New technology allows visitors to Darwin to immerse themselves the cacophony and confusion of wartime Australia.
It all happened some three-quarters of a century ago, but 93-year-old Warren Stickley still remembers vividly those days and nights spent trying to protect Darwin from the deadly attack of Japanese bombers. As a kid growing up in Sydney's Marrickville, he dreamt of one day emulating his flying hero Charles Kingsford Smith. But it was into the army rather than the air force that the teenager was drafted as war clouds spread across the South Pacific.
After training in searchlights he was assigned to Port Kembla and then, as the Japanese threat turned to action, to Talc Head, to protect nearby Darwin from wave after wave of enemy bombers. "Nighttimes were worse, especially when there was a full moon on the water," he says, recalling how spotters used binoculars to identify enemy planes for the searchlight team. Their task was to illuminate the foe for the Australian gunners, in the air and on the ground.
He recalls one late-night raid targeting central Darwin where his team tracked and illuminated a Japanese "Betty bomber", which was shot down by a famous flying ace of the time, Keith " Bluey" Truscott, in his Kittyhawk. What Stickley did not see from his relatively isolated, beachside hut on Talc Cove was the civilian exodus from Darwin.
Even before the bombing on February 19, 1942, which led to the death of about 240 people and as many as 400 wounded, thousands of many inhabitants had fled south, fearful of a full-scale Japanese invasion. The first attacks prompted more departures, slashing Darwin's population to little more than 2000. Today it is about 150,000.
On Sunday, February 19 next year, the 75th anniversary of the Bombing of Darwin Day will be marked with two public commemoration services on the city's Esplanade, in the morning at the USS Peary Memorial and at the Cenotaph. The following morning another public, ecumenical service will be held at the Adelaide River War Cemetery, south of Darwin.
From a source of terror and flight, the bombings are today a constant reminder of lives lost; a reason for pride, and, in coming months, an opportunity to reconsider the events of far off 1942, in a program that remains more commemoration than celebration.
On a visit to Darwin there is no better place to start than historic Stokes Hill Wharf, exploring the newest "Darwin bombing" attraction: the Royal Flying Doctor Service Tourist Facility. Opened last July, the centre uses life-size holograms, virtual reality, giant projection windows and sound effects including explosions, wailing sirens and buzzing planes to re-enact the bombings.
Visitors enter beneath a full-scale replica of one of the deadly Mitsubishi Zero aircraft. A giant video wall shows aerial views of the harbour in 1942. The floor trembles and the menacing noise increases as the Japanese bombers arrive. Holograms show wartime Australian Prime Minister John Curtin explaining events. In another presentation an American Rear Admiral, Etheridge Grant, explains how he was blown into the harbour as he attempted to board his stricken ship. A replica bomb cutaway shows its inner workings.
But the most amazing and confronting display is delivered through 360-degree goggles and padded headsets, strikingly similar to those worn by the Japanese pilots.
Seated as if in the cockpit of a war plane, visitors are plunged into the cacophony, the confusion, the utter mayhem of that February morning. Suddenly, it seems, the morning sky is raining bombs. They explode everywhere, releasing huge clouds of smoke, setting ships on fire, triggering more sirens, blowing Australian sailors – and the visitor – into the smoky sky and the oily, black sea.
This interactive display raises funds for the Royal Flying Doctor Service, whose activities are showcased in the same building. The new centre is only one of many extraordinary war sites across the city. Indeed, it is difficult to travel anywhere through thoroughly modern Darwin without running into stunning reminders of the World War II bombings.
There are remnants of gun emplacements, slit trenches, oil-storage tanks, abandoned bunkers, lookout posts, vast airstrips and, on a smaller scale, telltale shell damage to buildings, public and private.
Eight kilometres out of town are the East Point Military Reserve and the Military Museum, which showcase an extraordinary collection of World War II memorabilia and wartime stories. Here, at East Point, on a site established as Darwin's main defence point to protect precious oil stores at Stokes Hill Wharf, can be found the remains of 9.2-inch gun emplacements, ammunition magazines, lookout towers, searchlights, command posts and anti-submarine boom nets.
The neighbouring museum boasts relics ranging from radios through to restored guns to military vehicles, and an extensive display of wartime instruments, uniforms, paintings, photographs and stories of those based at East Point during the war.
Through the latest "immersive, interactive, multimedia" techniques, the museum's Defence of Darwin Experience provides a unique opportunity for visitors to understand the impact of the war on the city.
One section captures the flavour of pre-war Darwin in the 1920 and 1930s, when it was little more than a "Frontier Town". Exhibits include a sign from a Chinese shop, pearl ornaments, a souvenir piece of the submarine telegraph line connected Darwin, and thereby Australia, to the rest of the world, and the white dress jacket worn by the Northern Territory administrator at the time, Charles Lydiard Aubrey Abbott.
The centrepiece "Bombing of Darwin Experience" offers a stunning "surround-sound, all-immersive experience" of what it must have been like to have woken on that distant February morning in 1942 to the deadly cacophony of 188 Japanese aircraft.
Visitors are warned – the experience is multi-sensory and realistically scary. Less technically advanced and less noisy – though no less moving – are the remnants of war to be found in nearby Charles Darwin National Park. They include the explosives bunkers that made up the Bombing Road Bomb Dump, one of which has been used to display memorabilia, such as lurid posters showing Japanese soldiers marching into Australia, under the caption, "HE'S COMING SOON … It is fight, work or perish".
Almost 75 years on, Darwin may still have more than its fair share of "colourful characters". But it's a more confident, more sophisticated city, and certainly a much bigger place, with top hotels and eats, especially along the Waterfront.
Tourism has become Darwin's biggest industry, and the recollection of the Japanese bombing a major attraction.
It is a growth industry supported by guide companies, including SeaDARWIN, which explores the bomb sites on foot, by bus and by boat, Bombing of Darwin Tours, and The Darwin History and Wartime Experience.
Inevitably, the story they tell is not all of Australian valour, still less of sensible preparation for an identifiable threat.
As war expert Peter Grose writes in An Awkward Truth, there was much to be proud of on February 19 – courage , mateship, determination, improvisation. "But the dark side of the story lingers ... looting, desertion and a calamitous failure in Australian leadership."
And, it must be added, preparation. Those defending Darwin were poorly equipped. Many of the weapons used were relics of World War I or were unsuitable for use in tropical climates.
Of course, visitors do not have to catch a bus, go to a museum or hire a guide to find evidence of the bombing. The lush waterfront parklands – a favourite destination for walkers, runners, cyclists, newlyweds and sightseers – contain many war memorials. They are also close to the memorials dedicated to the American air force, whose Kittyhawk pilots protected Darwin from the Japanese attack, and to the destroyer USS Peary, which was sunk during the first attack.
Stickley – who transferred to the Royal Australian Air Force, where he enjoyed a distinguished flying career – lives in Glenbrook, in the Blue Mountains. The walls of his house, not far from where his daughter Christine, lives, are covered with his paintings of planes.
He may not make it back to Darwin for the anniversary but he still reflects on his wartime activities there: "When you come to think of it, the Japanese were cheeky little fellars, flying all that way to bomb us."
AUSTRALIA UNDER ATTACK: JAPAN'S WORLD
WAR II TARGETS
On February 19, 1942, Japanese aircraft – more than were used in the bombing of the American Pearl Harbour – attacked the city in two raids. About 240 people were killed, and up to 400 wounded. The Japanese raided Darwin 64 times and the Top End more than 200 times.
The then-remote pearling port was attacked by Zero fighters in early 1942. At least 88 people were killed, many of them Dutch refugees from the East Indies, fleeing the Japanese. More than a dozen flying boats were sunk. Wyndham was also attacked by Zero planes.
This important military base, and the North Queensland town of Mossman, were bombed by Japanese flying boats in July, 1942. One child was injured. Otherwise, the only serious damage was to a coconut plantation.
In late May and early June Japanese midget subs attacked shipping in the harbour. The converted ferry HMAS Kuttabul was sunk, killing 21 sailors. Over the next few months Japanese fleet subs, that carried the midget subs, attacked merchant vessels, killing about 50 sailors.
On June 8, 1942, the Japanese submarine I-21 arrived offshore, firing on local shipyards, and possibly BHP's iron ore mines. Months later it returned and sank the bulk carrier Iron Knight off Montague Island, with loss of 36 lives.
A platinum fare aboard the Ghan passenger train from Darwin to Adelaide costs $3699pp and $2489 in gold class (the journey can also be taken between Adelaide and Darwin). See greatsouthernrail.com.au
Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin have regular flights to Darwin.
The Adina Apartment Hotel, Darwin Waterfront, has doubles from $118.
As well as the official commemorations, several tour companies will offer tours of the "battlefield" on land and sea. See the official Darwin and Frontline Australia websites at darwin.nt.gov.au and frontlineaustralia.com.au
John Huxley travelled as a guest of The Ghan and Tourism Northern Territory