On 6 February 1942, the body of an Australian sailor was found in a Carley float (a type of life raft) drifting in a bay of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. His ship, the HMAS Sydney, had been sunk by the Germans more than 2 months earlier.
He was buried with full military honors on Christmas Island, which was soon after occupied by the Japanese for the duration of World War II. His grave mound eroded away over time and its location was lost to memory. It was rediscovered in 2006, when his body was exhumed and re-interred with full military honors in Geraldton War Cemetery in Western Australia. This man, whose bravery and loss symbolizes all of the sailors who died as a result of the German attack on the HMAS Sydney on 19 November 1942, has yet to be identified.
Of the 645-man crew, his was the only body ever found.
Who Was He?
Since the rediscovery of his original grave, scientists in Australia have been trying to put a name to this unknown sailor. Isotopes (variants of chemical elements) in his teeth and bones suggest he grew up on Australia’s east coast eating a diet high in seafood. Markers in his nuclear DNA show that he had red hair, blue eyes, pale skin, and was of European descent, possibly Irish or Scottish. His dentition was unique: he had nine gold fillings, two missing teeth, and all of his wisdom teeth. He was not an officer, judging from the remnants of his uniform. This information taken together has allowed the scientists to rule out most of the crew of the Sydney; the focus now is on about 50 men who could be the unknown sailor.
One of the scientists working on the search, Associate Professor Jeremy Austin of the University of Adelaide, recently posted in the Facebook group Genetic Genealogy Tips and Techniques asking for help from the genetic genealogy community. The team has been able to sequence the full mitochondrial genome of the unknown sailor, and they’d like to find people with the same haplotype in hopes that even a distant relative will lead them to the identity of the crew member. The haplotype is J1c12, and he had a few private mutations.
You Can Help!
If J1c12 is your mitochondrial haplotype, please contact the science team (see below). Even if it isn’t, you can help by searching your DNA matches for candidates. Below, I explain how to search using Genome Mate Pro, GEDmatch, 23andMe, and Family Tree DNA. (At AncestryDNA, MyHeritage, and Living DNA, you are not able to search matches for a mitochondrial haplotype.)
If you use Genome Mate Pro and your database is relatively up-to-date, you can check all of your matches at all of the testing sites for all of your kits in one easy step: go to the Relative Detail tab, use the pulldown on left to select Maternal Haplogroup, type J1c12 into the search field, and hit Enter. My database contains more than 350,000 entries (for 50 profiles), and I only found four people with J1c12 people (plus one J1c12a). One of the J1c12’s had a .au email address, indicating that they are in Australia, so that may be especially helpful for the search.
If you don’t use Genome Mate Pro, or if you prefer to check the various databases individually, here’s how:
At GEDmatch, run a “One-to-Many Comparison” on your kit number(s) and then use the search function of your browser for the text J1c12.
At 23andMe, go to DNA Relatives, then enter J1c12 in the Search Keywords.
At Family Tree DNA, scroll to the bottom of your Family Finder match list, and download either the CSV or the Excel file of your matches. Open that file in a word processor or spreadsheet program and search for J1c12.
If You Find Someone with the J1c12 Haplotype
If you or one of your DNA matches has the J1c12 haplotype (please, only this exact haplogroup designation), please contact Dr. Jeremy Austin of the Australian science team at firstname.lastname@example.org. Together, we can provide this man’s family with closure and give Australia a name for this hero.
Finding Sydney Foundation website: http://www.findingsydney.com/default.asp (accessed 8 Jan 2018).
Miller, Rhonda J. “The Mystery Of The Australian WWII Sailor: Scientists Search For Relatives As DNA, Skeleton, Teeth Tests Fail To Identify”. International Science Times, 4 Jan 2014, http://www.isciencetimes.com/articles/6625/20140104/hmas-sydney-mystery-sailor-finding-sydney.htm.
Smith, Bridie. “Mystery of the unknown sailor of HMAS Sydney”. The Age, 4 Jan 2014, http://www.theage.com.au/national/mystery-of-the-unknown-sailor-of-hmas-sydney-20140103-309qj.html.