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The Evacuation Order – 16 December 1941

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A few days after Pearl Harbor was attacked, the federal government issued an evacuation order for Darwin. It required all women and children to compulsorily leave the town with no more than “35 pounds” of luggage – about 16 kilograms. The order, circulated widely and signed by Administrator Abbott, assured everyone that the federal government had made arrangements for “the comfort and welfare of your families in the South.” That would be found to be far from the truth.

Many of Darwin’s women did not want to go. Journalist Douglas Lockwood’s wife got around the order by becoming one of those who remained for “essential services” – she managed to get taken on as a typist for the Army. Several women remained on as staff at the town Post Office. 

But for most it meant a speedy evacuation, by force if necessary, with groups assembling on the wharf to board coastal steamers. 

Wendy James, still living in Darwin, remembers: 

“Protests were useless, so our angry and stressed mother hurried us down the wharf to the waiting ship with a string bag each and the baby in the pusher.” 

Joy Davis also recalls: 

“When my mother was given notice that she and I were to go, she refused and didn't turn up at the appointed place, until Mr Arthur Miller the ARP warden, spoke to Dad saying they would have to arrest her and evacuate her by force. Dad persuaded Mum to go…”

The journey south was itself full of tension. Japanese and German submarines were prowling the coastal waters of Australia – indeed, one was sunk off Darwin in January of the new year – and passengers routinely had to take turns on the weather deck spotting for their periscopes. The ships were overcrowded, under-provisioned, and slow. 

Conditions in the southern cities were much worse than expected, as Joy Davis recalled:

“The evacuees received no help from the general public in the South, as you would normally expect, because the evacuation of Darwin was not publicised and the general public were not aware of it. There were no comforts nor accommodation as Administrator Abbott had stated. We were on our own; many of us had no money, and certainly no warm clothes or anything else needed to make a home. No utensils, linen, furniture etcetera, all we had was one suitcase of summer clothes for the whole family.”

The local Aboriginal population was rounded up and moved well south of the capital. By March 1942 there was a population of around 2000 Aborigines in camps at Koolpinyah, Adelaide River, Pine Creek, Katherine and Mataranka. 

Those on the Tiwi Islands stayed on until a later evacuation moved the women and children out. The men who remained would be in the flight path of the raids which were to come over the next two years. Many Aborigines in coastal villages were recruited to several quasi-military operations such as the Coastwatchers.


Women and children evacuees, 1942. (NT Library)