Profiles In Nursing

Ellen Savage (1912-1985), Australian Nurse Who Rallied a Nation at War

She survived the sinking of a hospital ship during WW2

Illustration of the Centaur hospital ship sinking with people swimming around it. On the right, there is a photo of Ellen Savage in a dress and cap smiling

Even if you practice for decades, your entire career may be defined by only a few moments. For Australia’s Ellen Savage, it was the three minutes it took for the Australian hospital ship Centaur to sink in 1943.

Australian Army Nurse

Ellen Savage grew up in Quirindi, New South Wales, and received her nursing training at New South Wales’ Newcastle Public Hospital. She spent her free time swimming and surfing, skills that would later prove invaluable.

During the late 1930s, Savage continued her education, becoming what Australia called a “triple-certificate” nurse, with diplomas in general nursing, midwifery and mothercraft. She then went to work at the Baby Health Centre in Tamworth before joining the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) in May 1941.

That November, she was reassigned to the Second Australian Imperial Force, the expeditionary branch of Australia’s military forces, and embarked aboard the hospital ship Oranje. One of Savage’s three daughters also became a hospital ship nurse.

Aboard the Centaur

Built in 1924 for Great Britain’s Blue Funnel merchant line, AHS Centaur spent much of her life carrying passengers, cattle and sheep between West Australia, Singapore and Malaysia. Pressed into military service in 1941, she became known as a lucky ship for her good fortune in evading Japanese bombs.

The Australian military converted the 3,222-ton freighter into a hospital ship in early 1943. Around the same time, Savage received a commission as a lieutenant and was assigned to Centaur’s 12-member nursing staff.

In May, Centaur set sail for Port Moresby, New Guinea, to pick up wounded Australian soldiers. In compliance with international treaty requirements, the ship wore prominent red crosses and was brightly lit, sailing without escort.

Under the terms of the Geneva Convention, she was supposed to be off-limits to attack.  Unfortunately for her 332 officers, crew and medical personnel, Japan was not then a signatory of the Geneva Convention. At 4:10 a.m. on Friday, May 14, submarine I-177 of the Imperial Japanese Navy torpedoed the Centaur, sending her to the bottom in a mere three minutes.

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As Savage recalled later:

Merle Morton and myself were awakened by two terrific explosions and practically thrown out of bed. … I registered mentally that it was a torpedo explosion. … In that instant the ship was in flames. … [W]e ran into Col. Manson, our commanding officer, in full dress even to his cap and ‘Mae West’ life-jacket, who kindly said, “That’s right girlies, jump for it now.” The first words I spoke was [sic] to say, “Will I have time to go back for my great-coat?” as we were only in our pyjamas. He said, “No,” and with that climbed the deck and jumped and I followed. … [T]he ship was commencing to go down.

Manson did not survive, nor did Morton, Matron Sarah Anne Jewell or the nine other nurses onboard. Many of the ship’s personnel were trapped below decks or else perished in the flames, which spread to the water as Centaur’s oil supply escaped. Some of those who jumped overboard were sucked down with the sinking ship or devoured by hungry sharks.

Despite injuries that included three crushed ribs, a broken palate and nose and perforated ear drums, Savage made it to the water with a life preserver, clutching her rosary beads in one hand. Her skill as a swimmer and surfer may have saved her life.

She and another survivor managed to clamber atop a hunk of the ship’s chart house, where they shared a single greatcoat as they shivered in the frigid early morning air.

Ordeal at Sea

The ordeal did not end when the sun rose. Bitter nighttime cold soon gave way to blistering heat as sharks continued to circle. There had been no time to radio an SOS before the Centaur went down, so passing ships and airplanes failed to spot the survivors’ rafts and signal flares.

Concealing the extent of her injuries, Savage cared for the wounded as best she could, supervised rationing of their very limited supplies and bolstered morale with singalongs and prayers. According to her fellow survivors, her unshakeable faith became a comfort to all.

Hiring Now

After another night of icy winds and hail, the survivors heard a Japanese submarine — possibly the same one that sunk the Centaur — surfacing nearby to recharge her batteries. The survivors hastily extinguished their lights, fearing they would become targets for the sub’s guns, but the submarine departed without further incident.

That afternoon, an Australian aircraft finally spotted the rafts and arranged for the American destroyer USS Mugford to rescue Savage and 63 other survivors. They had been in the water 34 brutal hours.

Public Outrage

When the sinking of the Centaur made the newspapers a few days later, Savage became a national hero. The attack outraged the Australian public, galvanizing the nation’s resolve.

Propaganda images of the sinking ship and calls to avenge the 10 dead nurses helped to raise money and recruit volunteers for the war. Savage was hospitalized for her injuries, but returned to active duty within months. For her “conspicuous service and high courage,” she was awarded the George Medal in August 1944.

Six weeks later, the submarine that sank the Centaur was herself sunk by an American destroyer. The sub’s commander was later convicted of war crimes related to a different sinking.

Later Life

Savage remained in the service until March 1946. After she returned home, Royal Newcastle Hospital appointed her as senior sister. She spent part of 1947 at England’s Royal College of Nursing, earning a postgraduate nursing administration certificate on a Florence Nightingale scholarship.

In 1949, she became a founding member of the New South Wales College of Nursing, forerunner of today’s Australian College of Nursing, the Commonwealth’s leading professional nursing organization. She later served a term as its president.

Despite her experience, the military discipline that had served Savage so well in wartime became an obstacle to her later career. In 1950, Newcastle Hospital passed her over for a director of nursing position because the superintendent felt she was too “entrenched in the ‘old school mode.’” She instead became matron of a unit on the hospital’s Rankin Park campus, where she remained for the rest of her nursing career.

Savage died in April 1985 after attending a reunion for Anzac Day, Australia and New Zealand’s counterpart to our Memorial Day.

The wreckage of the Centaur, discovered in December 2009, is now officially designated as a war grave to protect the remains of Savage’s comrades, who went down with their ship.

ELIZABETH HANINK, RN, BSN, PHN,  is a Working Nurse staff writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

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