bare and finally the Ystenes grave.
Left: Signalman Brian O'Shannassy, circa 1946. Right: The photograph taken by Brian while working on Christmas Island in the 1950s. The grave in the foreground is the Johnson grave that Brian used as a reference point. Beyond it is the Stewart grave, a space left bare and finally the Ystenes grave.
A map of the Old European Cemetery indicating the location of the grave given by Mr O'Shannassy and Mr Say Kit Foo.
A map of the Old European Cemetery indicating the location of the grave given by Mr O'Shannassy and Mr Say Kit Foo.

The Second Search

 

In September 2006 the Navy assembled a team of experts led by Captain Jim Parsons, RAN, to conduct an excavation of the identified site. The team again included Dr Denise Donlan, Commander Matt Blenkin, RAN, and Dr Russell Lain, and was further complemented by highly regarded achaeologist Tony Lowe and Brian O'Shannassy who had taken the photograph 50 years previously. The team was given further assistance by residents of Christmas Island who gave willingly of their time, hospitality, equipment and knowledge of the terrain which was to prove difficult at the best of times.

After a week of hard work and digging, a good part of the search area had been excavated and eliminated but had not returned a positive outcome. With time running out, Captain Parsons and his team reviewed and reassessed the evidence, refining their search to an area between the Stewart and Ystenes graves that was closer to the area identified by Say Kit Foo.

The unusual space left bare between the Stewart and Ystenes graves. (Glenys McDonald)
The unusual space left bare between the Stewart and Ystenes graves. (Glenys McDonald)

On 30 September 2006 the grave was located when rotting timber and rusting nails were uncovered and a male skeleton exposed. The remains were buried face down in a position in which it was flexed at the knees as described by Captain Craig in 1942. Also found in the grave were press studs from the sailors overalls and brass eyelets, believed to be from a piece of canvas that was used to place him in the makeshift coffin that was built around him in 1942.

The meticulous process of uncovering the remains. From left: Matt Blenkin. Team Leader Captain Jim Parsons overseeing proceedings. Denise Donlan and Russel Lain, both of whom established a deep commitment to solving the identity of the unknown sailor.
The meticulous process of uncovering the remains. From left: Matt Blenkin. Team Leader Captain Jim Parsons overseeing proceedings. Denise Donlan and Russel Lain, both of whom established a deep commitment to solving the identity of the unknown sailor.
Left: The remains as they were found in the unmarked grave. Right: Tony Lowe, Jim Parsons, Brian O'Shannassy, Denise Donlon, Russell Lain and Matt Blenkin.
Left: The remains as they were found in the unmarked grave. Right: Tony Lowe, Jim Parsons, Brian O'Shannassy, Denise Donlon, Russell Lain and Matt Blenkin.

Under the authority of an exhumation order the body was carefully removed and respectfully repatriated to mainland Australia for further examination. At that time Mr Perryman at the Sea Power Centre - Australia initiated efforts to gather as much personal information as possible from relatives of the crew of HMAS Sydney (II) with a view to one day identifying the sailor. The response to that appeal was overwhelming and this work was to quietly continue in the background. At the same time, Commander Greg Swinden, RAN, an officer with a keen interest in RAN war dead and casualites, and one who had considerable research experience in that field, volunteered to spearhead efforts to identify the ‘Christmas Island Man’ as he came to be known. The next decade would be spent obtaining DNA samples from relatives with Greg working closely with DNA specialists: Associate Professor Jeremy Austin and his team at the University of Adelaide and Associate Professor Jodie Ward and her team at the Australian Federal Police. The involvement of these two groups would eventually prove a turning point.

Left: Commander Greg Swinden who coordinated DNA sampling that was to lead to a breakthrough. Right: Forensic Ordontologest Russell Lain, Commander Greg Swinden, Associate Professor Jeremy Austin and Mr John Perryman following news of a DNA match in early 2020.
Left: Commander Greg Swinden who coordinated DNA sampling that was to lead to a breakthrough. Right: Forensic Ordontologest Russell Lain, Commander Greg Swinden, Associate Professor Jeremy Austin and Mr John Perryman following news of a DNA match in early 2020.

The process of trying to identify the unknown sailor included examining varying data sets such as personnel and dental records, photographs and descriptions but overwhelmingly the scientific evidence gleaned by the anthropological, dental and forensic specialists who remained involved throughout the entire process. Those data sets directed the focus of effort as new leads and scientific advancements emerged. The initial scientific results of the examination of the Christmas Island body may also be found in the Cole Inquiry.

2008

 

In March 2008 the wrecks of both Kormoran and Sydney were located in more than 2000 metres of water about 120 nautical miles west of Steep Point, Western Australia.The discovery saw the then Chief of the Australian Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal AG Houston, AC, AFC initiate an official inquiry into the loss of HMAS Sydney (II) and ‘consequent loss of life and related events subsequent thereto’. The last sentence was important as it encapsulated the Christmas Island sailor.

2009

 

In July 2009 the Cole Inquiry was handed down and in matters relating to the Christmas Island sailor it concluding that:

The Carley Float and the body found in it are inextricably linked. Common sense suggests that if either can be shown to have come from SYDNEY so did the other. Together, the evidence in relation to the Carley Float and to the body leave no doubt at all that both the Carley Float and the body found in it came from HMAS Sydney.

(Chapter 15 of the Cole Inquiry report)

The remains of the Christmas Island man were re-interred at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Geraldton on 19 November 2008 with full naval honours. His grave was marked as:

A Serviceman of the 1939-1945 War HMAS SYDNEY Known Unto God.

A small part of his remains was, however, retained to enable further DNA testing and this proved to be a prescient consideration in light of advancements in that field.

The re-burial of the unknown sailor at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery Geraldton, WA. RAN sailors guarded, carried and lowered his remains with full naval honours. Bottom left: Lieutenant John Perryman, RAN, pays his respects.
The re-burial of the unknown sailor at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery Geraldton, WA. RAN sailors guarded, carried and lowered his remains with full naval honours. Bottom left: Lieutenant John Perryman, RAN, pays his respects.

2010-2021

 

Over more than a decade the Navy’s Sea Power Centre, scientific and forensic experts and a significant number of relatives from those lost in HMAS Sydney (II), including those of the six RAAF men, four civilian canteen staff and eight Royal Navy personnel, have contributed to unravelling the riddle of who the unknown sailor might be. This work was initially based on the various anthropometric clues revealed by Dr Donlon and Tony Lowe during the initial examinations of the human remains found in the grave on Christmas Island including approximate age, height, dental features and other idiosyncrasies.

That anthropological data determined that the remains were of a Caucasian male aged approximately between 21 and 31 and with a height of between 5 foot 6 inches and 6 foot 2 inches. He displayed squatting facets on the anterior borders of the distal ends of both tibiae. He also displayed bowing of both fibulae, probably caused by occupational stress due to repetitive movements, possibly carrying heavy weights or undertaking strenuous activity.

The remains were of a man with a long narrow face, exhibiting gracile features, with a prominent chin. Dental experts Russel Lain and Matt Blenkin were to record that nine of his teeth had been repaired with gold fillings and this became a matter of some focus. It is important to note that there was no provision on WWII dental records to record the presence of fillings. If a tooth had been filled it was recorded as being sound. All of that information was compared with data recorded on service records, and surviving medical and dental records to either include or exclude members in order to form a cohort of potential candidates. Over time, isotope testing and DNA testing emerged as realistic means of assisting with identifying the remains. Some of that work, such as the isotope testing, was undertaken as far away as Canada by M Anne Katzenberg in the University of Calgary.

2021

 

The aggregate of years of research conducted by all those involved rewarded Commander Swinden with a breakthrough in proceedings. DNA testing conducted over a two year period led by Associate Professor Jeremy Austin and his team at the University of Adelaide revealed a mitochondrial DNA match. Further analysis led by Associate Professor Jodie Ward and Mrs Shelley Seddon and their team at the Australian Federal Police National DNA Program for Unidentified and Missing Persons established a Y Chromosome match. This led to identifying living individuals with the same DNA who were found to be direct relatives of S/4449 Able Seaman Thomas Welsby Clark.

Able Seaman Clark’s service record confirms that he was a member of HMAS Sydney (II) at the time of her sinking. It also confirms his age as being 21.3 years, caucasian and over 6 feet tall.

Able Seaman Thomas Welsby Clark.
Able Seaman Thomas Welsby Clark.

Research into Clark’s background reveals that he came from a wealthy family. His father was a sheep grazier, a race horse breeder and oyster farmer with an estimated worth of 200,000 pounds at the time of his death. The above is significant as it provided possible explanations for his expensive gold dental work, the squatting facets (horse riding) and isotope testing that revealed the body had been nourished in life chiefly through a sea food diet (oyster farm).

The DNA links were connected to a current day family member maintaining an unbroken female line from the 1830s to present day. The collegiate work of all involved brought this information before an independent Australian Defence Force Casualty Identification Board, chaired by Captain Paul O’Grady, DSM, CSM, RAN, which, after hearing all of the evidence from various experts, took the matter under consideration over a number of weeks. The rectitude and vigour of the board was noteworthy.

The ADF Casualty Identification Board reviewing the many years of research and evidence that led to the positive identification of Able Seaman TW Clark. (DJ Perryman)
The ADF Casualty Identification Board reviewing the many years of research and evidence that led to the positive identification of Able Seaman TW Clark. (DJ Perryman)

The board concluded, based on overwhelming evidence, with a confidence level of greater than 80 percent, that the remains of the HMAS Sydney (II) sailor who washed ashore at Christmas Island on 6 February 1942 are those of S/4449 Able Seaman Submarine Detector Thomas Welsby Clark.

The identity of the ‘unknown sailor’ was jointly announced at the Australian War Memorial Canberra, by the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel, the Hon Andrew Gee MP, and the Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Mike Noonan, AO, RAN, on 19 November 2021, coinciding with the 80th anniversary of HMAS Sydney (II)’s last valiant action.

In the week preceding the official announcement descendant family members of Thomas Welsby Clark were privately advised of the news that the unknown sailor had been positively identified as their missing relative.

A special memorial cairn now marks the location in the Old European Cemetery on Christmas Island where Thomas Clark lay for many years commemorating both him and his shipmates.

Canberra-based relatives of Able Seaman Clark, Dr Leigh Lehane (niece) with husband Robert, flanked by Commander Greg Swinden, right, RAN and Mr John Perryman.
Canberra-based relatives of Able Seaman Clark, Dr Leigh Lehane (niece) with husband Robert, flanked by Commander Greg Swinden, right, RAN and Mr John Perryman.