The Other Pearl Harbor

This work was drawn from a small set of photographs taken by an able seaman on a corvette on the day that the Japanese first bombed Darwin. The SS Neptuna was bombed whilst berthed at the Darwin Jetty. The ship was loaded with mixed cargo and depth charges, it caught alight and eventually blew up. Directly in front of the explosion the tiny Vigilant can be seen doing rescue work. To the right in the background is the floating dock holding the SS Katoomba which escaped the bombing. In the foreground is the SS Zealandia which was dive bombed and which eventually foundered. On that day 9 of the 13 ships in the Harbour were sunk.  AWM

This historical painting is a reinterpretation of the Japanese air raid on Darwin on 19 February 1942. Japanese aircraft fly overhead, while the focus of the painting is the Royal Australian Navy corvette HMAS Katoomba, in dry dock, fighting off the aerial attacks. In 1972, artist Keith Swain, approached the Australian War Memorial with a sketch for the proposed large-scale painting. Swain had based the painting on the records, photographs and descriptions of Captain Allan Coursins of HMAS Katoomba. He also sourced photographs and records from the US Navy vessel, USS Peary. The Memorial agreed to commission Swain to complete the painting. To assist him, the Memorial provided photographs to Swain, including images of Australian vessels and aerial shots of Darwin Harbour, as well as topographical maps of the area.

Bombing of Darwin

After the fall of Singapore on 15 February, the now invincible Japanese forces moved quickly south and east through the islands of the East Indies. Bali fell on the 18th, and Timor was awaiting invasion at any time. Japanese troops were rapidly drawing close to the Australian mainland, while the same fast carrier group that had launched the attack on Pearl Harbor cruised menacingly in the Timor Sea.

Belatedly, it now came home to the Australians that their homeland was under serious threat of attack, if not invasion, with their northern port of Darwin first in the line of fire. Yet the Australian authorities still took no steps to improve the defences of the port, which had become an important base for the supply of troops and war materials to Java and Sumatra, both now awaiting a Japanese attack.

The full strength of the Royal Australian Air Force in the Darwin area consisted of seventeen Hudson light bombers and fourteen Wirraway fighter patrol planes. Both types were antiques in terms of modern air warfare, and certainly no match for Japanese fighters and bombers of the day, especially the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, which had a top speed of 332mph, and was armed with two 20mm cannon. Visiting the RAAF Base, having arrived on 15 February, were ten P40 Kittyhawks, one B17 and one B24 bomber of the US Army Air Force, all in transit to Java. Three PBY Catalinas flying boats of the US Navy were in the harbour.

Faced with the threat to Timor, the Allied Command took steps to strengthen the Australian garrison on the island. A convoy consisting of the Burns Philp ship Tulagi, and the US transports Mauna Loa, Meigs and Portmar, between them carrying nearly 1,700 Australian and American troops, left Darwin on the 15th bound for Koepang, on the south-west coast of Timor. The convoy was well defended, being escorted by the US light cruiser Houston, the old four-funnelled destroyer USS Peary, and the Australian sloops Swan and Warrego. However, the transports had no air cover, and when, on the morning of the 16th, two four-engined Japanese seaplanes appeared, the escorting ships kept them at a distance with anti-aircraft fire, but could do nothing to stop them reporting the position and strength of the convoy.

The dive bombers, four squadrons flying in tight formation, arrived some five hours later. Houston ordered the convoy to scatter, and all ships began zig-zagging and opened fire on the bombers with every gun that could be brought to bear. But seemingly oblivious to the curtain of fire put up, the Japanese came relentlessly on, splitting up into formations of nine planes each as they singled out the troop transports for their attack.

The Mauna Loa, the largest ship in the convoy at 11,358 tons displacement, and carrying 500 troops, was the first to come under attack. She was making violent alterations of course to throw the bombers off their aim, but at her maximum speed of 10 knots she could not escape. A near miss close to her No. 2 hold caused her to take on water and killed one crew member and one soldier. The other transports all had some damage, but thanks largely to the fierce barrage put up by the escorts, none received a direct hit.

However, once having been detected by the Japanese, the convoy was ordered to return to Darwin, where it arrived on the 18th. Houston sailed immediately for Java, but the other ships remained in port, the Tulagi still having 560 men of the US Army 148 Field Artillery Regiment on board.

On 19 February 1942, Darwin awoke to another busy day. Including those from the returned invasion convoy, there were now forty-six ships in the port, berthed alongside, or anchored in the harbour, loading or discharging supplies, under repair, refuelling, or in the case of the Australian hospital ship Manunda on standby to receive casualties from the fighting further north. With so much shipping concentrated in the harbour, there were many in Darwin who feared they would soon become a target for Japanese bombers. They were not to be kept in suspense for long.

At 0815 one of the US Navy’s Catalinas, PBY VP22, took off from the harbour, the roar of its powerful Wasp engines drowning the clatter of cargo winches coming from the wharves. Piloted by Lieutenant Tom Moorer, the ‘Cat’ was on a routine patrol keeping watch for any threatening Japanese activity. At 0920 the flying boat was 140 miles north of Darwin, when Moorer sighted an un-identified merchant ship below. He descended to 600 feet to investigate, and was immediately pounced upon by eight Japanese Zeros. Moorer took violent avoiding action, but his plane was raked by cannon fire. The port engine caught fire, and one of the fuel tanks exploded. With his plane now well on fire, Moorer quickly lost height, and made an emergency landing on the sea. He and all his crew were able to evacuate the plane before it blew up. Fortunately for them, the merchant ship they had been about to investigate was the Florence D., a supply ship on charter to the US Navy, which was then bound south for Darwin with a cargo of ammunition. By this time the Zeros had gone away, leaving the ship free to pick up Lieutenant Moorer and his crew of seven.

The Catalina’s attackers were from a Japanese force consisting of the aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu which, accompanied by cruisers and destroyers, had sailed from Palau on 15 February and, quite unknown to Darwin, were then 250 miles to the north-west of the port. At 0845 these carriers had launched an attack force of eighty-one ‘Kate’ high level bombers, seventy-one ‘Val’ dive-bombers and thirty-six Zeros. Led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who had commanded the raid on Pearl Harbor, their target was the port of Darwin.

Having downed Lieutenant Moorer’s Catalina, the eight Zeros continued south towards the land, passing over Bathurst Island, 50 miles north of Darwin, at about 0930. Father John McGraph, who ran the Catholic mission station on Bathurst, saw the planes passing overhead, correctly identified them as Japanese, and radioed a warning to the RAAF base at Darwin. It must then have been obvious to those on the base that an attack on the port was under way, but for some reason they failed to notify either the town or the ships in the harbour. The Florence D., meanwhile, had been attacked near Bathurst Island by Japanese bombers, which sank her. Fortunately, her cargo did not explode, and only three of her crew of thirty-seven lost their lives. With them died one of PBY VP22’s crew, who had been plucked from the water only a few hours before. The survivors were picked up by the Australian minesweeper Warrnambool and the Bathurst Island Mission boat St. Francis. The Warrnambool was bombed by a Japanese seaplane while she was involved in the rescue, but suffered no damage.

The Florence D.’s attackers also came across the 3261 ton Philippine-flag Don Isidro, also carrying supplies for the US Army, and bound for Darwin. She received a direct hit and was run ashore on the north coast of Bathurst. Eleven of her sixty-seven crew died on the beach while awaiting rescue, which did not come until the 22nd, when the Warrnambool came in to pick them up. Two others died after the minesweeper returned to Darwin on the 23rd.

Earlier that morning, the USAAF Kittyhawks had taken off from Darwin on the final leg of their flight to Java, where they were to help strengthen the defences of the island. Led by Major Floyd Pell, and accompanied by the B17 bomber, which was acting as navigator, at 0930 the Kittyhawks were only a few miles on their way when bad weather over Java forced them to return to Darwin. They were back over the town at 0938, by which time Major Pell had been notified of a possible Japanese air attack. He allowed five of his flight to land, keeping the other five in the air to provide cover. His caution achieved nothing, for at that moment the same Zeros that had shot down Moorer’s Catalina appeared overhead. The five Kittyhawks still in the air met the Zeros head-on but they were outgunned, and four out of the five were shot down. The other Kittyhawks tried to take off again, but, caught at a disadvantage, were shot down before they could gain height.

There were now no Australian fighters in the air, and if there had been, the antiquated Wirraways must have suffered the same fate as Pell’s Kittyhawks. When Mitsuo Fuchida led his bombers in, the skies over Darwin were clear. Flying in tight formation at between 8–10,000ft, and ignoring the anti-aircraft fire, the ‘Kates’ attacked first, their target the closely packed ships in the harbour below. Commander Fuchida reported: ‘The airfield on the outskirts of the town, although fairly large, had no more than two or three small hangars, and in all there were only twenty-odd planes of various types scattered about the field. No planes were in the air. A few attempted to take off as we came over but were quickly shot down, and the rest were destroyed where they stood. Anti-aircraft fire was intense but largely ineffectual, and we quickly accomplished our objectives.’

Stoker 2nd Class Charlie Unmack, serving in the 480 ton minesweeper HMAS Gunbar, was an early eye-witness:

On the morning of Thursday, 19 February 1942, my ship was heading out of port and those of us who were not on duty were sitting on deck. We had not cleared the harbour when we noticed a formation of planes approaching over East Head. It would have been close to 10.00 am when we first saw them. The planes were glinting in the morning sun, and we remarked on the good formation they were keeping.

At first we thought these planes were ours, and then we noticed some silver-looking objects dropping from them. It was not long before we knew what they were as they exploded in smoke and dust on the town and waterfront. More Japanese planes came in from another direction. These were dive bombers, and they attacked the ships in the harbour. We saw a couple of planes crash into the sea. I thought they were ours.

Then it was our turn for some attention. They began strafing us from almost mast height. As the only armament we had against aircraft was a Lewis machine-gun, and this had been disabled by a Japanese bullet hitting the magazine pan, the skipper was firing at them with his .45 revolver. This strafing went on for approximately half an hour before my first taste of action ended. Our casualties were nine wounded out of a crew of thirty-six, and one of these died on the hospital ship Manunda on the following day. The skipper had both knees shattered by Japanese bullets.

We transferred our wounded to the Manunda, and then our motor boat began rescuing survivors in the water.

The scenes in the harbour during the raid were horrific, with ships on fire, oil and debris everywhere, ships sinking and ships run aground …

It was unfortunate that the first ship to be hit was the 5952-ton Burns Philp motor ship Neptuna, which had been requisitioned by the Admiralty to carry military stores. Under the command of Captain W. Michie, she had arrived in Darwin on 12 February after loading a cargo at Sydney and Brisbane, which included 200 depth charges and a very large quantity of anti-aircraft shells. She was a very vulnerable target.

When the Japanese bombers arrived over Darwin, HMAS Swan was berthed alongside the Neptuna replenishing her magazines with anti-aircraft shells from the merchant ship’s hold, having exhausted her supply in defending the Timor-bound convoy. The transfer of this ammunition was being carried out by sailors from the sloop. On the shore side of the Neptuna, dockers were discharging general cargo from the ship onto the wharf. This seemed like a perfectly sensible arrangement, the Swan being short of shells, but Australian dockers are sticklers for ‘union rules’, even in wartime. When they realized that someone else was doing what they rightfully regarded as their work, they threatened to walk off the ship, so bringing the whole cargo operation to a standstill. The dispute had become very heated, with the Petty Officer in charge of the naval party threatening to throw the union delegate into the dock, when someone noticed the aircraft overhead. Seconds later the bombs began to fall, and the argument was settled decisively and finally. The Swan cast off and backed away to give herself room to fire her guns, the ‘wharfies’ ran for the hills, and the Neptuna’s crew went to their emergency stations. They were not a moment too soon. A bomb landed on the wharf close to the Neptuna’s bow, the blast from which damaged her hull, and she began to take on water.

Other bombs followed the first, causing devastation to nearby installations, including an oil storage tank, from which oil gushed into the dock, turning the water around the Neptuna black. Then the ship received two directs hits one after the other, which wrecked much of her superstructure and started a number of fires. Captain Michie, his chief and second officers were killed, leaving Third Officer Brendan Deburca to take command. The ship, which was now listing heavily, was obviously finished, so Deburca wasted no time in organizing the rigging of a temporary gangway to the shore – the original gangway had been destroyed by the first bomb – and evacuated all surviving crew to the wharf.

Once ashore, Deburca called the roll, and established that in addition to Captain Michie and the deck officers, fifty-two men were missing: three engineers, a cadet, the three radio officers, and forty-five Chinese ratings. There was no going back to look for them, for the Neptuna was now blazing furiously, and with hundreds of tons of ammunition still on board, she was liable to blow up at any minute. She did in fact explode in a sheet of flame soon after the survivors were taken off the wrecked wharf by small boats, and put on board the depot ship HMAS Platypus. One of the survivors died on board the Platypus, bringing the number lost with the Neptuna to fifty-six.

Another target singled out by the Japanese bombers was the British Motorist, a 6891-ton motor tanker owned by the British Tanker Company and commanded by Captain Bates. She carried a crew of sixty-five, and was armed with a 4.7-inch and a 12-pounder, both mounted aft, and four .303 Lewis machine-guns. The British Motorist had arrived in Darwin on 11 February carrying 9,500 tons of diesel oil from Colombo for the Admiralty. She completed discharging on the 17th and then moved out to an anchorage in the bay, where she was to carry out engine repairs. Her log book reports that on the morning of the 19th the weather was extremely good, with light variable airs, a calm sea, and very good visibility. At about 0930, the Third Officer, who was on anchor watch on the bridge, saw a V formation of nine aircraft approaching, which he recognized as being Japanese. He immediately sounded the alarm, and the tanker’s crew went to their action stations. Second Officer Pierre Payne wrote a detailed report of what happened next:

On my way to the after gun station I saw a salvo of bombs explode on the jetty. About 5 minutes later, when standing by the 12 pdr., I sighted a second wave of nine planes coming in from a south-easterly direction also in V formation. I saw nine bombs, which were released from a height of about 10,000 feet, fall about 15 feet from the starboard side of the vessel. The explosions were terrific and caused the vessel to roll and pitch violently and it was found that the starboard side and bottom had been blown in and the deck buckled up in an arch amidships, and, on looking over the side the water could be seen pouring out of the ballast tanks as she listed … Owing to the height of the planes, we did not open fire during the attack, as they were out of range of our guns.

Some Japanese planes then carried out dive bombing attacks, the planes coming in from a general south-westerly direction, and we were attacked once or twice but were not hit, the nearest bombs falling about 50 yards away. Meanwhile the other ships in the harbour, the jetty and the town were attacked, resulting in a great deal of damage being done.

Our 12 pdr. H.A. gun was in action throughout the attack, and we concentrated our fire on the planes attacking us. Our firing was effective, definitely disturbing the aim of the attacking planes, which gave us a lull of about 15 minutes.

I told the gun’s crew to stand by for further developments, meanwhile the ship was gradually sinking. After a quarter of an hour, at about 1030, we sighted another wave of planes coming in from the south-east. These planes dropped a salvo of bombs, one of which hit the fore deck, the other eight being dropped into the sea near the starboard bow. These near misses caused the ship to pitch and roll; the direct hit made a terrific explosion, the bridge ladders being blown away and the fore side of the saloon accommodation and bridge being severely damaged. A great deal of debris was thrown up into the air, and I could see fire had broken out amidships.

At about 1045 dive bombing was resumed, during which a direct hit was scored on the port wing of the bridge, destroying all the midship accommodation, and completely destroying the port lifeboat. I was still in the main gun pit aft, firing my gun. The Chief Officer was attempting to put out the fire with the help of other members of the crew, using pyrene fire extinguishers and a small hand pump. The water service lines were completely destroyed, and the ship was increasing her list to port.

The Captain had visited the gun position previous to this latest bombing but had decided to go amidships to direct the machine-gun fire from the bridge guns and when the bomb exploded both he and the Second Wireless Operator were very severely injured.

There was one more bombing attack at about 1100 which was ineffective owing to the accurate fire from our gun which prevented the planes from taking up a good position …

When the Japanese bombers had gone away, and there was no sign of any more coming in, Second Officer Payne left his gun and went forward to ascertain the state of the ship. This was not good. Much of her superstructure had been destroyed, she was on fire in several places, listing heavily to port, and seemed to be on the point of capsizing. There was obviously not much more to be done for her. Captain Bates was lying severely injured, and the Chief Officer could not be found, so Payne took command and ordered the ship to be abandoned.

Payne supervised the launching of three lifeboats, and while this was being done, a number of small naval craft came alongside the tanker, taking off the injured men and transferring them to the hospital ship Manunda. The nearest landing point for the lifeboats was the jetty which juts out into the harbour, but the two ships on each side of the jetty, had been hit and were burning. Oil had spilled from their ruptured tanks into the water, and this too was on fire. Payne decided to take his lifeboats to the nearest beach, which proved to be a wise precaution. As they were passing within 100 yards of the jetty, one of the ships, the Zealandia, blew up, throwing burning debris in all directions.

When the British Motorist’s boats reached the shore, the survivors reported to the company’s agent in the town, but such was the state of confusion reigning in Darwin that he could do nothing for them, except to take a list of their names. No food or shelter was available, so Payne led his men back to the beach, where for the next two days they camped out alongside their boats, living off the emergency provisions they carried. At last, on the 22nd, they were accommodated at an old hospital building near the beach, and were fed by the Army. The last they saw of their ship was her lying capsized, with her port side, most of which had been ripped open by the bomb blasts, about 3 feet above the water. The British Motorist would never sail again.

The Burns Philp ship Tulagi, participant in the ill-fated Timor convoy, was also anchored in the harbour, and still had 560 US Army men on board. When she came under attack from the air, her master, Captain Thompson, slipped his anchor and ran the ship aground in a muddy creek with the object of landing his troops before the Japanese planes came in again. Using lifeboats and rafts, all troops and crew were put ashore, and the ship temporarily abandoned.

Next afternoon, Captain Thompson reboarded the Tulagi, but only five members of his crew, one engineer, three wireless operators and the Purser, volunteered to come with him. With the assistance of a naval working party and some of the Neptuna’s officers, the Tulagi was floated off the mud and re-anchored in the harbour. Nine days later, after repairs had been carried out, she left Darwin for Sydney, crewed by volunteers from the Neptuna, the British Motorist, and a naval party consisting of a Chief Petty Officer and six ratings.

HMAS Swan, having pulled clear from the Neptuna before she blew up, did not escape the attentions of the enemy planes. Despite the extremely accurate anti-aircraft fire she put up, she was attacked on seven separate occasions. Several near misses caused considerable damage to the sloop, three of her crew were killed and nineteen injured.

USS Peary, the largest naval ship berthed in Darwin at the time of the raid, for all her great age, carried a formidable anti-aircraft armament of six 3-inch dual-purpose guns, and these she put to good use when the Japanese planes came over. But at 1045 she became the main target of the ‘Kate’ dive-bombers, and was hit by five bombs in quick succession. The first bomb exploded right aft, over her steering gear, the second, an incendiary, hit the galley deckhouse, the third failed to explode, the fourth dropped on the fore deck, causing her forward magazine to blow up, and the fifth, also an incendiary, landed in the after engine-room, completely wrecking it.

The American destroyer was hard hit, on fire, and sinking, but she was not about to give up without a fight. Her six 3-inch guns hurled their shells skywards as fast as their crews could load and fire, while the two machine-guns mounted aft raked any of her attackers that dared to come within their range. All guns continued to fire until the Japanese planes had gone away, by which time the Peary’s after deck was under water. She finally sank stern first at 1300. Eighty-one of her total complement of 136 died, and thirteen were injured.

Darwin’s first air raid was over by 1040, when the Japanese planes, their mission accomplished, returned to their carriers. In a momentous forty minutes, they had sunk ten Allied ships, including the Florence D. and the Don Isidro, and damaged many others. A total of 187 people were killed in those ships, while another 107 were left injured, some seriously. In addition, twenty-two of the dock workers engaged in discharging the Neptuna lost their lives when they were trapped on the jetty by burning oil.

While the bombs were falling on Darwin’s harbour, the hospital ship HMAHS Manunda found her services to be very much in demand. The 8853-ton ex-Adelaide Steamship Company’s passenger liner, under the command of Captain James Garden, had arrived in Darwin on 14 January, and over the intervening weeks her medical staff, led by Lieutenant-Colonel John Beith, had been in constant training to cope with the casualties that the war, which was moving ever nearer, might bring.

When the Japanese bombers arrived over Darwin on the morning of 19 February, the Manunda, although she must have been easily recognized as a hospital ship by her white painted hull and prominent red crosses, soon became a prime target. A near miss sprayed her decks with lethal fragments of shrapnel, causing widespread damage and a number of casualties. A second bomb narrowly missed her bridge and exploded on B and C decks, totally destroying the medical and nursing quarters and starting a number of fires, which could not be controlled as the fire mains were cut.

Eleven members of the Manunda’s crew were killed, including Third Officer Alan Scott Smith, eighteen were seriously wounded, and forty others slightly wounded. Three of her medical staff, including Nursing Sister Margaret De Mestre and Captain B.H. Hocking, a dentist, lost their lives. In spite of the terrible carnage wrought by the Japanese bombs, the Manunda continued to function as a hospital ship, using her boats to pick up hundreds of casualties from the wrecked ships in the harbour and from the water. When she sailed for Fremantle in the early hours of the 20th, she had on board 266 wounded, many of whom were stretcher cases.

While the Japanese dive bombers concentrated on the ships in the harbour, the high-level ‘Vals’ had been systematically bombing the town of Darwin. The devastation they caused was widespread. One of the first buildings to be hit was the Post Office, where the Postmaster, his family and all the staff on duty were killed. The Police Barracks, the Police Station, Government House, the Cable Office, and the local hospital, along with a number of private houses were all either hit or damaged by blast. And no sooner had the people of Darwin recovered from the shock of this raid than they found themselves under attack again. A few minutes before noon, the air was once more filled with the sound of high-flying aircraft. This second wave of Japanese planes consisted of fifty-four twin-engined land-based bombers flying from Kendari, in the island of Sulawasi and from Ambon. They had no fighter escort, not did they need one, for all Darwin’s air defence force had already been crushed. Ignoring the sporadic anti-aircraft fire, they proceeded to pattern-bomb the RAAF airfield, destroying eight aircraft still on the ground and most of the buildings, and causing serious damage to the hospital.

In the two raids on Darwin that day, a total of 243 Japanese planes dropped 628 bombs, nearly three times the number dropped on Pearl Harbor. No exact figure is on record of the number of civilians killed in the town of Darwin during the raid. Army Intelligence sources at the time put the figure at 1,100, while the Mayor of Darwin estimated that 900 had been killed. The Australian Government, on the other hand, anxious to avoid any panic, claimed that casualties amounted to only seventeen killed and thirty-five injured. Their reassurances fell on deaf ears. The population of Darwin was convinced that a Japanese invasion was only hours away and streamed out of the town, heading south in what became known later as ‘The Adelaide River Stakes’. At least half of the civilian population left, the panic spreading to the Australian servicemen based in Darwin, who deserted their posts in great numbers. Three days after the attack, 278 soldiers and airmen were still missing.

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