(Some memories from the handwritten diary of Frederick Edward (Fred) Ward, a Navy Stoker, and eye witness to the bombing as typed by his wife, Pam Ward, in 19 February 2012.)
After the surprise attack on PEARL HARBOUR - 7 February 1942 - (when it was heavily bombed by the Japanese), HMAS MELVILLE, NAVY BASE DARWIN and LARRAKEYAH ARMY BASE became hives of activity.
We joined the Army boys in land battle exercises and practised land assaults, fully booted and spurred, with rifles, bayonets and steel helmets. Plenty of ribbing went on between us, but we were comrades in arms, and knew that, in spite of the fun and games, it was vital to be prepared for anything! With this in kind, we also got stuck into digging trenches with pick and shovel, in the cement hard ground and practised air-raid drill. The first wail of the siren began on the 11th of December, (4 days after Pearl Harbour).
Being a Navy Stoker, I was seconded to HMAS WARRNAMBOOL, an Australian Corvette, which was flashing up in the harbour, so, at last I got to working a real engine room, and do some sea-time.
The word, filtering through our communication channels, was that there had been a surprise attack on Malaya, which meant that the Japanese Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Yamamoto’s evil ambitions were being fulfilled, and the planned push Southward was continuing rapidly. (What we didn’t know, however, THEN, was that in the Japanese strategic plans, Australia, with its huge land mass of huge mineral wealth and primary production, was soon to be in the greedy sights of their air attack force, led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida (a bombing expert) responsible for each planned operation, along with Naval Task Force Commander, Admiral Nagumo. (Torpedo expert) (Two of their best!)
23 February, the Japs landed in Balikpapin, (Borneo) then 1st 2nd February, dropped a number of bombs on Port Moresby, (near Naval Quarters, with only slight damage.. But they were getting closer to home ground for us.
15 February the dreadful news came that SINGAPORE had succumbed, after a massive and brutal attack and capture of many servicemen and its people. Britain had lost a vital Naval Base!
I had been admitted to Darwin Hospital with Dengue Fever, and on 19th February I was lying in the hospital bed, in the morning, after the usual line-up for a cold shower. It had been a good night, (the bloke next to me, who snored, had gone, and I was feeling pleased that the aches had subsided. I heard the Air-raid siren sound and though it wasn’t its usual time, but at least it was being kept up.
It’s wail had hardly ended, when I heard a continuous droning sound getting closer, then a series of thuds and explosions, plus the zoom and scream of enemy aircraft, as they flew down to drop their deadly cargo. Too close for comfort! THIS WAS IT! And I was running before my feet hit the floor! If this old ramshackle place scored a couple of big ones, it would topple like a pack of cards! This was NOT exactly the time, NOR the way I wished to meet my Maker. My head spun and my legs felt like jelly, as I delved into my kit and exchanged by pyjamas for my "pussers" shirt and shorts. The 4 "choccos", in the ward, were high-tailing it to the corridor, while, in the corner, I could see the bloke with the broken leg, trying to get himself on his heavy plastered limb. I went over to grab him, as he tottered, and, seeing the tattoo of an anchor on his arm, knew he was one of my mob.
The hideous droning kept on. Coming in waves, as intermittent thudding, and explosions and screams of aircraft persisted as each bob hit their target. The machine-guns!. The look of dismay and fear, in the sailor’s eyes, mirrored my own.
One of the nurses called from the door, "get under your beds, you two!", as another wave of bombing commenced. (Couldn’t see how the old bed could provide much protection, even if the mattress was cement hard..) There was a thud that made the windows rattle, and she rushed at us, yelling, "Get down! Now! And, thrusting two pillows at us, forced us bodily to descend to the floor and under a bed, where she joined us. I could feel her trembling, as we three lay together, until there was finally a lull.
The hospital had been shaken by six heavy explosions. The rocks debris and building materials hurled up by the blast had damaged three wards. I was in the Army ward, but the Navy ward was wrecked.
Huge rocks crashed through the roof. They landed on empty beds, thank God, and bounced off mattresses..(As I said, they were like hard cement.) We all thought it interesting that Larrakeyah Army Barracks is very close to the hospital, which took many hits, while the Army Barracks had none. (Did they miss their target?) That day, I was discharged with my navy mate, who hobbled out on crutches, but there were many more in far worse states that us who were being dispatched to safer areas. It is incredible now to know that all the doctors and nurses at the Darwin Hospital had on their hands a disaster involving more dead, dying and wounded that anything before on Australian soil, and like that strong nurse, who shared her time under the bed with us, as the bombs fell, I salute them all! (Japs 242 aircraft !! dropped more bombs than Pearl Harbour).
The Japs had made a total mess of Darwin. Huge craters beside the many ruins of buildings, dangerously entwined with live electricity wires. Very little was left in the main centre of the city. The Post office had been bombed, leaving Darwin without telegraph communications. The Post Master’s wife and family killed and all staff and telegraph operators. On that day, many lives were shattered, with the loss of loved ones and everything they possessed! The awful thing was that no-one knew when the Japs would return to twist the knife even further into their souls, ad, said to say, they DID come back! – 58 times-over a period of 2 years –as far as Broome.
I was immediately relegated to Fire Party, attached to the Oil Field Installation. My job was to put out the fires in the oil tanks, that, after they had cooled down, shovel out the heavy sludge, so that the damaged tanks could be repaired.. They were being bombed daily. It was no picnic jumping into slit trenches to the sound of bombers overhead, lugging fire hoses, (so close to a burning oil tank that you’d feel that you would melt) then, clearing the oil out with buckets, and afterwards, working with pick and shovel, in ground like concrete, in the tropical heat, on order to repair the lines carrying the Fomite (A chemical used to souse oil fires).
My job was also to help refuel the ships and submarines, which was done, usually at night, from a badly damaged wharf. (it had been the Japs’ first bombing target ) so it was dangerous to walk on, even in daylight.. I remember that when I went straight back on duty, after I came out of hospital, to refuel a Sub. At night, have you ever tried to walk across a bare steel girder, in the black of night, with big copper hose over your shoulder, and below you is a mess of twisted girders, before you hit the sea, when your legs are still weak from lying in hospital?
The bloody funny thing about it was that no-one grizzled! We all got on with the job and were actually grateful to wake up each morning alive!
How can anyone, who was in Darwin to see the absolute devastation, by the Japanese, on 19 February 1942, ever forget?
Additional information added by Kristina Barnett, niece of Fred Ward:
Fred Ward also served on HMAS Hobart and was aboard when the ship arrived at Tokyo Bay on 31 August and was one of several Australian ships present at the time of the Japanese surrender on 2 September 1945 was accepted aboard USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
Fred was awarded the Burma Star.