USS Peary was a United States Navy flush-deck, four-stacked, Clemson Class destroyer, built in 1919-1920 by William Cramp and Sons in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. From 1923 to 1931, Peary served as part of the Yangtze Patrol; a naval operation formed in 1854 to protect American interests in the Chinese Yangtze River treaty ports. From 1931 onwards, Peary formed part of United States Destroyer Division 50, a division of the larger Destroyer Squadron (DesRon) 29, based largely in the Philippines.
When the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked the US Pearl Harbour naval base on the 7th December 1941, resulting in the entrance of the United States into World War II, USS Peary was undergoing repairs at Cavite Navy Base in Manila Bay. Cavite was attacked by Japanese air forces three days later, with Peary suffering a direct hit resulting in damage to the superstructure and the loss of eight crew. Peary remained in Cavite undergoing additional repairs until the end of December, being one of the last of the US Asiatic Fleet to escape the Japanese blockade of Manila Bay.
During the run south from the Philippines, Peary was attacked by Japanese aircraft and mistakenly attacked by RAAF Hudson bombers just off the north-east tip of Sulawesi, resulting in damage to propellers and the death of one crew member. Repairs were effected at anchor between Maitara and Tidore Islands, after which Peary continued south to Darwin, arriving in early January 1942.
During January and February 1942 USS Peary operated out of Darwin, principally on anti-submarine patrol. On 15–16 February, Peary took part in a mission to transport reinforcements and supplies to Allied forces in Dutch Timor, but this was aborted after coming under intense air attack.
On 19 February 1942 Darwin experienced a massive Japanese air attack. At about 1045, Peary was attacked by Japanese dive bombers, and was struck by five bombs. The first bomb exploded on the fantail, the second, an incendiary, on the galley deck house; the third did not explode; the fourth hit forward and set off the forward ammunition magazines; the fifth, another incendiary, exploded in the after engine room. A .30 caliber machine gun on the after deck house and a .50 caliber machine gun on the galley deck house fired until the last enemy plane flew away. Peary sank stern first at about 1300 on 19 February 1942 with the loss of 88 officers and men.
The USS Peary was the first destroyer of the Asiatic Fleet to be sunk in WWII. She was struck from the Navy list on 8 May 1942.
The Peary lies in 27m of water in Darwin Harbour, at coordinates 12°28′30″S 130°49′45″E12.47500°S 130.82917°E. The wreck itself is a memorial to those who lost their lives in the first bombing raid on Australian soil and to those who defended Darwin.
There is also a memorial in Darwin in honor of the lives lost. This memorial, in Bicentennial Park, consists of a plaque and one of the 4-inch deck guns recovered from the Peary. This gun is aimed towards the Peary’s resting place in the harbor.