"People looked up and saw 188 aircraft coming in over the mangroves," says Rob Johnson, our guide aboard the Bombing of Darwin Cruise.
As the name of the cruise suggests, those planes weren't friendly. On February 19, 1942, the Japanese military carried out a bombing raid on the northern city, with many vessels sunk and lives lost. The city has never forgotten that rude awakening early in the Pacific War in World War II, and there are several ways for a visitor to explore the story of that dark day.
Arriving around the 80th anniversary of the Bombing of Darwin, I've decided to get out on the water on Darwin Harbour, where much of the deadly action occurred. Our tour boat departs from Stokes Hill Wharf, a long arm stretching out into the harbour, and this is where the MV Neptuna was docked on that fateful day. As men were unloading its cargo of munitions, the ship was hit by a Japanese bomb and went up in a massive explosion.
"There are eyewitness accounts of a hatchway from the Neptuna landing up in Smith Street," says Rob. As I walked down from the Smith Street Mall in the city's CBD to join the tour, I can confirm that's an impressive distance.
It's hard to imagine the sound and fury that must have enveloped Darwin, especially as it's such a beautiful day for our cruise. The sky is blue, the aquamarine water is calm, and there's little harbour traffic about.
It's up to Rob to paint in the details, and he does so with skill: pointing out the fuel tanks behind the mangroves that were targeted, disgorging oil into the harbour as the attack continued; and the graceful form of Government House which remained unscathed. That historic structure is a born survivor which has also weathered cyclones, he says, and there's a theory the Japanese command planned to use the building as their headquarters after an invasion.
As we bob in the water below the grandly modern Parliament House, we hear about the tragic results of the bombing on this prominent site, killing the staff of the post and telegraph office. The corner pillars of the Parliament are subtly shaped like falling bombs, perhaps a reference to the site's wartime tragedy.
There were 77 further raids on Darwin, says Rob, a reminder that it wasn't just on one day in 1942 that the city had to shelter from bombardment. And that initial bombing showed up a lot of shortcomings, such as weapons left over from the World War I – along with rations, including the famed Anzac biscuit. On this cue, we're handed a biscuit each, and Rob points out the gun of the USS Peary which is mounted on the Esplanade, overlooking the Timor Sea.
On our way back to the wharf the boat pauses over the site where the Peary was sunk on that dreadful day – giving us a moment to pause, and reflect on a war that reached Australian shores.
MORE BOMBING OF DARWIN EXPERIENCES
ROYAL FLYING DOCTOR SERVICE TOURIST FACILITY
This museum located on Stokes Hill Wharf ably explains the Bombing of Darwin via a virtual reality experience depicting the mayhem, along with a stirring account of the attack via the re-enacted memories of a US Navy officer. See rfdsdarwin.com.au
DEFENCE OF DARWIN
A powerful re-creation of the attack on the city, using multimedia elements to immerse the visitor in the sounds and sights of that fateful day. See darwinmilitarymuseum.com.au
DARWIN AVIATION MUSEUM
Contains a wide selection of military aircraft from WWII, along with a dedicated exhibition on the Bombing of Darwin including rare colour footage of the attack. See darwinaviationmuseum.com.au
Qantas flies to Darwin from across Australia. See qantas.com.au
Palms City Resort is centrally located with a pool in a tropical garden setting, and rooms from $119 a night. See palmscityresort.com
The Bombing of Darwin Cruise costs $45; or $129 for the more extensive WW2 by Land and Sea tour which includes the cruise. See seadarwin.com
Tim Richards was a guest of Sea Darwin.