Key point: The attack was a surprise despite a couple of warnings. Ultimately, the attack caused so much chaos that many civilians fled and there was looting as fears of an invasion mounted.
The sun was just rising and the day promised clear skies overhead. Since 5 am maintenance crews had been running the engines, making last minute adjustments, and arming the scores of aircraft sitting on the steel flight deck of the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi. She had started life as an Amagi-class heavy battlecruiser but had been converted to an aircraft carrier. On February 19, 1942, Akagi served as the flagship of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s First Air Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo.
Directly behind Akagi, at a distance of about 8,000 yards, was her sister ship Kaga, the other member of the 1st Carrier Squadron. On Akagi’s port side, 8,000 yards away, sailed the carrier Soryu, flagship of Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi. Behind and equidistant from Soryu and Kaga was the carrier Hiryu. Like Soryu, her partner in the 2nd Carrier Squadron, Hiryu was smaller and a bit faster than Akagi and Kaga. As on the Akagi, the sailors of the Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu were scurrying on and below the decks readying their warplanes for action.
An array of Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) vessels supported the carriers. These included the bristling shapes of the heavy cruisers of the 8th Cruiser Squadron: Tone, Chikuma, Maya, and Takao, sporting 10 8-inch guns each, stationed 10,000 yards from each carrier. Between them, in front, and behind, was a screen of nine destroyers from the 17th and 18th Destroyer Divisions, 1st Destroyer Flotilla, under the control of the light cruiser Abukuma. These craft were each armed with six 5-inch guns and eight excellent Long Lance torpedoes.
Surveying the frenetic activity of the Akagi’s personnel that morning was Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, the task force air leader. The 39-year-old Fuchida, who had entered the Navy in 1921, was a specialist in horizontal bombing in the naval air arm. His ability as a tactician and administrator led him to command the attack against the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. On that fateful day, he coordinated the entire Japanese aerial assault against that bastion of American power in the Pacific. Once again, 10 weeks after he and his comrades had wrought such thorough destruction on the naval might of America, Fuchida would be leading another airborne strike force against the enemy.
At 7:30 am, Fuchida signaled all the carriers that the launching of their planes was to begin. The sea breeze freshened from the northwest, which required that the flattops turn while the aircraft took off. When the fleet reached nine degrees south latitude and 129 degrees east longitude 220 miles northwest of the target, Nagumo ordered reversal to a reciprocal course to bring the carriers into the wind. The other warships also turned, and the entire fleet commenced to steam away from its objective and would continue to do so, though at a reduced speed, until the aerial strike force returned three hours later. Having completed their turns, heading full into the wind, the carriers increased speed until velocity over their flight decks reached 25 miles per hour.
After a final briefing the pilots and their crews climbed into their cockpits. Fuchida and his two crewmen boarded their three-seater Nakajima B5N2 Kate level bomber. When all planes were ready, the Akagi’s skipper, Captain Taijiro, ordered them to take off. Eighteen Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighters roared from the flight deck followed by 18 Aichi D3A1 Val dive-bombers, and 27 Kates.
Astern of Akagi the warbirds of the other carriers hurtled into the blue. When all were airborne at 8:45 am, Fuchida brought the attacking force of 188 aircraft, comprised of 36 Zero fighters, 71 Val dive bombers, and 81 Kate high-level bombers, onto a compass bearing of 148 degrees, with the Zeros, flying above and ahead of the others, acting as a protective screen against possible enemy fighter interception. With the prevailing northwest wind the Japanese expected to be over their objective in a little more than an hour. That objective was the Australian port city of Darwin, and the IJN air branch planned to deliver a destructive blow only surpassed by that visited upon Pearl Harbor.
Allied Military Buildup in Darwin
The massive IJN air raid winging its way to Darwin in mid-February 1942 was a response to a joint military command set up by the Allied Western governments designed to stem the Rising Sun’s advance across Southeast Asia. ABDA (American, British, Dutch, and Australian, as the command was named, became operational in January 1942 and established its main supply base at the port of Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory. From Darwin vital military supplies were funneled to the Dutch East Indies, Singapore, and the Philippines. Further, Darwin was critical to the transfer of Allied fighter aircraft that staged from Timor to Bali, then to Java. Without these air assets Java would fall to the Japanese, and the entire Dutch East Indies, with its vast oil and rubber resources crucial to the Japanese war effort, with it.
The Japanese were aware of the Allied buildup at Darwin, whose prewar population was 5,800, and contemplated attacking it in late January 1942. However, an argument among the high command as to whether Darwin or Ceylon should be struck first postponed any decision to assault the city. The impasse was finally broken by Commander Minoru Genda, a brilliant naval staff officer and one of the chief architects of the Pearl Harbor attack. He advised Admiral Isokoru Yamamoto, commander in chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet: “Darwin poses a threat to current and planned operations in the Netherlands East Indies and recommend it should be the first target.” Genda went on to observe that “there had been a substantial buildup of [enemy] army and air forces in the area and do not want it to be used as an offensive base against us.”
Persuaded by Genda’s logic, on February 9 Yamamoto ordered a carrier strike on Darwin “to annihilate the enemy strength in the Port Darwin area and to intercept and destroy enemy naval and transport fleets….” The attack would also provide support for the Japanese effort to capture the island of Timor and thus cut off Allied air reinforcements to Java. Genda was assigned to plan the operation. He not only crafted the carrier attack but added a second strike to be made by 54th Army Air Force twin-engine bombers based at the recently captured Dutch airfields at Ambon in the Maluku and Kendari in the Celebes Islands. After the war Genda recalled that the Japanese had reliable information about the state of Darwin’s defenses and that as a result, “We did not expect serious opposition.”
Early Warnings of the Raid
Departing Palau (in today’s Indonesia) on the night of February 15, Nagumo’s task force reached Kendari on the 17th and made a highspeed run across the Banda Sea the next day. During the early hours of the 19th, the Japanese entered the Timor Sea, where Nagumo launched his aircraft toward Darwin.
About 9:30 am near Bathurst Island, Lieutenant Thomas Moorer’s U.S. Navy PBY Catalina flying boat, Patrol Wing 22, became the first victim of the large Japanese force heading to Darwin. Pounced on by up to nine Zeros, the PBY was forced into the sea before it could radio an alarm to Darwin. Later, its crew was rescued by a friendly merchant ship.
Some early warnings of the enemy raid were received but were not acted upon. Lieutenant John Gribble transmitted a sighting at 9:15 am, while a few minutes later Father John McGrath, a coastwatcher at the Catholic Mission on Bathurst Island, at 9:37 am radioed Darwin, “An unusually large air formation bearing down on us from the northwest.” Both messages were ignored at the Naval Communications Center at Darwin. Meanwhile, Commander Fuchida’s attack force crossed the east coast of Australia, turned northwest, and headed for the city. Without radar, the port was unaware of the surprise enemy assault, which commenced at 9:58 am.
The Ill-Fated B Flight
On the morning of the Japanese attack the only air assets defending Darwin were 10 Curtiss P-40B Tomahawk American-built fighters of Major Floyd “Slugger” Pell’s 33rd Pursuit Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). Returning to Darwin after aborting a flight to Java due to heavy rains, Pell ordered five of his command, designated B Flight under Lieutenant Robert G. Oestreicher, to stay aloft at 15,000 feet and act as a combat air patrol over the Darwin area, while Pell landed the five P-40s of A Flight at the Darwin Royal Air Force airfield for refueling. The time was about 9:55 am.
As B Flight, in two two-plane elements with Oestreicher above them, climbed over Darwin harbor, it was attacked from 2,000 feet above by Zeros, which broke the P-40s’ formation. Oestreicher later recalled how Lieutenant Jack R. Peres’s P-40 was hit by cannon fire from a Zero chasing him and seeing Peres’s plane “slowly rolled over and down.” Moments later, Lieutenant Elton S. Perry was shot out of the sky, plunging into the bay.