The Psychology of a Shipwreck

Posted: September 27, 2011 in history, misc

This morning, NPR ran a fascinating story about a mystery dating back to World War 2: the location of two warships that sank each other off the coast of Australia in 1941.

The most interesting element of the story is the role that psychology, specifically related to memory, played in eventually piecing together where the ships actually went down.

In November 1941, two ships crossed paths off the coast of Australia. One was the German raider HSK Kormoran. The other: an Australian warship called the HMAS Sydney. Guns were fired, the ships were damaged and both sank to the bottom of the ocean.

The loss of the Sydney in World War II was a national tragedy for the Australians, particularly because none of the 645 men on board survived. In the years that followed, there was intense interest in finding the wrecks, particularly the wreck of the Sydney. The idea was that doing this might give the families of the lost sailors some measure of peace, a sense of closure and certainty.

The problem was that the only witnesses to the battle and the sinking were about 300 German sailors who had abandoned their ship after it had been hit. They were eventually picked up by the Australian military.

After their capture, most of these Germans were interrogated and asked to identify where the ships had gone down. But the Germans seemed quite fuzzy on this point.

Read or listen to the story for the amazing conclusion.

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