Search on for unknown sailor

Published on LEUT Gary McHugh (author), Unknown (photographer)

Topic(s): Sea Power Centre - Australia, HMAS Sydney (II)

HMAS Sydney (II) at sea during World War II. (photo: Unknown)
HMAS Sydney (II) at sea during World War II.

On February 6, 1942 the remains of a sailor in a Carley Raft washed up on Christmas Island, 1500km northwest of Western Australia’s northwest coast.

For more than 75 years the identity of the man remained a mystery but it is largely believed he was a crew member from the ill-fated HMAS Sydney (II) which was sunk on November 19, 1941 by German Raider Kormoran

If this is the case, the unidentified sailor remains the only member of Sydney’s ship’s company to be found; the search is now on to find out exactly who this unknown sailor was.

Commander Greg Swinden from Sea Power Centre – Australia said the sailor’s body was exhumed in 2006 and subsequently reburied in the Geraldton War Cemetery, Western Australia, the city closest to where Sydney was lost.

He said following the exhumation, extensive investigations were carried out to establish the identity of the unknown sailor, but no definitive conclusion was reached.

“With the recent advances in DNA identification technology we really think we have a chance at identifying who this sailor was and bringing some closure to one of the many families who lost loved ones in Sydney,” he said. 

“For this to happen we need family members to come forward to take part in a saliva DNA testing program to see if we can achieve a match with the unknown sailor.” 

The shell splintered Carley float recovered from Sydney which is now on display in the Australian War Memorial.

The shell splintered Carley float recovered from Sydney which is now on display in the Australian War Memorial.

However, CMDR Swinden pointed out that the sample needs to be mitochondrial DNA which only comes from the maternal side of the family. 

“Brothers and sisters are good for the testing as well as females who are nieces and cousins from the mother’s side of the family,” he said.

“We’re trying to get as wide a sample variety as possible as many Australian families may not know they are related to a Sydney sailor owing to the passage of time and expanding family trees as relatives die, marry, are born or move away.

“It’s important to note that the family members who are best for DNA matching often do not have the same family name as sailors from Sydney.”

CMDR Swinden said previous investigations and research into the unknown crew member had shown that he was a sailor rather than an officer, owing to pieces of blue cloth from his coveralls, and that he was most likely Australian-born but of Irish or Scottish heritage. 

“We’re also looking for high-quality photos that show Sydney sailors smiling which forensic dentists can examine to see if there’s a match with the distinctive dental features of the unknown sailor,” he said. 

The DNA testing will be carried out strictly in accordance with Navy and Australian Defence Force policy.

People interested in participating in the DNA search can contact Commander Greg Swinden at the Sea Power Centre: