As air raid sirens rang out to mark today’s 75th anniversary of the day waves of Japanese planes rained destruction on Darwin, one of the last surviving bombing veterans, 96-year-old Mervyn Ey, recalled the horror and confusion on the day war came to Australia’s shores.
The alarm came too late three quarters of a century ago, when the then 20-year-old private and the rest of the undermanned Allied defence forces were taken by surprise.
“There wasn’t any warning… there were planes going everywhere and explosions everywhere,” Mr Ey said.
“We were absolutely shocked by the force of it. We said ‘if this is war, God help us’.”
Japan’s deadly campaign brought a distant war to home soil, and the Northern Territory had become the frontline.
It was the largest and most destructive single attack mounted by a foreign power on Australia and led to the worst death toll from any event in the nation’s history.
The assault was more savage than Pearl Harbor; more bombs fell on Darwin, more civilians were killed, and more ships were sunk.
Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove paid tribute to the 88 sailors killed on the USS Peary in Darwin Harbour – the American Navy’s greatest loss of life in Australian waters.
“Although overwhelmed by Japanese dive bombers, the Peary went down all guns blazing, her crew full of spirit and defiance, fighting and firing to the very end,” he said.
Mr Ey, one of 29 diggers making the the pilgrimage back to ground zero, remains haunted by the nightmare spectacle of men being burned to death in the fiery, oily water as smoke billowed from burning ships.
“The people hadn’t been told the whole truth about what happened,” the South Australian said, adding that details of deaths and destruction were largely suppressed by the government of the day because “they didn’t want to scare the public.”
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten joined the Governor-General and dignitaries from Japan and the US at a commemorative service.
There was a military depiction of the day’s events in 1942, before a four-aircraft flyover and a minute’s silence to remember those who lost their lives.
“Today, we pay tribute to those who died, to those who survived and fought on, to those who lost mates and family,” the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said at the Darwin Cenotaph.
The attacks devastated US Navy vessels in the port at the time and is responsible for the largest loss of life in Australian waters in history.
The most commonly cited figure is 243 killed and at least 500 injured or missing, but because many casualties were buried in hurried graves on beaches or at sea, it is unlikely the true number of dead will ever be known.
The attacks involved 188 aircraft launched from four Japanese aircraft carriers located in the Timor Sea, followed by a second wave of 54 land-based bombers. The assault was supported by more than a dozen ships, destroyers and submarines.
The attacks on Northern Australia continued for almost another two years.
“We are honoured, all of us, the leaders of the nation, of the Territory, of the city, all of us honoured to be in the company of you, veterans and survivors of that day,” Turnbull told the reverential crowd.
“We, your sons and daughter, stand in awe at the selflessness, courage and sacrifice of your generation.
“You won the war. You saved the nation. You preserved and defended our freedom. And then, with forgiveness, you built the peace. We salute you.”