It was the bright morning of Thursday 19 February 1942 just before 10am. Since the attacks on Pearl Harbour, Darwin was the base of the 7th Military District of Australia and Port Darwin had become an important staging point for ship convoys and aircraft on their way to the fighting in the northwest. A fleet of ships carrying Australian and American troops and supplies, escorted by USS Houston, had returned to port after an attack by Japanese aircraft and submarines.
I was unaware of the impending danger as I worked through the morning, but at 9:58am the roar of planes overhead could be heard. Many people believed that it was simply American aircraft returning from war but, as the crashing of bombs and the crackle of machine gun fire began from over 260 Japanese aircraft, it soon became clear that this was not the case.
At this time there were a large number of ships in the port, including the US destroyer Peary. But within minutes of the first attack Peary had been sunk and with it a loss of 80 lives. As Japanese planes continued to role in, so did the devastation. Sunk also was the large US transport Meigs and the Australian ship Neptuna. Loaded with heavy explosives, it blew up with a terrifying explosion dumping burning oil and shrapnel into the harbour. I then witnessed five merchant ships being sunk and the hospital ship, Manunda, being hit but, luckily, surviving to play an important role in caring for the injured.
I quickly took shelter in a slit trench, clad in shoes and tin hat. The bombardment of enemy planes continued as dozens of men were blown into the water only to have to swim through burning oil. I could hear the screams of terror as men were blown to pieces or burned alive. I sat crouched as women and children were rushed into bomb shelters hurriedly. Many men tried to help the dead, dying and survivors by plucking them from the water and loading them into small boats. These heroic acts would remain unknown to almost the entire Australian public but it did not seem to worry these brave men as they risked their lives to save others.
I witnessed planes fly into the town and prayed they would show mercy against the innocents taking shelter. My prayers would go unanswered.The Post Office was hit and the air-raid trench in the Post Office garden received a direct hit, killing all nine people within it. Horrifically I saw the Darwin Hospital being bombed in an act of malicious damage, but fortunately there was no loss of life.
By 10.30am the first raid was over. It had lasted just over half an hour.
Shocked survivors were now emerging from cover and trying to assess the damage and life loss, when, at 11.58am, the attack resumed. This second attack was neither on the city of Darwin nor Port Darwin but in fact the airstrip. This was an easy target for the Japanese as all aircraft was out in the open and un-camouflaged. The remaining Kitty Hawk was destroyed together with a Liberator and 10 other aircraft. Surprisingly, only seven men were killed.
Finally the carnage ceased and I emerged to discover a burning, ravaged city. People lined the streets, crying and blood covered. Children were screaming for their parents and wondering through the desolate streets. Burned and mutilated bodies lay still floating in the burning Harbor and covered the surrounding wharves. Husbands, wives, mothers, fathers. Killed. I knew then that I was lucky to have survived but still felt resentment towards this survival, as I had to live with the images burned into my mind forever.
While the devastation and confusion produced by the surprise attack did cause some military personnel to leave the town, I feel the need to acknowledge that many military personnel, on shore and on ships, stuck to their guns in the face of an awesome Japanese aerial bombardment of a largely defenseless town. In the harbor, despite lack of warning, the crews of navy ships manned their guns with remarkable courage as Japanese bombs rained down on their ships. In Darwin harbor, the American destroyer USS Peary took a direct hit from a Japanese bomb. Many witnessed the vessel’s forward gun still firing at Japanese aircraft as the Peary slid beneath the water.
I still remember a friend of mine running up to me on the streets and describing to me what they had endured that fateful morning. The first raid on Darwin was, for him, a 40-minute period of embarrassment. With his first warning being the rumble of approaching aircraft and machine gunfire, which commenced whilst he was taking a shower at his home at about 10am. He quickly climbed into a bomb shelter, half naked, with many other civilians and waited for the fighting to stop, as there was nothing that they could do to help the people left outside.
Around the town, there were some amazing stories of escape from injury. A friend of mine, Reginald Rattley, aged 26, a telephone mechanic, had tried to shelter with the Postmaster’s group but found the trench too crowded. He sought shelter over the Esplanade cliff to the beach. As he jumped a bomb-blast lifted him forcibly on to the sand where he landed safely.
Some people claimed that a conspiracy to bury the dead bodies was at work. One man reported, About three days after the bombing they had these barges down near the wharf. Three of them were piled with bodies; I’d imagine 3000 bodies at least on those three big barges. It is believed that they were towed out to sea through the boom defence – where they were sunk. Nobody knew who they were; they were all colours, races and sizes. Nobody knew where they came from. They were found in little old shanties where they were gathered up. This, although maybe not entirely true, disgusted me.
By the following weekend much order had been restored, but not until after some extraordinary behavior. There had been widespread looting of the deserted houses and businesses by civilians and military men. Some of the looting was reasonable as the goods were being requisitioned for military use. Hundreds of Darwin civilians acted the way many people do under war conditions: they became refugees, leaving the town by any means they could.
This attack has always been in comparison with the attacks on Pearl Harbor, December 7 1941 and with justice. In both instances, there is convincing evidence of a failure of command to bring defences to a state of readiness in the face of a clearly growing threat of Japanese attack. Darwin’s military commanders should have placed the town’s very limited defences on full war alert after the forced return of the Timor. At Darwin, as at Pearl Harbor, air force officers ignored a large formation of unidentified aircraft, which would have given a timely warning of an enemy approach.
The bombing shattered the township. It was the heaviest loss of life on Australian soil since European settlement in 1788, and the first time that an enemy nation had attacked our mainland. Although the bombing of Darwin was front-page news in Australia next day, the full extent of the damage and loss of life was not revealed by the Curtin government.
From the first day that the government revealed the details about the bombing of Darwin to the greater public, it was evident that the truth was not going to surface and that a cover-up was underway. Many southern newspapers reported far less than the truth in the days afterwards; an act of media control that many governments exercised in war to lessen the impact on public morale. The numbers of casualties, obviously in the thousands, were reported to be only around 250 and the amount of ships in the harbor, approximately eleven, was described as only eight.
The bombing of Darwin stands as the most destructive enemy attack ever perpetrated against Australia in its history. The day that brought home to Australians that, in this war, they were truly fighting for their country. A day that will never be forgotten.