Darwin WWII bombing attack remembered

·3-min read

Mervyn Ey was a 20-year-old Australian Army private stationed in Darwin when bombs rained down on him and his mates 79 years ago.

Now 99, he's made the trek from Adelaide to the Northern Territory for Friday's annual commemoration of the Japanese attack that killed 240 people.

"For us young blokes, it was very traumatic," Mr Ey told reporters.

"We thought if war is like this, God help us."

The bombing raid at 9.58 am on February 19, 1942, marked the first and biggest attack on northern Australia.

Almost 190 enemy warplanes dropped more bombs on the city than in the assault on Pearl Harbour in Hawaii 10 weeks earlier.

Mr Ey was stationed in the now leafy beachside suburb of Nightcliff - 10 kilometres from Darwin's CBD - when the sky above the harbour started filling with Japanese warplanes.

"When the bombs came through, the trees just blew in the air like matchsticks," Mr Ey's son Len, 73, said, speaking for his elderly father.

"He said it was horrific. He lost a few mates," Len said.

"He feels it, poor fella."

The bombs didn't discriminate; hundreds of civilians, seafarers and servicemen and women were hit during the 40-minute attack.

On the docks, about 70 workers unloading ships were strafed. Nine ships in the harbour were sunk, with one ship's cargo of 200 depth charges exploding near the wharf.

The American destroyer USS Peary was also sunk, killing 88 sailors and wounding 13 -- the greatest single loss of life on any ship attacked that day.

The bombs rained down on what was then a small town, with the hospital and Mitchell Street being hit, blowing fleeing civilians off their feet.

Closer to the port, the post office suffered a direct hit, instantly killing nine people - including the postmaster, his wife and daughter - as they took cover in nearby slit trenches.

About 80 minutes later, a second wave of bombers arrived, continuing the attack on the Royal Australian Air Force station inland.

It was the first of about a 100 raids on Darwin, Katherine, Broome, Townsville, Wyndham and Cairns over the next two years by Japanese forces.

NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner said Darwin "was desperately underprepared" for the attacks as he addressed a crowd of about 1500 people, including bombing survivors and their families.

Japanese observation aircraft had been spotted above the town in the days before.

"Everyone knew an attack was coming, yet we had no functioning radar and our service people were stretched in places near and far."

Mr Gunner said the lessons of history were often forgotten, but Darwin would never forget.

"It's not because we glorify war. It's not because we're on the alert. There is no threat ringing in our ears," he said.

"But we do know one thing that hasn't changed since 1942, Darwin remains the clearest path to attacking the heart and soul of Australia."

He asked the crowd - which included Federal Minister for Veterans' Affairs Darren Chester, the Ambassador of Japan and members of the Australian Defence Force and the US Marine Corps - if Darwin was any better defended in 2021.

"The answer is yes. Old enemies are now the closest of friends," he said.

"But the experience in Darwin has taught us that we can never rely on hope as deterrence," he added.

Mr Ey said he was surprised at all attention he'd received from the people of Darwin and the media.

"I had mates during the war that should have more recognition than me," he said.