Last month the wreck of the hospital ship Centaur was found off Moreton Island in South-East Queensland.
As soon as the wreck was discovered a report was sent from the Australian Military to the government advising the politicians to be silent about the circumstance of the sinking of the Centaur to avoid any comments that would upset Japan and damage relations between the two nations.
The Australian military wants to sign a Defense Pact with Japan despite the fact that Japan does not recognize the Australian claim to the Australian Antarctic Territory and despite the fact the Japanese whalers are operating in contempt of an Australian Federal Court order prohibiting whaling in Australian waters.
Japan has threatened to not sign the Pact unless Australia backs off of its opposition to whaling. To his credit, Prime Minster Kevin Rudd ignored this request and declared that the sinking of the Centaur was a “violation of the most basic international and humanitarian conventions.”
"The action to sink the Centaur by the Japanese navy at the time was, in our view, a complete breach of international law," Mr. Rudd said.
The Prime Minister denied that the Federal Government was cautioned about commenting on the incident in a secret Defense Department document.
However Defense Minister, John Faulkner, said a briefing did in fact exist but was not aimed at silencing the Government.
"That brief wasn't, of course, about silencing the Prime Minister," Mr. Faulkner said. "That is not the case at all. Defense didn't do that and didn't want to do that. "What the brief was about was the importance of making contact with the Japanese government about plans that were developing in relation to finding Centaur.
Although Prime Minister Rudd stressed that Japan was today an ally, he added, “"But let's be clear cut about it: the decision to sink an unarmed hospital ship clearly marked with Red Cross symbols, as it was, was a violation of international law and was a complete violation of the most humanitarian principals."
The Centaur, an Australian Hospital Ship, was a motor passenger ship converted in early 1943 for use as a hospital ship.
On 12 May 1943 the Centaur sailed unescorted from Sydney at 0945 hours carrying her crew and normal staff, as well as stores and equipment of the 2/12th Field Ambulance but no patients. It was sunk without warning by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine on 14 May 1943 at approximately 0400 hours, its position being approximately 27°17’ S, 153°58' E about 50 miles east north-east of Brisbane.
Of the 332 persons on board, only 64 survived. These survivors spent 35 hours on rafts before being rescued.
The ship had been appropriately lit and marked to indicate that it was a hospital ship and its sinking was regarded as an atrocity. The Australian Government delivered an official protest to Japan over the incident. The Japanese did not acknowledge responsibility for the incident and the War Crimes Tribunal could not identify the responsible submarine. However, the Japanese official war history made clear that it was submarine 1-177, under the command of Lt. Commander Hajime Nakagawa who had sunk the Centaur. Lt. Commander Nakagawa was convicted as a war criminal for firing on survivors of the British Chivalry, which his ship had sunk in the Indian Ocean. He was imprisoned after the war for six years for machine-gunning helpless British sailors as they swam away from the sinking Chivalry. Hajime Nakagawa, died in 1986 at age 84, silent about the Centaur.
The Japanese position today is that the circumstances remain "murky" as to who was responsible for the sinking of the Centaur. Historians and relatives of those who were aboard the hospital ship have rejected this response.
Tokyo so far has not answered calls by Queensland's Acting Premier Paul Lucas and others for a specific apology for the sinking and also for a possible contribution to the $4 million search effort.
Brisbane pilot John Foley, who co-authored a book about the Centaur with Canadian academic Chris Milligan, said Japan admitted its role in 1979 in a military history by former Rear Admiral Kaneyoshi Sakamoto of the Japanese National Defense College.
Considered Japan's leading expert in submarine warfare, Sakamoto and his book, The History of Submarine Warfare, said Japanese submarine 1-177 sank the Centaur on May 14, 1943 at coordinates near where it was located.
But a spokesman for the Japanese embassy in Canberra said there was no “conclusive proof” Japan did it. "The Japanese perspective is it is up in the air," he said.
Brisbane resident Barry McCosker, whose father and uncle were Centaur survivors, said he was "flabbergasted" that the Japanese still weren't taking responsibility in 2010. "They can't deny it was them," but he said. "I know we won't get any apology”
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Ady Gil Captain Pete Bethune will most likely not receive an apology either for the destruction of his vessel. Japan refuses to cooperate with investigations by Australian and New Zealand maritime authorities.
Japan’s method of operations has not changed since 1943. They deliberately destroyed the Sea Shepherd ship Ady Gil and then immediately claimed that the fault was not theirs. So absurd was the Japanese claim that they even accused Sea Shepherd of deliberately causing an oil spill after the Shonan Maru #2 cut the Ady Gil into two pieces. The first piece sank quickly, the large aft section sank slowly afterwards after all efforts to salvage it were unsuccessful. Fortunately the crew of the Sea Shepherd ship Bob Barker was able to remove the diesel fuel and oil from the Ady Gil before it sank.
Nothing has changed much. The sinking of the Centaur, a hospital ship in 1943 was deliberate and it was a war crime that killed 278 Australians, yet Japan still to this day refuses to acknowledge responsibility in the face of overwhelming evidence. The same holds true for the sinking of the Ady Gil, no matter what evidence or the results of Australian and New Zealand investigations, Japan will refuse to acknowledge responsibility.
The Japanese government operates on the assumption that international law is something to be utilized for Japan’s advantage but will not acknowledge international laws being used against their national interests.
Of course the crimes that the Japanese whalers are committing in the Southern Oceans are hardly comparable to the horrific atrocities of the Second World War, the spirit of contempt for other nations and international law is the same.
Japanese whalers have arrogantly invaded the sovereignty of the Australian Antarctic Territorial waters for the purpose of killing endangered and protected whales in an established whale sanctuary in violation of a global moratorium on whaling, in violation of the Antarctic Treaty and numerous international conservation regulations.
Denying their criminal activities in violation of international conservation and maritime law, does not absolve them of their guilt, just as denying war crimes does not absolve them of having committed war crimes.