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The day war came to Darwin

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By the morning of Thursday the 19th of February 1942, Darwin was already a town much changed by war.

A town at the ready

Ever since the Japanese Empire had attacked America at Pearl Harbour there had been tumult and trauma. First had come the forcible evacuations – weeping women trailed by troubled children had been literally carried to the wharves and put on the waiting ships to be taken south. 

This had been followed by the area’s defenses being massively boosted. Barbed wire festooned the beaches. There were 18 anti-aircraft guns placed around the town - 3.0 and 3.7-inch firing weapons which could hurl a big shell skywards to thousands of feet high. Machinegun positions had sprung up at virtually every high point around the town. 

The town’s civilian population had dwindled down to only around 2000 people, made up largely of people in essential occupations. The evacuees had been replaced by 10,000 military men, who found little to do in their hours off except wander the deserted streets in search of shaved ice cups. Sometimes there was beer, but not always. The ships bringing in supplies were more concerned with war stores, and ammunition was piled high near gun defenses as a consequence. 

But even discontented soldiers bemoaning their fate in this hot and humid outpost of humanity were agreed on one thing – the Japanese were coming.

In early 1942 there was a strong rumour around the town that there had been a naval battle of some sort outside the harbour. The local warship crews had certainly been agitated in mid-January. Stories were told about a submarine versus surface vessel action. It was true enough – the 80-man submarine I-124 had been sunk south of Bathurst Island – but the stories were not coming from the Navy people, who had been threatened with court-martial if they didn’t keep their mouths shut. The US Navy and the Aussies were co-operating in diving on the submarine to recover its codebooks.

Action was first seen in the air on the 15th of February. A convoy of ships had put out to reinforce bases still being held in Java, in the islands which were post-war to become Indonesia. Air cover was being supplied from Darwin, and in an engagement well out into the Timor Sea a local P-40 Kittyhawk fighter shot down a big four-engine flying boat – which shot its attacker down in turn. Both crews were brought down into the sea, and the local US Army Air Force men mourned the loss of Lieutenant Robert Buel, who was never seen again.

19 February 1942

The morning of 19 February saw work proceeding at a busy pace around the town. While the Post Office, situated where the modern NT Parliament House now stands, was busy and the nearby “Bank Corner” was a hive of activity, the main pace of the day was being set in the harbour.  Sixty-four vessels were present, and the main wharves were the focus of loading of war stores and the unloading of town supplies. 

Near the Hotel Darwin, just across from where the city’s Cenotaph now stands, there was a battery of AA guns. Gunner Jack Mulholland was stationed there, and he related later how they saw big formations of aircraft approaching from the south. Given that was the direction where friendly fliers would have come from, the gunners could have been forgiven hesitation. But they recognised the silhouette of enemy bombers, and, as Jack said, the first shells were being fired upwards even before the town air-raid siren sounded.

In the Hotel itself, General Hurley, a senior United States officer, was hit by a ricochet from the first bombs to land. His aide, Lieutenant Bobb Glenn, jumped out from under cover to fire his pistol as the bomber’s fighter escort swept over the town, machineguns rattling. He said later: “I don't, of course, hit anything but it helps to be doing something.”

The first bombs were falling in a line from the wharves up across Government House, and then a direct hit struck the Post Office. It killed all the staff there that day, most of them women. The Postmaster’s wife and daughter Iris, 19 years old, were among those who died. 

By now the roar of engines dominated Darwin, for the high-level bombers were being replaced by lower-flying Val dive bombers, which zoomed low to attack ships. The Zero fighters kept their attention on possible enemy attacks on the bombers. Unfortunately for Darwin, the only aerial opposition - ten Kittyhawk fighters – were involved in another skirmish north of the town. Nine were shot down and four of the pilots lost.

On the harbour

But it was in the harbour that the real mayhem was occurring. The local warships were blasting the heavens with everything they had. The Val bombers were coming down in steep power dives, aiming to release their single bomb in a devastating impact on a ship. The harbour was alive with ships at speed, trying to stay clear of each other as they tracked for sea room, and ships with their weather decks crowded with men firing machine guns, rifles and the heavier more effective weapons at their tormentors. 

The destroyer seaplane tender USS William B Preston was powering down the harbour, chased by Japanese planes. She neared her sister ship, the Peary, also trying to get searoom, hampered by a dragging anchor. And then, in the words of Lieutenant Herb Kriloff on the bridge of the Preston:

“USS Peary was now abeam to starboard, perhaps three to four hundred yards distant. The both of us made fine targets. Two groups of fighters and dive bombers now launched a coordinated attack. We were to port, and just forward of Peary, starting to pull farther ahead, when we were both strafed and bombed. In seconds, Peary was enveloped in a ball of flame. She continued detonating until disappearing from view. The explosion was blindingly bright, and when you opened your eyes, it took time to adjust so you could see again. Peary had disappeared. A smudge on the surface marked the spot where she was hit….”

It was just one of the day’s disasters. As the aircraft began to depart, having laid their bombs, the freighter Neptuna blew up in a giant mushroom cloud of smoke. All up, nine ships were sunk in the harbor, 235 people died and 30 aircraft were destroyed.

The Japanese lost just four aircraft. One was brought down on Melville Island, where the pilot was captured by local man Matthias Ulungura. Two Zero fighters and two Val bombers downed was the only cost to the attackers.

The action continues

It was not the end of the day’s action. Another raid came in near midday. This time 54 land-based bombers swept across the RAAF’s airfield, their ordnance released without a defending fighter to oppose them. Two more ships were sunk in the afternoon outside the harbour. Panic-stricken civilians who had resisted the earlier evacuation order finally began to flee south.

The raiders kept coming. Bombing became the norm across the Top End. Broome saw 86 people die in early March in the second heaviest death toll for any raid of the war. The Territory was hammered relentlessly with raiding penetrating as far south as Katherine. Isolated areas such as Milingimbi were not spared either. 

But the population boomed with tens of thousands more soldiers and civilians rallying to the cause. Fighter strips teamed up with radar stations to form a network which slowly turned the tide. Bombers arrived by the hundred, and soon long-range missions were taking off to pound the enemy positions to the north. By the end of the war there were 56 bases and airfields across the NT.

The land-based defence was boosted by units such as the North Australia Observer Unit, soon to become known as the Nackeroos. Aboriginal people were swept into units scattered across the NT to utilise their local knowledge. Coastwatcher stations were established around the coastline, and they joined radar to detect Japanese incursions. There were hundreds of enemy airmen shot down over the north: most died, but some were captured.

The final raid took place in November 1943, but enemy aircraft reconnaissance of the bomber runways continued until mid-1944. The war moved north through the Pacific Islands, involving eventually millions of military personnel battling each other for supremacy. It was not until mid-1945 it all ended with the Japanese capitulation following the A-bomb strikes.

The Territory had held the line for Australia.

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Darwin Post Office after the first air raid, 19 February 1942. (PH0420-0012, GW Ireland Collection, Northern Territory Library)