On February 19, 1942, the Japanese launched an air attack on the northern Australian port of Darwin that rivalled the devastation wreaked on the American naval base of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii just 10 weeks earlier.
The attack, carried out with stealth, speed and force, came in two waves and cemented Darwin’s place in World War II history. The first wave of aircraft consisted of a combined force of 188 dive-bombers, light-bombers and fighter jets, launched from four Japanese aircraft-carriers in the Timor Sea. They crossed the coast near Point Stuart, flying inland to near Pine Creek and then attacking from the south in order to achieve complete surprise. Their targets were the town’s infrastructure, the military and civil bases on its outskirts, and the 49 ships and merchant vessels in the harbour that day.
The bombing began around 10am and lasted for around 30 minutes. About two hours later, another 54 land-based bombers flew over, their sights this time on the RAAF Station aerodrome, in a raid that lasted less than half an hour and served to finish off the destruction.
The raids, which saw 681 bombs dropped on Darwin, were planned and led by Mitsuo Fuchida, the Japanese naval commander responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Adelaide River War Cemetery. Caption: "They died that we might live, but no honour is granted them."
Tilson Collection, Northern Territory Library
Thus, Darwin became known as ‘Australia’s Pearl Harbor’, although the devastation inflicted in Hawaii was much greater and had further reaching consequences. The bombing of Pearl Harbor, which saw 353 Japanese aircraft destroy six U.S battleships, 169 U.S navy and army aircraft, killed 2,403 and wounded 1,178 more, opened hostilities between the two world powers and expanded the theatre of war from Europe into the Asia-Pacific region.
The bombing of Darwin was strategically important to the Japanese, who needed to protect their forces as they moved through the Indonesian archipelago. With the war slowly spreading throughout the Pacific, the small military base of Darwin was nevertheless an important supply base for Pacific offensives and was a potential springboard for a counter-offensive.
By the time the sun set on February 19, at least 252 people – including 39 civilians - had been killed with a further 300 to 400 wounded. While the exact number of casualties is still debated, 11 ships were sunk and around 30 aircraft were destroyed, along with some of the civil and military facilities in Darwin. Echoing their success at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had struck with accuracy and suffered minimal losses.
The M.V. 'Neptuna' laying on its side. Starboard side submerged after first Japanese air raid on Darwin. The jetty is just out of view.
Photo Credit: Marylyn Nichols Collection, Northern Territory Library
The worst hit was the American destroyer USS Peary, with the loss of 88 of its crew, while 36 crew and nine wharf labourers were killed when depth charges aboard MV Neptuna exploded. The merchant navy lost 41 men and five vessels, the freight carriers USAT Mauna Loa and Meigs were sunk with the loss of one life, and 14 crew of the seaplane tender USS William B Preston also died in the raid.
The air attacks on Darwin by the Japanese continued for another 21 months. By November 1943, Darwin had been bombed 64 times, although none of the subsequent attacks were as devastating as the first.
The bombing of Darwin on February 19, 1942 remains the largest single attack ever mounted on Australia by a foreign power, and many reminders of its importance in Australia’s wartime history remain in and around the city including ammunition bunkers, airfields, and oil storage tunnels.
Lead Image:The USS Peary (DD-226) sunk in Darwin 19th February 1942 as a result of heavy Japanese bombing and many crew were lost. This photo was taken at an earlier time. She had been part of the United States Asian fleet and was based in the Philippines before sailing for Darwin.
Photo Credit: Tom Lewis Collection, Northern Territory Library
Explore more about Darwin’s military history here.