Private Len Snell was a 20-year-old Australian Army despatch rider based near Darwin the day the Japanese bombed the city on February 19, 1942.
“I saw thick black clouds behind me and the whining of planes overhead. I thought ‘gee we’ve got a big air force today’, except it wasn’t us – it was the Japanese,” the 96-year-old World War II veteran recalls.
Hundreds died in the attacks that day and Private Snell could well have been among them – if it wasn’t for a well-timed call of nature.
Each day, Private Snell would hop on his motorbike for the 80-kilometre return journey from his base to the Darwin post office to collect the mail and telegrams.
“I used to go to the post office every day and then I’d head back to the barracks and drop off the dispatches but on this day, I stopped because nature called, otherwise I wouldn’t be here today.”
He vividly remembers when the attack began at 9:58am.
“The bombs lobbed straight to the post office and killed the postmaster, his wife and two daughters and a little Aboriginal girl and others as well,” he said.
Private Snell watched as bombs rained down on the area.
“I hid in the cliffs and watched the whole lot over the harbour. The ships were getting blown up, the US Navy ship was hit, there was a lot of men in the sea,” he said.
“The sea was alive with fire because of all of the oil in the sea after the ships were blown up.
“After about 45 minutes I picked up my dispatches and went back to base. They welcomed me back with a cheer because they had heard that a dispatcher had gotten killed, but fortunately enough it wasn’t me.”
‘The good times’ of war
Private Snell also worked as a wireless operator during the war – sending vital information back to headquarters from the frontlines in Borneo and Papua New Guinea.
His father was a veteran too, having spent more than three years in the trenches of France during World War I.
“He didn’t like to talk about it very much at all. I think we just prefer to remember the good times,” Private Snell said.
“I always try to remember the good parts of war … going on leave, we had a good time, playing football and cricket, played a lot of cards.
“In poker, I won a lot of money. I would send the money back to my mother for her to save and that ended up being the deposit for my first house.”
He said he and his unit had been in training in preparation to invade Japan when the United States dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“The Americans dropped the bomb thank goodness. We were all preparing to invade Japan,” he said.
“We were at the pictures that day … all of the sudden, the minister of the unit got up on the stage and everyone started booing him.
“He quietened everyone down and said, ‘the war is over’. I can’t describe it, everyone just went mad, cheering, firing bullets off. We got drunk that night celebrating.”
Remembering mates lost
Private Snell was shipped back to Adelaide after the war where he met and married his late wife Margaret and settled down as a roof tiler.
The pair later relocated to Perth to be closer to their two daughters, eventually moving into the Merriwa RAAFA estate in 1996.
In the lead-up to Anzac Day, Private Snell has been readying himself to remember those who did not make it back.
“It’s more of a day of remembrance to the mates I lost in the war, all those who never got to come back home.”
He also shares his experiences with school children, talking about the importance of remembering those who lost their lives.
“I like being around the kids.”