Australia’s biggest naval mystery has finally been solved. The identity of the only sailor recovered* after the country’s worst maritime disaster has been confirmed after 80 years.
In a major breakthrough using DNA evidence, Able Seaman (AB) Thomas Welsby Clark has now been named as the “Unknown Sailor” from Australian warship HMAS Sydney II which sank off the West Australian coast on November 19, 1941, claiming the lives of all 645 men on board.
The 21-year-old accountant from Brisbane is believed to be the only sailor to have made it to a life raft after the ship went down, following an intense battle with the disguised German merchant* raider HSK Kormoran during World War II.
AB Clark later died at sea before his remains were found near Rocky Point on Christmas Island 11 weeks later – the only body to be recovered.
Over the past 15 years, DNA samples have been tested, before two living relatives were tracked down, meaning his story and an important part of Australia’s history can now be told.
AB Clark was the grandson of James Clark, an orphan who rose from abject* poverty to become on of the richest men in Queensland through hard work and wise business investments in the pearling* industry.
He had two older brothers, his father was a grazier* and his mother descended from Scottish immigrants who had arrived in Victoria in the early 1850s.
Born in the Brisbane suburb of New Farm on 28 January 1920, AB Clark was educated at Slade School in Warwick but also spent time working on family properties and their Brisbane oyster leases.
A strong swimmer and yachtsmen, he went on to become an accountant in Brisbane in 1939.
He enlisted in the Army Reserve as a private in the Queensland Cameron Highlanders before being discharged in August 1940 so he could join the Royal Australian Navy.
He was posted to the anti-submarine training school, HMAS Rushcutter in Sydney, where he completed training as a submarine detector.
After qualifying, he served as an ordinary seaman in the anti-submarine training ship HMAS St Giles based in Sydney Harbour.
AB Clark was promoted to acting able seaman in July 1941 before completing a short period of training at HMAS Cerberus in Victoria.
He then joined HMAS Sydney in August 1941.
Retired academic Leigh Lehane, AB Clark’s niece, said she was grateful to learn the truth about what happened to her uncle.
She was born in July 1941, the month before her uncle joined Sydney.
Her uncle was able to meet her during his final visit to Brisbane.
“He came and held me as a little baby. That’s a very pleasurable thought because I don’t think anyone else is alive now who knew Tom sort of eye-to-eye,” said Dr Lehane, a retired academic.
Chief of navy Vice Admiral Mike Noonan said AB Clark was representative of the many young lives lost in the battle.
“Solving this World War II case involved specialists in DNA analysis, forensic* pathology* and dentistry, ballistics*, anthropology*, archaeology* and naval history,” he said.
“His long voyage is complete. May he Rest in Peace.”
Next year, AB Clark’s grave in Geraldton War Cemetery in Western Australia will be marked by a new headstone which will bear his name.
Veterans Affairs and Defence Personnel Minister Andrew Gee said the discovery was a historic moment for Australia.
“To finally learn Tom’s name, rank, service number and home town, 80 years after he was lost is truly remarkable,” he said.
- recovered: retrieved, brought back, reclaimed, found
- merchant: supplying and trading goods, especially between countries
- abject: extreme, pronounced, devastating
- pearling: diving or fishing for peal oysters
- grazier: rancher, someone who rears or fattens cows or sheep for market
- forensic: applying science to matters of criminal, civil and in this case naval law
- pathology: science of the causes and effects of disease
- ballistics: science of the propulsion, flight and impact of projectiles like bullets, shells and bombs
- anthropology: student of human society, culture and development
- archaeology: scientific study of material remains from past human life and activities
- How many men tragically lost their lives in the HMAS Sydney II maritime disaster?
- The boat went down after a battle with which enemy ship?
- How many years have DNA samples been tested to confirm AB Clark’s identity?
- What was AB Clark’s formal occupation?
- How old was AB Clark when he died at sea?
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1. DNA evidence
Using modern technology such as DNA and forensics, what other mysteries might or are already being solved?
Why is this type of technology important for giving closure to families of missing loved ones?
How would you like to see this technology being used now and in the future?
Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Science; Critical and Creative Thinking
Why do you think Tom Clarke might have been the only person to make it to a life raft when the boat was sinking? What might have happened from that point on?
Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Critical and Creative Thinking
Imagine you were there during the event being discussed in the article.
Create a conversation between two characters from the article – you may need or want to include yourself as one of the characters. Don’t forget to try to use facts and details from the article to help make your dialogue as realistic as possible.