/ 19 November 2021

Naming the unknown sailor

Image source: AAP
Image source: AAP

It’s been a heavy news week, and it being a Friday, we decided to mix it up with, umm, a heavy incident from the past… But it’s relevant and significant, we promise. Today marks the 80th anniversary of a fierce WWII battle between the HMAS Sydney IIand the German ship HSK Kormoran. Also on today, the identity of the only body ever recovered from the Aussie ship is set to be revealed.

That’s the spirit. Let’s break it down: 

The Aussie sailor was one of the 645 men on the HMAS Sydney who died when the cruiser was sunk 100km off the West Australian coast in the 1941 battle. The ship was the pride of the Royal Australian Navy fleet, and its loss remains our greatest naval tragedy.

According to accounts from rescued German sailors, the Aussie ship was fired upon at close range by the Kormoran, which concealed its weapons to look like a merchant ship. The Sydney fired back, ensuring the German ship met the same fate, and it lost more than 80 of its 397 sailors. The ships’ final resting places were unknown until 2008.

As for the unknown sailor, he washed up on Christmas Island on a life raft more than 2 months after the battle. Locals buried him, and in 1950, a photo of the gravesite was given to a historian who eventually handed the information to the Navy. His body was exhumed in 2006, and work started on identifying him. 

They do. The Australian has details of his identity this morning (paywall) – the Unknown Sailor is Thomas Welsby Clark. He was 21yo, tall with fair hair, and a Queenslander. DNA was taken from his teeth and bones and checked against crew members’ families. Most of the sailors on the Sydney were in their late teens and early 20s when it went down. The hope is that naming the unknown sailor will let the families of the other 644 Aussies know that they haven’t been forgotten. Keep an eye out for an announcement from the War Memorial in Canberra this morning…

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