Commander Matt Blenkin looked like any other member of the armed forces as he stepped off the plane from Sydney to Adelaide on June 26, 2007. But the clean-cut man in the blue naval officer’s uniform was carrying a very unusual cargo.
After collecting his hire car, the 41-year-old forensic dentist with the Royal Australian Navy drove to the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide. He then handed over a small cardboard box to Dr Jeremy Austin, the facility’s deputy director. As the scientist took it, he knew it marked the beginning of an extraordinary quest.
Eight days later, Dr Austin, a specialist in prising secrets from the genetic material of exotic, long-extinct creatures, prepared himself to enter the most sterile laboratory in the southern hemisphere. He donned a blue one-piece clean-suit, spotless boots, a mask and three pairs of sterile gloves, one on top of the other, until the chances of his shedding any of his own DNA into the ultra-clean environment were virtually nil.
He opened the box. Inside was the jawbone of a long-dead man. The jaw held teeth, and deep inside those teeth lay what was left of the dead man’s DNA, his genetic code. Fragmented and perilously fragile, this was the key that would allow Blenkin, waiting impatiently back at his base, to begin unlocking a mystery over half a century old. It was his best chance to identify the one man who had made it to shore after Australia’s greatest naval tragedy – the 1941 sinking of HMAS Sydney.
The last battle
On November 19, 1941, the Sydney was three days from port, about 240km south-west of Carnarvon in Western Australia. Having safely escorted the troopship Zealandia to the Sunda Strait, the warship’s 645-strong crew were looking forward to getting back to dry land.
A lookout spotted what appeared to be an innocent merchant ship. The Sydney’s captain, Joseph Burnett, could not know that this vessel was HSK Kormoran, a deadly German raider disguised to trick and destroy its enemies. Warily, the Sydney closed to within a nautical mile, challenging the Kormoran to show a secret signal and prove she was a friend.
The Germans had no secret signal – they fired at close range, wrecking the Sydney’s bridge and killing most of her senior officers. The Sydney struck back but missed as the Kormoran poured withering fire onto her gun turrets. The Sydney crossed astern of the Kormoran, which relentlessly hit her with shells as low as the waterline. The few gunners left on the Sydney fought on, striking the Kormoran’s engine room and igniting a massive blaze. It was a knock-out blow.
Burning and fatally crippled, the Sydney limped towards the horizon. When she was finally found on the sea floor on March 16 this year – 66 years after the sinking – her life rafts lay among the wreck. This has led some naval historians to conclude that when the Sydney went down, it happened so quickly the crew had no time to save themselves.
The Kormoran was damaged too – so badly her crew was forced to scuttle her. But of the German ship’s 393-strong crew, over 300 managed to scramble on to life rafts and get away. Many made it to the west coast of Australia, where they were captured. They gave the only first-hand accounts of what took place that day.
Back home, relatives began receiving telegrams of the shocking news: their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers were missing in action. The following year, letters went out informing them their loved ones were presumed dead. It would not be until 1947 that some received letters confirming that they were dead.
According to John Perryman, a senior historian with the Royal Australian Navy, an impenetrable wall of secrecy surrounded the sinking of the Sydney because of war-time security concerns. "We didn’t want to turn around to the Germans and announce, ‘You’ve just taken out the only warship on the west Australian coast that stands between you and us.’" But the delays in confirming the loss and hunting for the Sydney fuelled rumours that persisted for more than half a century: that the Germans had shot surviving Australian witnesses; that a Japanese submarine was involved; that a high-level cover-up had taken place.
Eventually, in August 1997, after relatives had lobbied for years for the truth to be told, a Joint House Inquiry began. The 19-month investigation finally, in March 1999, led to two key recommendations: that searches should be conducted for the wreckage of the Sydney – and the crewman now dubbed the Unknown Sailor.