Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Darwin in 1942.
My grandfather was an Army cook, stationed in Darwin during 1942 and ’43. The only stories he ever told about his time there were funny little anecdotes about giant crocodiles, pranks played on the officers with the help of indigenous trackers, and baking hundreds of scones at a time. He used to joke that he didn’t know how to make small portions for a meal, so that’s why Nan did all the cooking.
That was on his good days. For the most part, I remember a withdrawn, nervous man who watched ANZAC Day parades with an unexplained bitterness. Who rose at dawn every day, drank a cup of tea and ate two pieces of buttered toast, then spent the day downing bottle after bottle of beer. Who smoked so much that it yellowed the net curtains in the lounge room and flew into uncontrollable rages over seemingly nothing.
My great-aunts and uncles told me that before he left he used to be a bit of a larrikin, turning up to take my Nan to the pictures on a motorcycle, always ready for a laugh.
But my grandfather lived through the February 19 bombings. When he returned in early 1944, he’d changed completely.
As a child, all I knew about Australia during World War II was that we fought overseas, and that three mini-submarines were intercepted in Sydney Harbour. I never learned at school that nearly 300 people had died when the Japanese attacked … I never knew the names of the ships that were sunk … or that Darwin was virtually destroyed. We learned about Gallipoli and the Light Horse from World War I, Kokoda and the Burma Railway … but no one told us about the terror and slaughter visited upon Darwin that started at 9.58 am on February 19, 1942, the first time Australian soil was attacked by a foreign power.
And my grandfather kept silent for the rest of his life. He wouldn’t allow the subject to be discussed at all, and my Nan respected that. When, rummaging in the back of an old wardrobe, I found his medals, he grabbed them from me and through them out – then locked himself in the bedroom to which he’d retreated as he became more and more ill.
Today, I know he suffered terribly from post-traumatic stress disorder. Back then, I just thought he was a bad-tempered old man.
When I finally discovered what had happened in Darwin, I went digging. It was one of the most painful pieces of research I’d ever conducted – but I finally felt I understood my grandfather, who was on the wharf when the pier was destroyed and had to swim for his life.
My own children will know about the Darwin bombings, and I’ll ask them to pass it on to theirs. I’ll be asking other parents to help me petition their school to observe this day with a flag ceremony. I’ll make sure they know about their grandfather.
The proposed National Curriculum includes teaching students about what happened at Darwin, and at Broome, Townsville, Katherine – all across the top end. That it should only now be part of the essential history of our nation is both incredible and dreadful. But at least generations to come will know. Not to foster anger against Japan, but to remember those things that made us who we are as a nation. And so that no other child ever has to wonder why their loved ones act as they do.
On the 70th anniversary of the Darwin bombings, I want to close by saying I love you, Gramps. I hope you’re at peace now. And I wish I’d known while you were alive.