Long after the dust settled on the horrific events of March 3, 1942, at least one lingering question remains – what happened to the diamonds?
After leaving Broome’s Roebuck Bay and air strip burning on that fateful morning, eight Japanese Zeroes and their satisfied pilots had headed north, bound for home.
Halfway up the coast, they encountered a Dutch Douglas Dakota DC-3 which had flown from Java, carrying four passengers and eight crew.
In his book Red Sun on the Kangaroo Paw: Japanese Air Raids and Attacks on WA during World War II, historian Kevin Gomm recounts how Captain Ivan Smirnoff’s ace flying skills saved several people’s lives.
As the Zeroes unleashed their cannons and gunfire, hitting the plane’s engine and setting it ablaze, Smirnoff threw the aircraft into a rapid spiral dive.
Wounded and bloody, he manoeuvred wildly as bullets ripped into the plane, wounding him and his passengers. He nosed the plane into the ocean at Carnot Bay and ordered his passengers to run but four, including the young wife of a Dutch pilot and her baby, were gunned down on the beach.
Other passengers wounded by machine gun fire scurried into the sand dunes and waited for days before they were found and rescued with the help of an Aboriginal man, Joe Bernard, from the nearby Beagle Bay mission.
The next day, the wreck of Smirnoff’s plane was bombed by the Japanese.
When Captain Smirnoff finally arrived back in Melbourne, he was asked what happened to a small, wax-sealed brown paper package given to him just before he had departed.
When he explained that the package had been dropped in the surf in the chaos that ensued after his plane was shot down, faces would have paled.
It was only then he was told that the package had contained 300,000 pounds ($20,000,000) worth of fine diamonds belonging to Dutch officials.
Aviation historian Merv Prime recounts how a Broome beachcomber, Jack Palmer, found a package half-buried in the sand while hunting dugong at Carnot Bay.
“He later showed one of the Aboriginals that worked for him some of the diamonds he had found, and told him ‘I needn’t work now, I’ll just sit down and smoke,” Mr Prime said.
On April 14, 1942, as Mr Palmer tried to enlist in the Army he poured a salt cellar full of diamonds over Major Cliff Gibson’s headquarters in Broome.
Under questioning, he claimed the package had burst open when he found it and that many of the stones were lost in the sand.
Mr Prime said Mr Palmer and his friends were later tried, but acquitted, of stealing the gems. As legend has it, diamonds subsequently started to appear all over Broome.
Children at remote communities were reportedly observed rolling “diamonds the size of marbles” over the dirt and a small parcel containing diamonds was allegedly discovered wedged in the fork of a tree.
A mystery building contractor vanished in the midst of a repair job in Broome – and when he left, police found a small hole drilled into a fireplace which a police report claimed ‘may have contained a package of some value.’
Despite exhaustive investigations by police, in the end just 21,000 pounds worth of diamonds were recovered and the rest never turned up.
Today, fortune hunters still scour Carnet Bay near the vestiges of the plane wreck in the dim hopes of turning up a glittering prize.