The Mystery Of The Australian WWII Sailor: Scientists Search For Relatives As DNA, Skeleton, Teeth Tests Fail To Identify

By Rhonda J. Miller on January 4, 2014 5:59 PM EST

The wreck of the HMAS Sydney, sunk in 1941 by a German ship, was discovered in 2008, but the identity of the one body recovered remains a mystery. (Photo credit: Finding Sydney Foundation)
The wreck of the HMAS Sydney, sunk in 1941 by a German ship, was discovered in 2008, but the identity of the one body recovered remains a mystery. (Photo credit: Finding Sydney Foundation)

The identity of the mystery sailor whose body was the only one recovered from a crew of 645 that went down with the HMAS Sydney when it was sunk by Germans during World War II has been puzzling Australians for decades. 

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The mystery sailor had red hair and blue eyes. His skeleton revealed he was tall for his time, between 168 and 188 centimeters, or 5-feet-6 inches to 6-feet-two-inches. He wore a size 11 shoe. Even with analysis of his nuclear DNA at Adelaide University, and isotope testing of teeth and bone samples in Canada, scientists are still missing the critical connecting piece of the puzzle, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. Scientists need a descendent of the mystery sailor to find out his name.

The body of the sailor, who was between 22 and 31 years old, was retrieved from the waters off Christmas Island, an Australian territory northwest of Perth, Australia in the Indian Ocean. The sailor's body was found three months after the HMAS Sydney was sunk by the German raider HSK Kormoran in November 1941.

Science has provided enough detail to make the mystery frustratingly close to being solved. The isotope testing of the teeth and bone samples showed limestone traces linking him to the east coast of Australia, most likely northern New South Wales or Queensland. The tests revealed he had a high marine diet as a child, which suggested growing up near the coast.

''Here we have all the scientific evidence you would ever want and it's just a matter of tracing family down,'' said Jeremy Austin, deputy director of the University of Adelaide's Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. ''We have the answer sitting here. It's just finding that one person or two people in Australia who are related to this guy.''

The sailor has all of his wisdom teeth, two missing teeth, and nine gold fillings. Royal Australian Navy commander Greg Swinden, who has worked on the case since 2006, said the sailor's distinctive teeth and dental work allowed forensic dentists Russell Lain and Matt Blenkin to exclude 330 members of the HMAS Sydney crew in searching to identify the sailor. The forensic dentists compared the man's features with crew medical and enlistment records. Now, if scientists had a good quality photo of the sailor smiling, they could narrow the search. 

Scientists also found clues in the sailor's skeleton, where unusual ankle joints indicate that he frequently squatted. ''We need to track a descendant down so ... we can identify who this guy is and that will give a family closure,'' said Swinden. ''That could come next week or it could be years from now.''

Anyone who might have clues to the mystery sailor's identity is encouraged to contact greg.swinden@defence.gov.au/.

The wreck of the HMAS Sydney was found in March 2008, and the mystery sailor has become an Australian symbol of courage and service. The ongoing efforts to identify the unknown sailor are part of the decades-long endeavor to fill in the details of the HMAS Sydney and its 645-man crew. A group with that mission is the Finding Sydney Foundation, which is involved in extensive projects dedicated to "Solving Australia's Most Enduring Maritime Tragedy," according to the organization's website, which serves as a virtual memorial to the crew. The Finding Sydney Foundation has produced a video of the ship and its crew as part of the memorial.

The mystery sailor's body was found in February 1942 and interred in the Old European Cemetery on Christmas Island with full military honors. The Japanese occupied the island for the duration of World War II. Eventually the mound of earth that was the grave was discovered in 2006 and the body was exhumed and examined, according to the Foundation. The mystery sailor was re-interred with full military honors in November 2008 at the Geraldton War Cemetery in Western Australia.

"Nevertheless, this unknown man, the only member of her ship's company to be found, became the anchor for honouring the memory of all of the brave men who laid down their lives in HMAS Sydney's last battle," says a tribute on the HMAS Sydney memorial website. A poem on the site tells the story and honors the mystery sailor and the crew:

We do not know this man's name but hope one day we will.

We do not know his rank or what is duties were.

We do not know for certain whether he was a sailor, airman, or civilian.

We do not know where he was born, or precisely how and when he died.

We do not know where he had made his home or when he left it for the Service.

We do not know his age or his circumstances; whether he was from the city or the bush, what occupation he left to serve his country; what religion, if he had a religion, if he was married or single.

We do not know who loved him, or whom he loved; if he had children or which of us they are; but we know that his family is the one shown on this memorial so he is not lost to us as he was lost to them.

He may have believed that war would be an adventure too grand to miss or he may have joined up because he believed it was the duty he owed to his family, his country and his king.

We know that he sailed in the HMAS Sydney, tasting triumph and disaster as one of the 645 shipmates who died in her battle with HSK Kormoran on 19 November 1941. Unknown, he is all of the and he is one of us.

Only body was recovered from the 645-man crew of the HMAS Sydney, which was sunk during World War II. The identity of that one sailer remains a mystery.
Only one body was recovered from the 645-man crew of the HMAS Sydney, which was sunk
by a German ship during World War II. The identity of that one sailor remains a mystery.
(Photo credit: Finding Sydney Foundation)

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