Tokyo, Japan February 9, 1942

On December 8, 1941, the U.S. Congress declared war on the Empire of Japan in response to the mas­sive Japan­ese attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. That same Decem­ber day and the next the govern­ments of Great Britain, Canada, China, and Aus­tra­lia declared war on Japan. From Decem­ber 22 and con­tinuing well into Janu­ary 1942, U.S. President Frank­lin D. Roose­velt played host to British Prime Minis­ter Win­ston Chur­chill in the nation’s capital, Wash­ing­ton, D.C. The two states­men and their top milit­ary leaders and aides took a series of major deci­sions that shaped the Allies’ two-theater war effort into 1943. One of the imme­di­ate tac­ti­cal deci­sions of their Arca­dia Con­fer­ence was the crea­tion, on Janu­ary 1, 1942, of a uni­fied Ameri­can-British-Dutch-Aus­tra­lian Com­mand (ABDA­COM) in the Far East, where both the British and Dutch pos­ses­sions, the latter with cru­cial oil and rubber resources, were already under siege by surging Japanese military forces.

The four allies established their main supply base at the stra­te­gic Aus­tra­lian port of Darwin, cap­ital and largest settle­ment in the sparsely settled North­ern Terri­tories. Already Darwin was home to air­fields, training bases, main­te­nance facil­i­ties, fuel and munit­ions storage, and air and sea com­mu­ni­ca­tions in the South and Cent­ral Pacific. By Febru­ary 1942 the town (reduced to 2,000 souls) was an im­por­tant Allied base in the defense of the multi-island Nether­lands East Indies (now Indo­nesia). The islands of Cele­bes (Sula­wesi) and Borneo (Kali­man­tan) due north of Aus­tra­lia had fallen to Japa­nese inva­ders, and NEI’s Timor and Java to Aus­tra­lia’s north­west were in Japan’s cross­hairs as its mili­tary advanced through South­east Asia. On this date, Febru­ary 9, 1942, Adm. Iso­koru Yama­moto, com­man­der in chief of the Japa­nese Com­bined Fleet and the archi­tect of the sur­prise Decem­ber 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, ordered air strikes on Darwin to render its offen­sive facili­ties use­less against Japan’s planned sei­zure of Timor and Java, the latter island the site of the Dutch admin­is­tra­tive capi­tal, Bata­via (today’s Jakarta). Ten days later Japa­nese air­craft set out to obliterate Darwin in the first air strike on the Australian continent.

On February 19, 1942, 188 Japanese carrier and 54 land-based planes, in two sep­a­rate raids, attacked Aus­tra­lian and U.S. naval and mer­chant ships in Darwin’s harbor as well as air­craft and hangers at the town’s mili­tary and civil air­strips, plus the town’s hos­pi­tal, post office, and police bar­racks. Opera­ting in the Timor Sea less than 250 miles north­west of Aus­tral­ia, four of the six Japa­nese flat­tops that had par­ti­ci­pated in the Pearl Harbor assault—com­mander Vice Adm. Chūichi Nagumo repri­sing his Decem­ber 1941 role—were pre­sent for the Darwin raid. Incoming enemy raiders, just as was the case at Pearl Harbor, were mis­iden­ti­fied as friendly air­craft, so no alarm was sounded before four of five defending Royal Aus­tra­lian Air Force Curtiss P-40B Toma­hawk fighters were blown out of the sky. Only when enemy war­birds hurled them­selves at their first targets in the busy harbor did sirens sound.

The day’s second wave of raiders was made up of land-based medium bombers that pum­meled Darwin at mid­day. This high-level bombing inflicted exten­sive damage on the two air­bases. Between the two Febru­ary 19 air raids, the Japa­nese caused 243 and pos­si­bly 320 civil­ian and mili­tary deaths (some vic­tims while para­chuting from their stricken air­craft) and wounded between 300 and 400, destroyed 30 Aus­tra­lian and U.S. air­craft on the tar­mac and in the air, sank 11 ves­sels and damaged 25 others, and destroyed most of Darwin’s civil and mili­tary facil­i­ties. Sixty-three more enemy air raids would be directed against Darwin and more than 100 air raids against North­ern Aus­tral­ian towns during 1942–1943. (Sydney and New­castle, cities in New South Wales, were attacked by Japa­nese sub­marines.) How­ever, none of the air raids matched the scale, ferocity, destruc­tion, or inflicted the chaos of the February 19 Battle of Darwin.

Obliterating Darwin, February 19, 1942

Japanese aircraft bombing ships in Darwin Harbor, February 19, 1942SS Zealandia and MV Neptuna burning in Darwin Harbor, February 19, 1942

Left: Thirty-nine-year-old Naval Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who directed the first wave of Japa­nese planes over Pearl Harbor on Decem­ber 7, 1941, and led the first wave over Darwin nearly 2½ months later, recalled the town “harbor was crowded with all kinds of ships which we picked off at our leisure.” The majority of the 65 ves­sels riding at quite anchor belonged to the Royal Aus­tra­lian Navy (one being the AHS Manunda, a hos­pital ship that was badly damaged in the raid in spite of sporting highly pro­mi­nent red cross markings), three belonged to the U.S. Navy (one destroyer sunk and a cargo ves­sel and a sea­plane tender damaged), while about a dozen were mer­chant­men of varying sizes. More bombs were dropped on Darwin on Febru­ary 19, 1942, than on Pearl Harbor, diminishing Darwin’s role as a naval port but not as an air base.

Right: Smoke billows from the Australian troopship SS Zealandia hit by a bomb and cannon and machine gun fire from Japa­nese Mitsu­bishi G3M “Nell” and G4M “Betty” bombers flying from two cap­tured bases in the Nether­lands East Indies; 142 out of 144 men survived the Febru­ary 19, 1942, assault on the troop­ship. The MV Nep­tuna, which was launched in 1924 and saw ser­vice in the mer­chant marine fleets of Germany and Aus­tra­lia, blazes at Darwin’s single wharf in the distance. Zea­landia and Nep­tuna were among 9 ships sunk and 10 others damaged in the initial aerial wave over Darwin, which lasted 32 minutes.

MV Neptuna exploding, Darwin Harbor, February 19, 1942Destroyer USS Peary in death throes, Darwin Harbor, February 19, 1942

Left: A catastrophic explosion heralds the end of the MV Neptuna as clouds of smoke rise from on­shore oil storage tanks. Hit near the stern while carrying a cargo of depth charges, TNT, and other arma­ments, the hap­less Neptuna blazed fiercely before exploding, then turning on its side and taking the lives of 45 crew­men and dock­hands while seriously injuring many others with showered debris. In the fore­ground is HMAS Deloraine, a con­voy escort and anti­sub­marine patrol corvette that escaped unscathed and assisted in rescue and recovery opera­tions. The U.S. cargo ves­sel Admiral Hal­stead (not pictured), carrying 8,000 drums of avi­a­tion gaso­line, was strafed and damaged in the raid, its pre­cious cargo rescued. The Aus­tra­lian govern­ment, con­cerned about the effect of the bombing on national morale, played down the Darwin raid for decades to come. A fic­tion­al­ized ver­sion of the period received mixed reviews in the 2008 his­tori­cal drama film Australia, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman.

Right: Caught in the raid on the Cavite Navy Yard, Philip­pines, on Decem­ber 10, 1941, the U.S. Navy Clem­son-class destroyer USS Peary escaped to Darwin, arriving in January 1942. On Febru­ary 19, 1942, the Peary was attacked five times by Japa­nese dive bombers. The fourth bomb set off the for­ward ammu­ni­tion maga­zine. Lost with the ship were 88 offi­cers and men, about half of the mili­tary vict­ims who perished in the bombing of Darwin. The Peary was the first destroyer of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet (soon to be dis­solved and incor­po­rated into the U.S. Seventh Fleet) to be sunk in World War II.

The February 19, 1942, Bombing of Darwin, Australia

Continue Reading