Private Alan Thomas Adams, Australian Army Service Corps, att’d 2/12th Field Ambulance


Sydney, NSW, 1943. Starboard bow view of the hospital ship Centaur.

Author: Australian War Memorial

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Alan Adams was born in St Peters, Sydney, on 4 April 1913 to Albert and Florence Adams. He grew up and attended school in Newtown. By the Second World War, he was working as a storeman and packer.

He enlisted on 12 May 1941 as a driver with the Army Service Corps, attached to the 2nd Division Supply Column.

In February 1942, Adams was sent to Darwin as a driver to the 2/12th Field Ambulance. His new unit were rebuilding after losing 90 members; killed or captured by the Japanese following the taking of Ambon and Timor.

Darwin had recently been heavily damaged by Japanese air raids. The 2/12th spent the rest of 1942 rebuilding and supporting the 23rd Brigade.

They were relieved by the 2/13th Field Ambulance in January 1943 and posted to the Wollongong area to prepare for deployment to Port Moresby. On 11 May, the men embarked aboard the hospital ship Centaur.

Built in the early 1920s on the River Clyde in Scotland as a merchant vessel, in early 1943 Centaur was converted to a hospital ship. It had a fully equipped operating theatre and dental surgery, and could carry 252 patients. Centaur was also clearly marked as a hospital ship. Around its freshly painted white hull a wide green band ran, broken in several places by large red crosses. At night, the vessel was brightly illuminated by powerful spotlights.

Centaur only completed two voyages with patients before beginning its ill-fated third and final voyage. In the early afternoon of 12 May, the hospital ship steamed from Sydney for Cairns.

Two days later, shortly after 4am, while most people were asleep, a torpedo fired by a Japanese submarine struck Centaur’s port side, hitting the oil fuel tank, which ignited in a massive explosion. The bridge superstructure collapsed and the funnel crashed onto the deck. Everything was covered with burning oil and a fire quickly began to roar across the ship.

Water rushed in through the gaping hole in her side. Many of those on board who had survived the explosion and fire were trapped as the ship started to go down bow first, and then broke in two. In just three minutes Centaur was gone.

Of the 332 people on board, only 64 survived. The survivors were at sea for a day and half before they were rescued.

Private Alan Thomas Adams, aged 30, was among the dead. Only 14 out of 200 men of the 2/12th Field Ambulance survived. The unit had been all but annihilated for a second time.

However, the 2/12th Field Ambulance was rebuilt for a third time. It went on to serve in Borneo in 1945, in the care and evacuation of prisoners of war and internees at Kuching.


Michael Kelly, Historian, Military History Section

Image: Sydney, NSW, 1943. Starboard bow view of the hospital ship Centaur.


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