On 12 May 1943 the Hospital Ship Centaur sailed unescorted from Sydney at 0945 hours carrying her crew and normal staff, as well as the stores and equipment of the 2/12th Field Ambulance, but no patients. Despite being clearly marked with the large red crosses that denoted a hospital ship the Centaur sunk without warning two days later off Moreton Island, Queensland, on 14 May, by a torpedo fired from a Japanese submarine. Of the 332 people on board only 64 survived.
These items came from a medical kit used on a lifeboat after the sinking of the ship. The kit was found and used by the only surviving doctor, Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Ouridge to try and treat some of the survivors. They were collected by Francis Thomas 'Frank' Reid, who survived the sinking.
Reid had joined the Centaur on 21 March 1943 as the Chief Butcher. The night before the sinking he had gone to bed at around 10pm. He was to start work at 4 am the next day, when the watchman would call to wake him. On this occasion he went back to sleep until 4.10, when the watchman called him again. Reid had been sitting on his bunk for a few minutes when the ship was hit by a torpedo. He saw a yellow flame shoot past the porthole and immediately tried to find his life jacket, but it was not on its peg. Reid then pulled Jim Rawlings, who slept in the bunk above him, out of bed.
He reached to get Mark Hoggins out of his bunk, across from Reid's, but he was already on his feet. Their cabin was close to the deck and the three made their way there. While Hoggins and Rawlings tried to release a life raft, Reid saw flames shooting out of a large hole in the port side of the ship, just beneath the saloon and bridge.
Reid was still concerned about not having a life jacket, so returned to his cabin. The lights failed but the flames illuminated his cabin through the porthole. On his hands and knees he located his life jacket and returned to the deck where he met Frank Davidson, the Centaur's second butcher. The forward section of the ship was by now under water and the aft was in the air. Reid jumped over the rails and dived into the water. He swam about 12 metres before looking back to the ship. Only the poop deck was still above water. He swam about a further 3 metres but when he looked back again, the ship had gone.
Davidson swam up to Reid and they found a raft which contained the Torres Strait pilot, Captain Richard Mumford Salt, Chief Engineer Ernest D Smith and others. Eventually about 22 men were crowded on to the raft. They came across the top of the wheelhouse and a life boat with the bottom blown out. Using their hands and pieces of wreckage, they paddled over and about 10 men were transferred to the wheelhouse and two to the life boat. That night they heard the sound of a motor. Thinking it was an aircraft, flares were lit, until one of the occupants on the raft realised it was not an aircraft but more likely to be the noise of a submarine engine. The flares were extinguished and eventually the sound moved away.
The survivors were on the water for about 35 hours, before they were rescued by the USS Mugford. The Mugford contacted the Naval Officer in Charge Brisbane, advising him they were rescuing the survivors of the Centaur. The Centaur had sunk so quickly no SOS message was sent, and the signal from the Mugford was the first that Australian authorities knew about the loss of the ship. As well as Davidson, Reid's cabin mates, Hoggins and Rawlings, also survived the sinking.