While Grose discusses what 1955 Territories minister Paul Hasluck called a day “of national shame”, he also uncovers a story of personal heroism and dogged counter-attack that deserves to be remembered. The force attacking Darwin on 19 February 1942 was the same as attacked Pearl Harbour two months earlier. Led by renowned “Tora Tora Tora” pilot Mitsuo Fuchida (who lived until 1976), they learned from Hawaiian mistakes and caused more damage in Darwin, taking more civilian casualties and sinking more ships.
Anti-aircraft guns returned fire but lack of practice and problems with the shells in tropical heat meant they were mostly ineffective. At the airfield, the second force knocked out planes and communication equipment. Ships struggled to get away from the carnage. The USS Peary sank with 91 dead. Fifteen more died on the William B Preston, also sunk and 12 died on the hospital ship Manundra though it did not sink and continued to accept casualties. By the end of the raid, Darwin was a smoking mess.
The Japanese were not finished and 54 aircraft arrived for a second attack two hours later. They concentrated on the airfield dropping 13,000kgs of high explosives before flying off at 12.20pm. Neither Abbott nor the army commander took control of the situation. Abbott directed police away from rescue efforts to pack his valuable glass and china and take it south to safety.
The “Adelaide River Stakes” began, a mass exodus from Darwin as rumours filled the void of official information. A convoy of vehicles set off to Adelaide River 120kms south based on a rumour civilians had been ordered to leave town. Anything that could move did, and the road was jammed by drivers groping through the red dust. The Army neglected to start a salvage operation, blowing any chance of giving surviving aircraft a chance if the Japanese came back. Army units dispersed without orders to other parts of the Territory.
That left Darwin ideal for looting. Army personnel including military police took goods away by the truckload. By nightfall matters turned violent with drunken military personnel firing over the heads of crowds leaving Darwin. There were no sanitary services and the wharfies fled leaving surviving ships with no way of unloading. “The Administrator’s port, sherry and other fine wines were in safe hands,” Grose wrote. “Otherwise, Darwin was a mess.”
A day later the military finally took control. They took eligible men from Adelaide River and signed them up for the army. Non-essential people were evacuated and a week later the NT was placed under Army control. There remained the tricky problem of what to tell the world.
Unlike Roosevelt after Pearl, the Curtin administration didn’t trust Australians with the truth. Curtin was engaged in a row with Roosevelt and Churchill about withdrawing Aussie troops from the Middle East. Journalists in Darwin had splashed the news of the attacks but the Government was keen to underplay it. They reported the death tally as 19 with damage as minimal. Abbott also pretended in his communications Darwin was back to normal.
By the end of March the secret Lowe commission to investigate the attack reported that 240 died but it did not make the papers. Curtin’s policy backfired as the Japanese went on to attack Broome, Wyndham and other towns but the “national interest” excuse was used to avoid any further comment or scrutiny. Darwin disappeared from public gaze. As Grose concluded “The full horror of the attack on Darwin was [the government’s] best chance to jolt Australians out of their apathy. Unwisely it chose not to take it.”