STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
DAVID GREENE, Host:
Guns were fired, both ships were damaged and both sank to the bottom of the ocean. It was two Australian psychologists working for a nonprofit called the Finding Sydney Foundation who located the wreckage of the boats. NPR's Alix Spiegel explains.
ALIX SPIEGEL: This story begins at the end of a battle, with two ships - both mortally wounded - drifting away from each other in the middle of the night. According to Bob Trotter, who used to direct the Finding Sydney Foundation, 300 of the surviving German sailors had packed themselves into lifeboats and were sitting there in the darkness watching the ship that they had just attacked slowly disappear.
BOB TROTTER: All they saw of Sydney was a glow on the horizon, which in the words of the German captain suddenly went out - no explosion, nothing, just a glow that suddenly went out like a light being switched off. And that was the last anyone saw of Sydney for 66 years. And all of the 645 men on board.
SPIEGEL: Now apparently this loss of the Sydney was really devastating for the Australian public.
TROTTER: The nation was thunderstruck. Sydney was what I guess you could describe as she was the jewel in the Navy's crown.
SPIEGEL: And then she wasn't. Then she was a pile of steel at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. But where, exactly was that pile? That was the question put to the 300 surviving Germans. Unfortunately, most of those Germans were fuzzy on where precisely the ships went down, which, Trotter says, isn't all that surprising.
TROTTER: Particularly in a wartime situation where the position of the ship is really kept in the bridge area, it would not be normal that the rest of the ship's company would be told.
SPIEGEL: Still, when the Germans were picked up and interrogated, around 70 did come up with a location. It's just those locations didn't make a lot of sense.
KIM KIRSNER: The positions are spread out, smeared over hundreds of miles.
SPIEGEL: This is Kim Kirsner, one of the two psychologists who worked on finding the Sydney. And he says the locations were all over the map, literally.
KIRSNER: A hundred and twenty miles from the coast. There's another one just 160 miles from Cape Cuvier. There's another one which is 130 miles from Shark Bay, which is a different type of referent.
SPIEGEL: One survivor placed the sinking halfway to Antarctica, which understandably raised this question in the minds of the Australian people.
JOHN DUNNE: There was a lot of discussion about whether you could believe these reports.
SPIEGEL: That's John Dunne, the second psychologist who worked to find the ships.
DUNNE: People were saying you can't believe what they are saying because these are the enemy. They're going to be telling lies under interrogation. And the reason you're getting all these different reports is that they're all telling different kinds of lies.
SPIEGEL: And according to Bob Trotter, because there was so little faith in the German reports, wild theories about what had happened and where the boats might be flourished.
TROTTER: If you didn't believe the Germans, the number of possibilities were endless as to what might've happened and where the ship might be.
SPIEGEL: But as cognitive psychologists, Kirsner and Dunne took a very different view of the German accounts. To them, the spread of the reports looked like the kind of data that they saw in memory experiments. And so they set out to prove scientifically that the Germans were probably telling the truth. John Dunne:
DUNNE: Show that the characteristics of these reports had the right kind of characteristics that you'd expect to see if it was all due to failures of memory and to the vagaries of transmitting information from person to person.
SPIEGEL: Now to make this case, Dunne says, they turned to the work of a British psychologist.
DUNNE: Sir Frederic Bartlett.
SPIEGEL: Sir Frederic Bartlett, like Kirsner and Dunne, was a psychologist interested in what happens to memory over time. And in the 1930s he did a series of experiments with a Native American folktale called "The War of the Ghosts." Now this story was, at least to a British mind, very, very strange, with lots of bizarre leaps in the narrative.
DUNNE: So the story starts by saying, there were two young men from Egulac.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: One night, two young men from Egulac went down to the river to hunt seals, and while they were there it became foggy and calm.
SPIEGEL: So in one of these experiments Bartlett would tell somebody this story.
DUNNE: Then he'd ask them to tell the story back to him. And he would write that down. He would then wait a little while, go back to those people and ask them to tell the story a second time.
SPIEGEL: Then he would write that down. And over months and years, he'd come back to that same person again and again and document how the story changed each time. So for example, listen to how one person changed the first two sentences of the story. Here's version one:
WOMAN: (Reading) There were two young men. They went to the riverside. They heard war cries.
SPIEGEL: Version two, 14 days later:
WOMAN: (Reading) There were two ghosts. They went on a river.
SPIEGEL: Version three, after a month:
WOMAN: (Reading) There were ghosts. There took place a fight between them.
SPIEGEL: So you see there's change. But the way Bartlett saw, it the change happens in very predictable ways.
DUNNE: In their recall attempts they try to move the elements of the story in a way, or change them in a way, or add things to them so that made them make more sense.
SPIEGEL: So how does all of this relate to the Germans?
DUNNE: We thought, OK. All of these reports by the survivors can be thought of rather like this experiment by Bartlett.
SPIEGEL: So what Dunne and Kirsner did was that they took the story versions from Bartlett and counted up all of the changes in them. So every time there was a change in a sentence they noted it and they put that on a graph.
DUNNE: We can count up the different kinds of versions of these stories and that has a particular statistical profile.
SPIEGEL: Then they did the same thing with the German accounts. They arranged the 70 accounts into groups that seemed to be related to one another, and then they charted them on a graph.
DUNNE: And what we found was that there was a correspondence, that our data looked like the kind of data that Bartlett had generated in his study.
SPIEGEL: Kim Kirsner.
KIRSNER: It means it's not a contrived set of data.
SPIEGEL: So after all this, Kirsner and Dunne sit down with a map of the Indian Ocean, and what they did was try to pinpoint the place on that map which best fit all of the different accounts of where the ships had gone down.
DUNNE: That's what we did: we just took each point in the ocean, and we looked at how well it satisfied or conformed to each of these statements.
SPIEGEL: They then marked that spot down as the place where they thought the German ship would be found. And in 2004, gave that information to the Finding Sydney Foundation. Now, at that time there were no real plans to go hunting for the boats. So at least as far as John Dunne was concerned, that was that.
DUNNE: I never really thought that I would ever find out, you know, that if it was going to be right or wrong.
SPIEGEL: But then a funny thing happened. A professional shipwreck hunter named David Mearns independently convinced the Australian government to let him go searching for the wrecks. In March of 2008, he went out and actually discovered the wreck of the German ship. So how far exactly was the ship from the point that Kirsner and Dunne had marked down four years before?
DUNNE: Two point seven nautical miles from where it was found.
SPIEGEL: Two point seven nautical miles.
DUNNE: I thought, whoa...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DUNNE: ...it worked. I was amazed actually.
SPIEGEL: Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.
GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.