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VJ Day: The town that forgave

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A FEW years ago I visited Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory. There I learned that it had suffered greatly in the Second World War when the Japanese mounted the largest single foreign attack on Australia. This will be familiar to those who have seen the 2008 film Australia but I had not. Today being VJ Day, I thought it would be a good opportunity to recount the attack and its aftermath for those, like me, who did not know about it.

In early 1942 the Japanese were working their way south through the Pacific. As the most northerly town of any size in Australia, Darwin had great strategic importance with its air base and large natural harbour, and it became obvious that the town could be a target to prevent it being used to help defend the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). In the two months after Pearl Harbor in December 1941, most of the 5,800 inhabitants were evacuated, leaving 2,000 civilians.

Although the danger was recognised, Darwin was only lightly defended. There was a grand total of 18 anti-aircraft guns but the crews had received little training due to ammunition shortages. There was no radar, though a rudimentary system arrived soon afterwards. Civil defence was almost non-existent – a few slit trenches had been dug.

On February 19, 1942, only a few days after the fall of Singapore and the day after the last evacuation flight, the harbour was unusually busy. A convoy of ships carrying Australian and American troops and supplies had returned to port the previous day after an attack by Japanese aircraft and submarines as it attempted to reach Timor. There were 65 ships at anchor, mainly clustered together. At the airbase, although the operational RAAF squadrons were overseas, ten USAF Curtiss P40 Kittyhawks were passing through en route for Java. (A few accounts use the name Warhawk but I think that was a later version which came into service soon after.)

By 8.45am 188 Japanese planes had taken off from four aircraft carriers which had been at Pearl Harbor.* They were led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who had also commanded the first wave of attackers during the raid on Pearl Harbor. **

At 9.15am John Gribble, a lookout on Melville Island, about 50 miles north of Darwin, radioed that a large number of aircraft were flying toward the town. At 9.35am Father John McGrath of the Sacred Heart mission on neighbouring Bathurst Island sent a radio message to Darwin that an ‘unusually large formation’ of aircraft was flying south. The RAAF officers assumed that the watchers were seeing the ten USAF Kittyhawks, which had aborted their mission to Java and had turned back towards Darwin, so no alarm was sounded.

The first planes of the strike force arrived over Darwin at 9.58am. Nine of the ten US Kittyhawks were approaching the airfield as the Japanese Zeros flew in and were shot down immediately, with four pilots killed. The airbase was bombed and strafed, so it was left to the anti-aircraft batteries to try to defend the town. Although they kept up a continuous barrage, only one Japanese aeroplane was shot down.

The main target was Darwin’s harbour. Within minutes the US destroyer Peary (88 lives lost) and the large US transport Meigs had been sunk. The Australian ship Neptuna, formerly a passenger vessel, was loaded with explosives, and blew up. Six merchant ships were sunk. Seventy dock workers were on a pier, and when it was hit dozens were blown into the water only to have to swim through burning oil. At least 22 died.

When the Japanese planes were sighted at 9.58am, the alarm was belatedly sounded. At the Post Office, telegraph supervisor Archie Halls was testing the circuit to Adelaide when he tapped out, ‘The Japs have found us and their bombs are falling like hailstones. I’m getting out of here, see you later’, followed by the laugh signal, three dashes and a dot. He and the rest of the staff of the Post Office, all of whom had volunteered to remain in Darwin, took cover in a slit trench in the garden of the postmaster’s residence. The others were Hurtle Bald, the postmaster, his wife Alice, their daughter Iris, telephonists Emily Young, Jennie Stasinowsky and sisters Eileen and Jean Mullen, postal clerk Arthur Wellington and telegraph mechanic Walter Rowling. A 26-year-old telephone mechanic, Reginald Rattley, tried to shelter with the postmaster’s group but the trench was crammed. As he ran towards the beach a bomb blast lifted him bodily on to the sand where he landed safely. The slit trench took a direct hit, killing all ten occupants. ***

The raid lasted about 30 minutes and the all-clear was sounded at 10.40. But at 11.58 a second wave of 54 Japanese high-altitude heavy bombers flew in from land bases in the Dutch East Indies.  

This time the airfield was the main target. The Japanese force separated into two groups flying at 18,000ft. One attacked from the south-west while the other approached from the north-east, dropping their bombs simultaneously on the airstrip with its easily targeted, un-camouflaged aircraft. The raiders then turned and made a second attack on the base. The Australian anti-aircraft gunners were unable to shoot down or damage any of the high-flying Japanese aircraft. The remaining Kittyhawk was destroyed with 13 other planes, bringing the total of Allied aircraft losses to 23. The attack lasted between 20 and 25 minutes.

The death toll for the day has never been certain. It is officially estimated at around 300, with unofficial estimates at 1,000 or more, and between 250 and 400 were injured. Total Japanese losses may have been as few as five aircraft and three crew.

Darwin was attacked a further 63 times between March 4, 1942 and November 12, 1943 – you can still see bullet holes in garden railings and metal doors from the strafing – but never again on the scale of the first day. The objective was achieved and the town was greatly diminished as a supply base from which Allied forces could launch counter-attacks.

After the second raid on February 19, 1942, RAAF men of 2 Squadron found a young black-and-white kelpie (an Australian breed of sheepdog) under the wreckage of a mess hut at the airbase. He had a broken front leg, so they took him to the field hospital. The medical officer said he could not treat a patient without a name and number so the dog became ‘Gunner 0000’ and had his leg set. Leading Aircraftman Percy Westcott assumed ownership of him. A couple of weeks later, on March 4, Gunner became inexplicably agitated. After 20 minutes a formation of Japanese raiders appeared above Darwin. After several similar episodes it became clear that Gunner’s acute hearing could detect enemy planes long before the radar, and his behaviour was officially taken as a signal to sound an air raid warning. Amazingly, the dog was able to distinguish between Japanese and Allied aircraft and never raised a false alarm.  

Gunner became a mascot for 2 Squadron, sleeping under Westcott’s bunk and going up with the pilots during practice take-offs and landings. When Westcott was posted to Melbourne 18 months later, Gunner stayed in Darwin with the RAAF butcher. There is no record of the rest of his life.

There was a surprising sequel after the war. Seven large wrecks remained in Darwin Harbour, constituting a hazard to shipping and port development, so in 1959 salvage companies around the world were invited to tender for the clearance work. The contract was controversially awarded to a Japanese firm owned by Ryuugo Fujita. There was some hostility, particularly from other parts of Australia, but Darwin had long had ties with Japan, the port being used by Japanese pearling boats and some Japanese living in the town, so there was little resentment. The team of 120 workers were not permitted on Australian soil so soon after World War II, so as their first task they raised the fore and aft sections of the oddly named tanker British Motorist, welded them together, and built a village of living accommodation on the deck. Even this was an improvement on life in devastated Japan. A few years ago Fujita’s son Senichiro told NT News: ‘It was a real shock for the salvage crew to come from Japan, which was still rebuilding from the war and where most people lived pretty much in poverty.’ When his father drank cola for the first time, he thought: ‘How can it be that there is something so delicious?’ 

Fujita, a Buddhist, was said to have seen the project as a self-imposed unofficial war reparation. His firm accepted no payment, only selling the salvaged materials. On his one day off a week he would go to the cinema, exercise in the park or have a few drinks in town. He was soon accepted by locals and often received invitations to parties or events from politicians, businessmen and families who became friends for life. The hard work of the salvage team earned the respect of Darwin residents, who would have picnics on the beach while watching the operation. In time the workers were allowed on to the shore, and there were joint sporting events and fishing trips.

During the two-year project (there are some interesting pictures here), the foundation stone for the Darwin Memorial Uniting Church, commemorating those who lost their lives during the war, was laid. Fujita commissioned his team to craft 77 bronze crosses from wreckage and donated them to the church as a symbol of reconciliation.

The number 77 was worked out with the pastor and referenced Matthew 18:21-22: ‘Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.’ Most of the crosses are set into the ends of the pews. Fujita attended the opening of the church in 1960.

A propeller blade from Meigs was placed on his gravestone in Japan. His family later gave it to the Darwin Memorial Uniting Church and it was relocated there in 2017.

The reconciliation between Darwin and Japan was reinforced in 2018 when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe joined Australian PM Scott Morrison in laying wreaths at the town’s war memorial. They also paid respects to 80 Japanese sailors who died when their submarine was sunk off Darwin by an Australian ship in January 1942. 

PS: Darwin is not the luckiest town. It was devastated by cyclones in 1897 and 1937, and at Christmas 1974 Cyclone Tracy destroyed 80 per cent of its homes and killed 71. In an echo of the 1942 attack, the town was poorly prepared – residents had been warned of a cyclone ten days earlier but it passed to the west, and so they discounted the warnings about Tracy. Here is one of many films on YouTube about the disaster. Darwin has been rebuilt using stringent new building codes that were developed as a result of Tracy.

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*All four were sunk at the Battle of Midway in June 1942 with a total loss of 1,481 lives.

** After the war, Fuchida became a Christian evangelist and travelled through the United States and Europe giving talks entitled ‘From Pearl Harbor To Calvary’.

*** The Northern Territory Parliament now stands on the site. On the floor is a plaque that reads: ‘On 19 February 1942 an enemy bomb fell here and killed ten people.’

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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