19 February 2012

Seventy years on

Today is the seventieth anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Darwin. The event, which has never previously received much attention relative to Anzac Day (and perhaps some others), was commemorated today with a substantial (and IMO too long) ceremony in Darwin and various associated activities.

Unlike the Gallipoli landing, few tales of bravery, let alone heroism, emerged from the attack which, as many have remarked, was on a larger scale than that on Pearl Harbor a few weeks before.

Other parallels have been drawn, notably that both places were unprepared. Yes, Pearl Harbor was caught napping, but it initiated war between the USA and Japan, whereas the bombing of Darwin came several weeks into the war and a few days after the fall of Singapore, when the allies were in retreat, if not disarray, throughout.

There's not much for Australians to be proud of. Our defence strategists and politicians in the years and weeks before had failed to build up Darwin's defences, while many service people on the ground who, if even some of the stories are correct, panicked.

Does this mean that we shouldn't observe the day and, as many people especially in the Northern Territory want, to ensure that it has national recognition (though nobody I'm aware of has gone as far as suggesting it should be a public holiday)?

No. It was the first airborne attack on Australian soil, many people (perhaps more than in any other single event in our country) were killed or injured,  the full extent of the damage and casualties were concealed from the public, and, together with the other defeats and retreats of the weeks either side of it, intensified the wake up call to Australians. It also showed how reliant we were on the USA, who even then had a few fighter aircraft stationed in the area.

Today was a Sunday, so it was easier to get a good turnout to the ceremony. Whether future commemorations will, or should, be quite so lavish is a moot point. There seemed to be a slight whiff of triumphalism in some of the ancillary activities (eg artillery and machine guns being fired with apparent gusto) shown on ABC TV's detailed coverage.

We need to remember that there was very little effective resistance to the attack, just as we need to remember that the bombing was not a prelude to a Japanese invasion of, or even (as was falsely depicted in the movie Australia) an incursion into Australia. Significant as the bombing was, I believe it was,even for Australia, less significant than the fall of Singapore, where our forces suffered much higher losses - killed, wounded, POWs. But it was still important and so deserves to be commemorated in a lower key Anzac Day-style manner.

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