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AUSTRALIA'S PEARL HARBOUR
What Happened at Darwin In February Last Year
(By AXEL OLSEN, a War Correspondent)
At low tide in Darwin Harbour to-day the burnt and twisted hulks of sunken ships rise above the water. At the R.A.A.F. and civil aero dromes skeletons cf what were once huge hangars, a wrecked hospital, bomb-blasted living quarters, and burnt-out workshops are surrounded by the tangled ruins of aeroplanes. Darwin Post Office is a heap of stone and rubbish, the police barracks a mass of rubble.
It is a grim reminder of that day in February 1942, when the first enemy bombs fell on Australian soil. That day of death and heroism and horror has already gone into Darwin's history as the day of the 'big raid.' Hundreds of legends have sprung up around it, and there are dozens of versions of what happened. I was in Darwin during the first raid and saw much of what happened. In the succeeding months, while a feeling of trepidation at our ability to with stand the Japanese was gradually re placed by a firm confidence in the growing strength of our defences, I spoke to hundreds of other people who had also been in the 'big raid.' Some accounts were highly imaginative, many factual and authentic, but out of them there emerged two facts — the unpreparedness for such a sudden and vicious attack and the hundreds of deeds of heroism the raid produced.
In the early hours of February 15 a convoy of ships left Darwin carrying men and reinforcements for Timor. The following day the convoy was heavily attacked by Japanese bombers, and was only saved by the brilliant work of an escorting cruiser. Under orders from Sir Archibald Wavell's leadquartres in Java the convoy re turned to Darwin, arriving at noon on February 18. Next morning the Jap anese came after the prey that had eluded them three days before. It was an ideal raid morning— clear blue sky with occasional fleecy clouds drifting slowly. HELL BROKE LOOSE As the Japanese bombers approached Darwin, soldiers at ack-ack batteries, sailors, nurses and civilians saw the formation of planes. Then hell broke loose. Alarms went off and were still sounding when the bombs fell. The Japanese force comprised 17 heavy bombers, 54 dive dombers and 18 Zeros. The first bomb, a 1000-pounder hit the busy wharf where wharf labour ers were unloading a ship. Another 1000-pounder landed near the post office, killing the postmaster Mr.H. C. Bald, his wife and daughter, four women telephonists and two men em ployees. Then, as wave after wave of heavy jombers and dive-dombers swept over the town, bombs rained down on the ships. Militia ack-ack gunners, lads of 18 and 19, under fire for the first time blazed unceasingly at the swift-moving Jlanes. Although it was obvious from the beginning that they were fighting a losing battle, they stuck to their job, getting away 100 rounds from the heavy guns in 50 minutes. Lewis gun ners on one of the most exposed spots got away 1000 rounds. They were the heroes of the day. Our fighters made a desperate at tempt to engage the enemy, but be cause they had virtually no warning they were shot down before they got above 1000 feet. Four pilots were killed. A major, after whom an airfield is now named, was shot down at 250ft. bailed out, and was killed instantly. Another pilot disappeared, and it was not until months after that his body was found m the wreckage of his plane in the bush. DIVE BOMBERS' ATTACK After the heavy bombers had re leased their bombs, dive-bombers, dis daining the ack-ack, selected their targets, swooped down to mastheight, and released their bombs dead on the ships. They did just as they pleased. The vessel at the wharf was set on fire; other vessels in the harbour were hit and destroyed. The U.S. destroyer Peary was hit and began to sink by the bow. As she finally sank with two hirds of her complement aboard, a light ack-ack gun at the stern still blazed defiance at the Japanese. The hospital ship Manunda was hit. After dive-bombers had released ;heir first bombs they circled over the town, machine-gunning houses and re turned for another attack on shipping. The R.A.A.F. and civil dromes were bombed, a few houses in town and the hospital were wrecked. On the harbour, oil from burst pipe lines poured flaming into the sea, where oil from a sinking tanker was already ablaze. Men on the burning ships suffered a horrible death, and others who dived into the water were trapped in a sea of blazing oil. Men trapped on the end of the wrecked wharf were burned or blown to pieces. SHIP BLOWN UP For 50 minutes Darwin was bombed and machine-gunned. Then there was utter quiet. The enemy had gone. Suddenly with an ear-splitting roar, the ship which had been burning at the wharf was blown hundreds of feet into the air, a huge column of black smoke, flame and pieces of ship. Plates, half -ton lengths of steel hawsers, and wood were rained over the harbour end of the town. Again there was a pause. From the harbour came the hissing of ships' boilers as water reached them, groans of wounded and tiying men, and in the town the dazed discussion of what had happened. Then at midday the alarm sounded again. Fifty-four heavy bomb ers attacked the R.A.A.F. aerodrome. Its hangers, workshops and living quarters must have been a perfect tar get for the Japanese. It was blown to smoking ruin. All that afternoon civilians, service men, and police worked tirelessly amid the carnage, bringing the dead to de cent burial and rescuing the wounded. The civil hospital was at once a place of horror and of orderliness, the doc tors and nurses doing heroic deeds. There were many unsung heroes that day. Trains were made available for evacuees, the first, which left on the night of the raid being for the aged, invalid, women and children. Among the first evacuees was a party of aboriginal children in charge of a group of nuns.
COULD NOT HAPPEN TO-DAY It was a high price to pay, but it was the end of the casual, care-free Darwin of the past and the beginning of the Darwin of the present. Soon strong fighter forces took the air in defence of Darwin, and from then on shot down Japanese raiders in ever increasing numbers. Soon after, more troops arrived in the area, and training and preparedness were improved to a marked degree. A vast amount of work was done, roads and landing-grounds were built, stores and fighting equip ment arx-ived in huge quantities. To-day Darwin is a totally different place from the town of 12 months ago. The 'big raid' could not happen to day.