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SYDNEY (Reuters) - An Australian hospital ship torpedoed by the Japanese during World War Two with the loss of 268 lives has been located in waters off the coast of the northern state of Queensland, the government said on Sunday.
The loss of the Centaur in 1943 while sailing to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea was one of Australia's great wartime disasters. Survivors and their relatives have long pressed for the wreck to be found, fearing salvagers would reach it first.
The government eventually supported a search for the vessel.
On Sunday, it said the wreck's location had been confirmed by a team led by U.S. marine search expert David Mearns, whose other finds include HMAS Sydney, another Australian wartime wreck.
The sinking of the Centaur was considered a war crime, though no one was ever tried for it. The converted merchant vessel was clearly marked as a hospital ship and had no naval escort, as required by international conventions.
Many of the dead were medical staff.
"The discovery of AHS Centaur will ensure all Australians know of and commemorate the 268 brave nurses and crew who died in the service of their nation," Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in a statement.
Jan Thomas, whose father Bernard Hindmarsh was a doctor who died aboard the ship, said finding the wreck would bring some relief. Now 73, she was six when the ship was sunk on May 14, 1943.
"It is always helpful to know where your loved ones lie," she told Reuters.
As a hospital ship, the Centaur was required under international conventions to travel alone and be clearly marked with prominent red crosses, which also made it an easy target.
"It had to travel alone. She could not travel with an escort. All these things made her a sitting duck to an unscrupulous person," said Thomas, long involved with the search.
The wreck was finally found in an underwater gully, she said, close to the site indicated at the time by the ship's navigator, one of 64 on board who survived.
The Centaur was sunk near Brisbane by a torpedo fired from a submarine commanded by Hajime Nakagawa, subsequently convicted of other war crimes.
Although the Japanese acknowledged in 1979 that a Japanese submarine sank the ship, Tokyo has never said it issued an order to do so, according to an association of Centaur survivors and their relatives.
Editing by Ron Popeski