The Port Darwin, Australia post office explodes as it is hit by a bomb from a Japanese raid on this northern city, Feb. 19, 1942. All persons in the building were killed. (AP PHOTO)
NATIONAL: CHRIS MUNRO* reflects on how the bombing of Darwin during World War II affected the Aboriginal population, who numbered about 60 percent.
In the summer of 1942 Darwin’s population numbered around 5,800.
The majority – 60 percent – were Aboriginal.
It was the time when Japan launched the first largest, single attack mounted by a foreign power against Australia.
Witnesses would later describe a loud buzzing, like that of a hive of angry bees, as 242 Japanese war planes descended on Darwin Harbour.
It’s often called Australia’s Pearl Harbor.
Melville Island’s Aboriginal residents were the first to spot the Japanese onslaught.
Around 35 Aboriginal men on Melville, just off the coast of Darwin, worked for the navy as ‘coast watchers’.
As ‘unofficial’ members of the Australian Defence Force, they were paid in tobacco.
At 9:15am on February 19 one of them men raced into the Island’s radio shed.
Snatching up the mouthpiece, he warned Darwin of a sky clogged with hundreds of aircraft.
The message was badly misinterpreted.
The radio controller in Darwin assumed the report was in reference to a fleet of American P-40s that were scheduled back from Timor following bad weather.
It proved a catastrophic case of crossed wires.
The first bombs struck HMAS Gunbar anchored in Darwin Harbour at 9.48a.m.
Darwin’s air raid sirens were silent.
Nine Japanese A6M Zero fighters obliterated the ship in seconds.
Over the next 40 minutes, the Japanese raid dropped more bombs on Darwin than were used in the entire Pearl Harbour attack.
Darwin was torn to pieces.
Back on Melville Island a fight for country was underway.
Aboriginal men, armed with only a few old rifles, managed to down a Zero fighter with a single .303 bullet.
Whether it was just plain luck, or remarkable marksmanship, the Zero’s pilot was subsequently captured, hog-tied and held prisoner by a gang of Melville men.
Meanwhile, another Melville man, Louie Mancara, was sitting with two other Aboriginal men when they spotted five members of a downed Japanese bomber crew wading through shallow waters towards them.
Louie sprang into action, surrounding the men, tying them up and calling for help from the mainland.
In the hours that passed following the initial raid, Louie grew increasingly restless. He was desperate to kill the foreign invaders who’d attacked his sacred homelands.
Members of the RAAF later dubbed him ‘Line ‘em up Louie’, as the Tiwi Warrior struggled with the concept of ‘prisoner of war.’
In all, the Australian ground defenses took down seven Japanese planes during the first raid, but the damage was done.
Estimates of the dead vary greatly.
Some say around 240 perished during that first raid, others put the figure closer to 1,500.
Only four or 5 black lives were lost.
Most were wharfies working alongside anchored US warships.
It’s remarkable the black death toll didn’t soar.
Aboriginal people, especially those traditional people who were considered at the time, ‘full blood,’ were left behind in and around Darwin – despite the remainder of the populace being evacuated months before the raid.
It’s impossible to tell just how many were left behind.
They were regarded as less important and therefore not worth the effort to evacuate.
This deplorable, racist mindset extended to women and children too.