Bombing of Darwin: the wharf

The wharf area was the stage on which many crucial scenes of World War II were played out.

Even before Japan joined the War the small sleepy town of Darwin, that in 1938 had about 3 000 residents, took on a new character as the military buildup of infrastructure and personnel began. On 12 December 1941, a week after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Cabinet issued the order for the civilian evacuation of Darwin. Over the next few weeks about 750 women and children were evacuated south on the Zealandia, Koolama, Koolinda, Montoro and the American ship, General Grant.

The decision to evacuate civilians was timely. At two minutes to ten on the morning of 19 February 1942, Japanese aircraft from the same attack group that had bombed Pearl Harbor, struck at Darwin sinking eight of the 47 ships anchored there.

“The same pilot, Mitsuo Fuchida, led both attacks, flying from the same aircraft carriers and supported by the same air crews… more aircraft attacked Darwin in the first wave than attacked Pearl Harbor in its first wave. More bombs fell on Darwin than on Pearl Harbor. More ships were sunk in Darwin than in Pearl Harbor” (Peter Grose, An Awkward Truth, 2008)

At the wharf, the Neptuna was in the process of unloading her cargo: 200 depth charges with a very large quantity of anti aircraft shells for the Navy and Army. A bomb struck the angle corner of the wharf, blowing a locomotive and trucks into the sea. The Neptuna exploded and more than 50 of the ship’s company were killed along with 22 civilian wharfies, many from longstanding Darwin families such as Cubillo, Dominic and Spain. A survivor remembered:

“I jumped over the side of the wharf into the water… made my way towards the elbow of the wharf. That had already been hit and the shed where men were gathered for smoko, and it had all gone… just disappeared” (Douglas Lockwood, Australia’s Pearl Harbor, 1966)

In the chaos and confusion, men like Jack Barclay and Johnnie Wilkshire, among others, showed enormous courage and presence of mind. They rowed small boats out through the burning oil to rescue injured sailors.

To view a selection of heritage sites, please click here to download a copy of the Heritage & Cultural Trail brochure. We encourage visitors to follow the designated paths and trails while learning about our heritage.