[Also posted on Gems of Darwin Blog]
Today commemorates the 75th Anniversary of the Bombing of Darwin, a day where we reflect and remember the tragic losses Australia and the Top End suffered during WWII.
I was lucky enough to witness the stunning and respectful ceremony in Darwin City this morning, and as I watched I felt my fascination in Australian history grow.
It has only been since leaving high school that I became aware of the completely atrocious education of Australian history in high schools across the country. Personally, I remember two topics covered in history during school. The Colonization and the Gold Rush. Granted, these are two major historical events – but they are most certainly not the only two which should be taught. But that is a rant for another day.
Today, I wanted to talk about the ceremony I witnessed this morning and discuss the history which we reflect upon on this day every year.
A National Day of Observance. I really like this title.
This morning, it was hot. The humidity stifling as people arrived in droves to witness this ceremony of observance. At tables scattered around the three large tents were people handing out water bottles and paper fans. A sense of comradery and reflection filled the crowd as people clustered in any shady position they could find.
Sun avoidance is something which I quickly grew to understand upon relocating to the territory. As an incredibly pale redhead, I never understood my friends who spend hours laying in the sun, desperate for that perfect tan. Probably because whenever I spend more than five minutes in direct sunlight my skin begins to resemble the shade of a tomato.
Sweat poured off the audience, dripping down our spines and collecting on our upper lips, but we braved the heat. Waiting patiently for the esteemed guests; including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, to arrive, and for the ceremony to begin. Paper fans waved in almost everyone’s hands and water was guzzled by the bottle.
“On this day in 1942, just before 10am, 188 enemy aircraft broke the silence of a still Wet Season morning and brought war to our shores.” The Lord Mayor of Darwin, Katrina Fong Lim, began her speech with grace and empathy. “For the next 21 months, Northern Australia was subjected to dozens of bomb attacks. There were civilian evacuations. Many servicemen and women were injured or killed.”
Darwin had to be rebuilt, and I am so grateful for the civilians and workers who made that feat a reality. Darwin would be a very different place today without that fighting spirit.
I had no idea locations other than Darwin were bombed during the air raids until very recently when I went for walk through the WWII oil tunnels near the waterfront. Locations like Townsville, Mossman, Broome and even as far south as Katherine were all bombed by Japanese planes. It shocks me that such basic aspects of our history isn’t taught to the younger generation – at least not in my experience.
Aspects of this historical day which hit me the most are the stories.
“It was just before 10am on 19 Febuary, 1942, and when his surveying unit heard plane engines overhead they cheered, mistakenly believing they were British reinforcements until they glimpsed the Rising Sun insignia and leapt into their trenches.” ~ Basil Stahl.
How unbelievable to think that these young men and women were completely taken by surprise, thinking for a moment that the planes overhead were there to help, only to have bombs dropped on their heads.
I think my favourite story of the day was one which I read in the program which was handed out early this morning.
“Back on the [Tiwi] Islands, the first Japanese Prisoner of War taken on Australian soil was captured by an Aboriginal man on the day following the first air raid on Darwin. Pilot Haijame Toyoshima crash-landed his Zero fighter on Melville Island on the return journey from the attack by 188 aircraft on Darwin. The following day he was captured by Matthias Ulungura, who was leading a group of hunters. He was brought to Bathurst Island on 21 February 1942 and handed over to a uniformed Australian sergeant there.”
I’m not sure why, but there is something poetic about this tale and it makes me wonder what kind of exchanges happened between these fascinating people on that day.
During the ceremony, at 9.58am, the air raid sirens were set off and as they did on 19 February 1942. Only today they were set off in remembrance. There were a series of flyovers and loud shots rung out over a period of five minutes. At first I glanced at my brother and smiled, thinking ‘This isn’t so loud‘, only to startle when the cannons fired. Wow! What a noise they made. Children and infants in the audience were very brave, stifling their cries while being comforted by their parents.
I cannot image what it must have been like that morning to feel the earth shake as bombs collided with the ground. To hear those distant noises grow closer and closer. To smell and taste the sawdust and gunpowder in the air during the aftermath as brave civilians emerged from their shelters to assess the damage, heal the injured and bury the dead.
It is days like these which act as reminders to us all, no matter your age, race or gender. History happened, and we should not be ignorant of the events which made our country what it is today.
They shall not grow old,
As we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them,
Nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun
And in the morning,
We will remember them.
Lest we forget.
These words are powerful, and we should not forget the history which brought us the gifts we have today. We are so lucky to live in a country as beautiful, peaceful and safe as Australia, and we should never forget that not everyone is so lucky.
Lest we forget.