Today marks the 75th anniversary of the Bombing of Darwin, when on the 19th Feb 1942, the Japanese raided the top end, bombing all infrastructure so that the allies no longer had a close base to SE Asia.
Recently for a Uni course we were asked to write a short historical fiction story about a family member and I chose my Pop and his time during the air raid. Many details from the story were taken from interviews I recorded with him in 2008.
You can read more about his time in Darwin with the Army in this post.
The Darwin Air Raid
Heat radiated off the metal oil tanks that his earth-anchored Lewis gun protected, forcing him to wipe the sweat from his brow every few minutes. George had been in Darwin just 6 weeks as part of the 2nd Anti-Aircraft Battery, sent there from Perth after rumours abounded that the Japs were going to invade Australia. But so far it had all been training exercises, croc hunting and the pilfering of tinned lobster from the Yanks to supplement their meagre rations.
George turned his gun northward to give his bare back relief from the morning sun. Sitting high up on the hill, the sea breeze was a relief from the tropical humidity.
The view was incredible. Battleships gleamed in the turquoise harbour, a vivid reminder that he was indeed in the middle of a war. Black dots hovered on the horizon. Must be the Yanks returning from Singapore, he thought.
“Mate, wanna swap?” his good friend Ron panted behind him, struggling up the path. “I need some fresh air.”
George agreed, quickly heading down to the gun at Stokes House. The tanks were a prime target and he was glad to be off them.
The palms by the Harbour Master’s house provided cool shade and George propped up his feet on the giant gun, hoping to get some shut-eye.
Suddenly, the boys from the Quarantine battery started firing. George jumped two feet in the air. Those black dots weren’t the Americans. This was it.
The Japs were coming.
An air-raid siren sounded, but they were already aware of the enemy’s advance.
As soon as the planes came within range, George started firing. The large gun rocked violently in his hands, reverberating through his body. But the bullets seemed to have no effect, the planes were flying too high. Glistening specks fell from the planes like confetti. Bombs!
Large columns of water exploded in the harbour. Workmen on the jetty ran back to the shore but a bomb hit their path sending bodies into the water.
George turned his attention back to the sky, directing his gun at anything in the air. He was soon out of bullets. Jumping out of the shallow trench he legged it across the foreshore, explosions echoing in his ears. A plane came in low firing its gun at his heels. He switched directions, trying to avoid the gunman’s crosshairs. Looking back, the plane was so close he swore he could make out the Jap’s face in the cockpit.
Reaching the safety of the scrub, he hid under the spiky leafed canopy of a pandanus palm. George tried to make himself as inconspicuous as possible, ensuring he couldn’t be seen from above. He wrapped his bronzed arms around his knees attempting to quell his shaking legs.
What if the Japs landed? The place could soon be swarming with them and his rifle was back with the gun at Stokes House. He’d be a goner. George grabbed a large rock from the base of the tree and held it close.
The ground shook and an almighty sound filled his ears. George threw his hands over his head as his heart pounded against his chest. Moments passed and summoning all his courage, he crawled through the brush towards the harbour. Planes continued to fly overhead and the smell of burning fuel lingered in the air. Peering through the dried leaves of a dead branch, he could see the source of the explosion. The oil tanks had been hit. A giant, black cloud swelled skyward, flames reaching after it.
In the distance, George spotted Ron and the other boys running down the hill, their tattered clothes singed. A wall of fire prevented their escape and they were forced to jump off the cliffs into the sea. Scrambling in the harbour they trod water until a Navy boat could pick them up, one of the fortunate few that had escaped the bombing.
Sooty smoke billowed from what looked like a hundred chimneys in the harbour. Large splinters of timber littered the water near the jetty.
Still attached to its mooring, the cargo ship Neptuna, had sustained serious damage and was already lurching at an unnatural angle. Minutes later, as crew jumped from the bow, fire from the bombing reached the depth charges in the ship’s cargo hold and exploded, showering the harbour with debris.
Thoughts wandered to his mates and a sense of dread filled him. Who had survived, or worse, who hadn’t?
George opened his eyes, wet with emotion. He looked down to see his scrawny hand etched with age, enveloped in the young hand of his granddaughter. His wife and daughter looked on in awe at the man they had never, ever seen shed a tear.
“There were five of them, burnt head to toe. Ron was my best mate. They all survived… but he was scarred for life.” George tried to keep talking, but the Parkinson’s had taken all of his words for the day.
“The newspapers called them The Burns Boys,” his voice rasped. “I… I went to visit… next day… I.”
His daughter Diane handed a box of tissues around. “I’ve never heard that story before,” she said, putting her arm around him.
George managed a smile. He had always felt that the soldiers in Darwin never really got the recognition they deserved. The memories brought up a lot of emotion he’d long kept at the back of his mind. But George wanted his story known and was glad someone wanted to hear it.