When the HMAS Sydney was sunk on November 19, 1941, about 200 kilometres off Western Australia, all 645 crew aboard the warship died. It is believed that just one sailor made it onto a life raft after the ship went down – his body on a life raft washing ashore just off Christmas Island three months later. It was the only body recovered from the tragedy.
Since then, his identity has remained a mystery. Now, DNA testing has enabled the puzzle to be solved. After 80 years as Australia’s “Unknown Sailor,” today, Able Seaman Thomas Welsby Clark has been named.
A Queenslander, Clark trained to become an accountant in Brisbane in 1939. He was the grandson of James Clark, an orphan who rose from abject poverty to become a wealthy investor and businessman. Clark had two older brothers. His father was a grazier, and his mother had Scottish immigrant heritage. He was educated, spent time working on his family’s properties and their Oyster farms, and was a capable swimmer and yachtsman.
Hearing the story of Able Seaman Thomas Welsby Clark today, I found myself feeling quite conflicted. Was this a happy ending to the story or a sad one? Or both? Would it be better to know that my relative had escaped death in a bombing, or worse to learn he had escaped only to die at sea? Scenes from Hemmingway’s The old man and the sea flashed in my memory. What had Able Seaman and able swimmer and yachtsman Thomas Welsby Clark experienced? How had his mother felt when her capable, clever boy was lost to the horrors of war? And so close to Australia – the country that always feels so far from everything.
I don’t know the answers to any of this, of course. And it wasn’t until I heard the news announcer say “he had fair-hair” that a different perspective occurred to me.
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
Matthew 10 (verses 28-31, I’ve since discovered) immediately resounded in my heart. God knew the fair hair on Able Seaman Thomas Welsby Clark’s head.
“I am a friend of God, He knows my name” – song lyrics from an old Israel Houghton song played in my head. God knew the Unknown Sailor’s name.
Now, I don’t know the state of this tragic sailor’s heart and whether he had found himself asking Jesus to save him. I suspect floating in the ocean after your warship was bombed would lead even the coldest hearts to call out to God. But I do know that God knew his name and knew his fair hair.
And I know that he knows each of us, even when we feel like an unknown mystery to everyone else.