Photo: Commemorative plaque in its new setting

When admiring the new state-of-the-art Ambulance Station, opened in March 2021, next to Yass District Hospital, it is easy to overlook the plaque set into a low curved stone wall next to the driveway. It’s a small tranquil place next to the Meehan Street footpath and just as it should be.

The plaque was carefully relocated from the original ambulance station built-in 1956. The community had raised the £16,669 needed for the building through an amazing and innovative fund-raising effort including the famous Top Town competition.

When the ambulance service had started in Yass in 1937, Mr J.A. Kilpatrick volunteered to garage and drive the ambulance. As the first Superintendent, Mr Ross said the main thing was they had an ambulance to meet the growing needs of the community and the building could come later.

Whilst so many people had worked hard and contributed much to achieve that building, there was a determination to recognise a much greater sacrifice. Paul Bracken, son of Yass master tailor Dick Bracken, and Kevin Williams had both been ambulance officers at Yass prior to enlisting for World War II in May 1940 and joining the 2/12 Field Ambulance.

They were both killed when the Australian Hospital ship “Centaur” was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine at 4:10am on 14 May 1943 about fifty miles northeast of Brisbane. They were two of 268 medical personnel and civilian crew who lost their lives. Just sixty-four survivors were discovered and rescued thirty-six hours later. The torpedo had ignited the fuel tanks two metres below the waterline. The ship sank in three minutes. With most people asleep, fire raging and no time to deploy the lifeboats or send an SOS, those on board had very little chance.

The Australian public were outraged that a clearly marked Red Cross ship had been sunk labelling the attack a war crime. Outrage was clearly mixed with shock and grief in Yass and district. Paul was survived by his wife and Kevin by his wife and two-year-old daughter. Two others from the district were also killed: Paul’s brother Private John Bracken and Lance Sergeant G R Bush from Galong who had been a teacher at Yass High School before joining up. Sister Edna Shaw, the sister of Lieutenant Shaw who had been on the Main Roads Board at Yass was also killed when ‘Centaur’ sank.

It seemed fitting that a plaque remembering the former ambulance officers Sergeant Paul Bracken and Staff Sergeant (David) Kevin Williams should be incorporated into the 1955 ambulance building project. That this reminder of our town’s tragic loss should be carefully moved and respectfully reinstalled near the entrance to the new Ambulance station is also fitting.

By Judith Davidson | Yass and District Historical Society