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Navy Expedition to Solve 'Unknown Sailor' Mystery

Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence Media Mail List
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MINASSIST 041/06
Friday, 8 September 2006

Navy Expedition Attempts to Solve ‘Unknown Sailor’ Mystery

On 23 September 2006, a Navy team will arrive at Christmas Island in an attempt to locate the remains of an unknown sailor thought to be a crew member from HMAS Sydney that sank with all hands on 19 November 1941, announced the Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence, Bruce Billson.

Announcing this archaeological expedition, Mr Billson said that since an earlier expedition in 2001, additional evidence has come to light warranting a further investigation of the possible site of the grave in the Old European Cemetery on Christmas Island thought to contain the unknown sailor.

A Navy team composed of experienced and well-respected experts including an archaeologist, a physical anthropologist and two forensic odontologists will visit Christmas Island in an attempt to identify the grave site. If evidence of the grave is found it will be further investigated and an attempt made to exhume any remains. If remains are found, they will be brought to Sydney where a forensic pathologist will join the team to assist with identification.

“As with any undertaking of this type, the likelihood of positive identification of the remains, if in fact any are found, are low,” Mr Billson said.

The Royal Australian Navy’s cruiser HMAS Sydney was lost, with its crew of 645 men aboard, following an action with the German raider Kormoran. Early in February 1942, a carley float life-raft containing a body was recovered close inshore at Christmas Island. There were no personal effects or identifying items on the body although the clothing was consistent with that worn by Naval sailors. The body was examined by a medical practitioner and formally buried with military honours, in the old European Cemetery on Christmas Island.

“For over 60 years people have speculated over who occupies this unmarked grave and indeed, where the grave is precisely located,” Mr Billson said.

A Senate Committee report to Parliament in 1999 on the loss of HMAS Sydney 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.”

In 2001, a Navy team assisted by an anthropologist and other forensic experts excavated a site identified by a resident of the Island in the post-war period. However, despite a large excavation, this search was unsuccessful.

“Evidence in the form of a photograph taken by Mr Brian O’Shannassy in 1950 that may pinpoint the grave site location provides sufficient reason for the search to be resumed,” Mr Billson said.

As one of only two witnesses remaining who have seen the actual grave site, Mr O’Shannassy will accompany the Navy team to Christmas Island to undertake this expedition.

“Mr O’Shannassy’s ability to identify the grave location at the Ceremony may prove invaluable,” Mr Billson said.

ENDS

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