Yes, Australia Had Their Own Pearl Harbor (and It Was Worse)

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Yes, Australia Had Their Own Pearl Harbor (and It Was Worse)

The Raid at Darwin destroyed fuel, repair, and resupply facilities that the attack on Pearl Harbor did not.

Oestreicher climbed into the sun and was hit by a passing Zero but managed to get in a burst of machine-gun fire on his attacker. At 12,000 feet he counted 18 enemy fighters “in a lazy circle at … 20,000 feet” waiting for their turn to dive at the hapless and vastly outnumbered P-40s of B Flight. As the flight leader frantically ordered his unit to head for the clouds south of Darwin, Lieutenant William R. Walker, who had been hit in the left shoulder, landed his plane at Darwin RAAF airfield, which was later strafed, bombed and burned to the ground on the runway.

As Walker taxied to the RAAF airdrome, Lieutenant Max R. Wiecks found himself surrounded by “wild and frenzied” air action. His P-40 was soon riddled with bullets and out of control, forcing the 27-year-old pilot to bail out of his stricken machine. He hit the water 10 miles from land.

Of B Flight, only Oestreicher stayed in the air until the raid ended. He shot down two Japanese dive-bombers, the first aerial victories by the Allies over Australia. After he landed at 11:45 am, his plane was being repaired when it was destroyed by the second Japanese air raid of the day. He spent the rest of the 19th hunkered down at the bomb-ravaged RAAF base.

A Flight On the Ground

While B Flight fought and died in the sky over Darwin, A Flight was being destroyed on the ground at the RAAF base by fighters from the Hiryu. Commander Fuchida later commented that as his force flew over Darwin, “There were 20-odd planes of various types on the airfields. Several U.S. P-40s attempted to take off as we came over but were quickly shot down and the rest were destroyed where they stood.” Spotting approaching enemy fighters, Major Pell and the rest of his element attempted to get airborne. While rolling down the runway, he was strafed by Zeros as his plane lurched 80 feet into the air. Pell parachuted and hit the ground, injured but still alive. As he crawled away, he was machined gunned and killed by Zeros making another pass over the airfield.

Following Pell was Lieutenant Charles W. Hughes. He never got off the ground. He was strafed as he gathered speed and crashed and died in his cockpit. Twenty-one-year-old Lieutenant Robert F. McMahon tried to get into the air after seeing his commander sprint to his plane. After almost colliding with the injured Walker’s incoming B Flight plane, McMahon took off, and the next few minutes found him dueling with a score of Zeros over the harbor. Wounded in the leg, his aircraft’s engine on fire, he had to hit the silk, landing in the harbor alive after being machine gunned by the Japanese as he helplessly floated in the air.

Lieutenants Burt R. Rice and John G. Glover were the last of A Flight to lift into the air. Rice was shot down and machined gunned by Japanese Zeros as he swung below his parachute. Viewing Rice’s predicament, Glover sought to protect his helpless comrade. In doing so he downed an opposing fighter before his own plane was critically damaged by enemy fire. Crashing into the airfield, Glover miraculously survived the enemy strafing that followed as he walked away from the wreckage that had once been his aircraft. Rice landed in a swamp and was found several hours later.

Outnumbered and outfought by the more experienced Japanese pilots, B Flight had been wiped out. Some Japanese World War II historians claim that the destruction of the four B Flight planes was accomplished by one Zero airman, Naval Air Pilot 1st Class Yoshikazu Nagahama, who is also credited with shooting down the luckless PBY flown by Lieutenant Moorer.

Nine Vessels Sunk

As Pell’s airmen fought and died in the skies over Darwin, the air force and civilian airstrips in the region were repeatedly bombed and strafed by the Japanese, making them unserviceable. Besides the nine P-40s of 33rd Squadron, 11 other RAAF aircraft were destroyed in the initial Japanese 32-minute raid on Darwin.

Trailing the Japanese fighters were the Kates and Vals. At 10 am, the former began their runs over Darwin’s harbor at 14,000 feet. Fuchida wrote, “The harbor was crowded with all kinds of ships which we picked off at our leisure.” There were 46 vessels, many of them merchantmen, in port that morning. A cyclone had shut down the port from February 2-10, then a dock workers strike had created a logjam of vessels waiting to unload war material. Their stay had been prolonged even more by the fact that Darwin’s small single wharf could only unload two ships at a time.

A rain of Japanese bombs wrecked the wharf, water mains, oil pipes, and much of the pier. The destruction slowly moved across the administrative district of the town, demolishing the hospital, post office, and police barracks. Dozens of civilians were killed or wounded and trapped in the rubble. After the war Fuchida declared, “I personally gave orders to the pilots not to attack the town.” Whether this is true or not, civilian eyewitnesses attested to the fact that the Japanese methodically struck the city, adding that the “machine gunning harried the town more than the bombs.”

As the Kates completed their fiery work, the Vals, attacking singly, in pairs, or in waves of three, concentrated on the shipping in the harbor. The USS William B. Preston, an American tender, and the Australian sloop Swan got underway and were hit and damaged, losing a total of seven killed and 22 wounded. The USS Peary, a 1,190-ton U.S. Navy destroyer, was buried by five bombs that gutted her engine room and exploded a forward magazine. Peary lost 80 killed, including her captain, Lt. Cmdr. John M. Bermingham, and all her officers. Forty crew members, most of them wounded, survived. By the time the last Japanese carrier planes left the area at 11 am, Darwin harbor had witnessed the sinking of nine vessels with 12 more badly damaged; 25 other ships in the port escaped serious damage or were untouched. Three Catalina flying boats were destroyed in the harbor as well, while two U.S. Navy freighters were sunk northwest of Bathurst Island by Vals from Hiryu and Soryu.

A Sledgehammer to Crack an Egg

When the Japanese bombers began to unload their deadly cargo on the port and the Zeros started strafing the harbor, the defending antiaircraft batteries of the 2nd AA and 14th Heavy AA Batteries, sporting 3.7-inch guns for highaltitude fire, and a small number of Lewis machine guns for low-flying intruders, opened fire from locations at Darwin Oval, Fannie Bay, and other strategic locations around the city. Joined by the 19th Light Horse Machine Gun Regiment, which had mounted its weapons on oil tanks near the port, the Australian guns sent a lot of lead into the air above the harbor but managed to damage only a few enemy planes and shot down one Val. The problem for the gunners was that their pieces were just too slow to effectively engage the attacking aircraft at short range.

Around noon, 27 Japanese Army Mitsubishi G4M1 Betty bombers from Kendari and 27 Mitsubishi G3M1 Nell bombers staging from Ambon appeared above Darwin. Flying at 18,000 feet, the bombers separated into two groups. They ignored the town and port, instead concentrating their attention on the military airfield. While one formation flew in from the southwest, the other roared in from the northeast, both arriving over the base and dropping their ordnance at the same time. They then turned and made a second pass over the field. Two hangars, four barracks, the mess hall, the hospital, and a number of storage buildings were obliterated. The attack also took out six Lockheed Hudson light bombers and damaged another while two P-40 fighters, the ones landed by B Flight, 33rd Squadron after their aerial encounter of that morning, and a U.S. Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber were blown to pieces. Six RAAF personnel were killed.

After the attacking aircraft were recovered, Admiral Nagumo steered for Kendari, arriving there on February 21. The Darwin operation had been a complete success, topped off by the capture of Timor on the 20th. Both actions severed vital supply lines needed by the Allies to prevent the fall of Java, which was soon invaded from the sea and taken by the Japanese. After the war, Fuchida expressed some reservations about the action, appearing not to want to identify the leader of the Pearl Harbor raid as the leader of the Darwin raid. He candidly admitted that the Darwin blow ”seemed hardly worthy of us. If ever a sledgehammer was used to crack an egg it was then.”

Eliminating Darwin as a Supply Base

Unlike Pearl Harbor, where Nagumo’s airmen failed to hit fuel stocks, repair facilities, and other storage installations, these were thoroughly destroyed in the Darwin raid by 206 bombers dropping 681 bombs. As a result, Darwin was eliminated as an Allied supply and transport base from which aid to the Dutch East Indies could be delivered.