This be the place of Cthulu, squid-like scourge of the sea.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Who is the unknown John Doe from the HMSS Sydney?

The internet is a magical place.

Australia fought with the allies in World War II. At one point during the war, our navy was the fourth largest in the world with over 300 ships. The HMAS Sydney, where our story centres, began as an escort and patrol ship before being sent to fight in the Mediterranean Sea. She participated in multiple battles and sank two Italian ships before being called back to Australia (for various reasons, including a well-deserved rest for the crew).

On the 19th of November 1941 with a crew of 645, she was off the coast of Western Australia and heading south when she came across a ship with no visible identification. She sailed closer and the crews exchanged flag signals, with the foreign vessel giving the callsign of a Dutch merchant ship. After around 30 minutes, the Dutch ship began transmitting a distress signal. The HMAS Sydney continued to follow the ship for another half hour before it unexpectedly opened fire. The ship was actually the Kormoran, a German warship carrying around 400 men.

The battle lasted only thirty minutes. The HMAS Sydney began to drift south, appearing to be uncontrolled, before sinking six hours later. Her bow was torn off and she submerged almost vertically, similarly to the Titanic. All 645 men on board were killed. The Germans lost 82 men, with the other 317 captured and returned to Germany after the war (except for one who died of lung cancer).

In 1942, almost three months after the sinking of the HMAS Sydney, a body was found floating in a liferaft on the Indian Ocean. Exposure to the elements had caused severe decomposition of both the body and the liferaft which made identification difficult. The young, Caucasian male was wearing a boiler suit with no dog tags or other identifying information on him. The liferaft had shrapnel lodged in it, was stamped with "Made In Australia" and had barnacles growing on it which indicated it had been at sea for some time.

The body was buried on a nearby island, where it remained until 2006 when it was exhumed, returned to Australia and buried with full military honours. An autopsy was performed which found the cause of death to be trauma to the head from shrapnel. He was found to be right-handed, aged between 22-31, had size 11 feet, was between 168 - 188cm tall, and isotope analysis showed that he likely grew up in a coastal area in the eastern states.

Fascinatingly, his ankle joints revealed that he squatted a lot. This hints that he could be from a rural area, have spent time with a culture that prefers squatting over sitting, or have played a sport that required a position similar to squatting. In 2009 a DNA profile was extracted suggesting he had red hair and blue eyes.

As of 2014, his identity has been narrowed down to fifty men. His is the only body from the HMAS Sydney that has ever been found. I can't find a list of the names of the fifty men, but this was only sixty years ago. Surely there are people out there who knew this man, knew he was on the HMAS Sydney, and knew that he didn't come home. His DNA is available to be tested against, we just need the right person to know about it. Please note that, although unlikely, it is possible that his body is completely unrelated to the HMAS Sydney so you should still consider if you have an ancestor who went missing around that time that wasn't in the Navy. If you think you can help, email:

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