Darwin Harbour in WWII
On 9 February 1942, the Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto sent a top-secret order to Admiral Chûichi Nagumo, Commander of the 1st Attack Fleet, to 'annihilate the enemy strength in the Port Darwin area. For the surprise attack on Port Darwin on 19 February, the task force will advance to the Arafura Sea'.
Ten days later the aircraft carrier task force which 74 days previously had caused destruction at the US naval base at Pearl Harbor launched 188 aircraft for the assault on Darwin. They struck at 9.58 a.m., sank eight ships and damaged many others, devastated the town, bombed and strafed the civil and RAAF aerodromes and cut communications.
One of the ships moored in the harbour that morning was the Manunda, an unarmed hospital ship.
Tom Minto,the Chief Officer, recounts how, despite its obvious red cross markings, the ship was targeted. The first bomb missed, but the attack continued. Nineteen people were killed and about 40 injured on the Manunda. Mel Duke was in the US Navy, a Gun Captain aboard the USS Peary. The USS Peary was part of the USS Houston convoy taking military personnel and supplies to Timor in February 1942. Attacked by Japanese bombers, the vessels of the convoy were forced to return to Darwin, where they arrived on the evening of 18 February. The next morning, 188 Japanese carrier-borne aircraft attacked Darwin. Mel Duke, a survivor of the sinking of the USS Peary recalls the first bombs falling. The Peary attempted to get underway with all guns blazing, but was bombed and sunk with the loss of 93 of her crew. In Darwin Harbour, over 20 ships were sunk or badly damaged, with some ships’ remains still lying in the waters of Darwin Harbour.
Red Crosses on level on the top deck so that the planes could see them, we were the only ships during the war that were painted white, with a broad green band right around the hull, and three red crosses on each side. So we couldn’t be mistaken for anything. But a low level bomber, he actually lined up our masts in line, because he landed dead centre with his bomb. And there was just this enormous explosion, and things crashing all around me, and I got hit on the back of the head. I was one of the luckiest men in the world that I wasn’t killed.
The 4 inch gun from the USS Peary was salvaged and installed overlooking the harbour at the USS Peary Memorial in 1992. On 19 February of that year, two US survivors of the sinking returned to dedicate the memorial, and to dedicate a plaque to Lieutenant Robert J Buel, who was the first Allied serviceman to die in aerial combat in the Darwin region.