Friday 7 February 2020

Darwin Under Fire

A few years ago I caught The Ghan train south from Darwin, courtesy of Tourism NT and Great Southern Rail. 

Before I left the city, however, I visited its Defence of Darwin Experience. As the resulting newspaper story is no longer online, I've re-presented it below for your enjoyment...

I’m standing in front of a lone doorway, propped up with beams to stop it falling. Beyond it is the shell of a stone building, the fragments of its walls blackened with age.

This ruin, standing in a beautiful patch of lawn, could easily pass as a remnant of the Roman Empire. But it’s actually the remains of Darwin’s Old Town Hall, an 1883 structure which was totalled by Cyclone Tracy in 1974. Once a civic landmark, it stands now as a reminder to the ferocious power of nature.

However, 1974 was not the only time that Darwin was devastated from the air. In the morning of 19 February 1942, just ten weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbour, a huge force of Japanese aircraft bombed and strafed the unprepared town.

The bombing of Darwin was for many years obscured by the larger events of World War II, but in recent times has shot up several points in the national consciousness. In February 2012 the 70th anniversary of the attack gained wide media coverage; and people as diverse as Australia director Baz Luhrmann and former US President Barack Obama have drawn attention to it.

The concrete culmination of this awareness is the Defence of Darwin Experience, a high-tech facility at the Darwin Military Museum at East Point, north of the city centre. Comparing the new building to the museum’s existing exhibits is like comparing chalk and cheese – the outdoors military hardware with its neat captions is outshone by the richness of the new interactive experience within.

At the museum I ask director Dr Tom Lewis why the bombing of Darwin and subsequent Japanese raids were so important.

“It was the first time we had enemy attacks made on Australian soil - the first time they’d come and bombed the hell out of us in our own country,” says Dr Lewis. “Some of the raids penetrated as far south as Katherine, that’s 300 kilometres inland.”

Was the bombing a precursor to invasion? Dr Lewis thinks not. “They were basically designed to knock us off balance and to keep us busy defending. If we’re busy defending, we can’t attack. They thought they’d knock us out, they’d knock us back, the Americans wouldn’t come in strength and that would be enough. In the end they turned out to be wrong.”

Even so, it must have been a terrifying time in the remote town that was Darwin in 1942.

As I enter the Experience, I’m struck by the stark red, white and black colour scheme. The red carries a strong suggestion of conflict, but the first section focuses on the diversity of daily life in the pre-war town, with exhibited items such as a Chinese business sign, pearl-shell ornaments and a section of the vital submarine telegraph which linked Australia to the wider world.

There’s some fine use of oral history here, with screens replaying comments from locals who lived through those days, such as then shop assistant Alec Fong Lim. This is repeated throughout the museum, often with the same people giving their personal take on history.

The next room covers the build-up to war. The daunting scale of the preparations is neatly captured by the reminiscences of John Cassidy, a maritime engineer who offered his services to the Northern Territory Patrol Service in 1937, only to discover its headquarters was a tin shed.

A wall is taken up by a series of interactive video clips detailing Japan’s militarisation and expansion up to 1942. This is an excellent way to present essential background information, with plenty of illustrative images and maps, letting the viewer jump back and forth along the timeline and rewatch segments where necessary.

The stage is now set for the big event, the 19 February bombing. The key exhibit here is a large table at waist-height, on which is projected a huge photographic map of Darwin and its harbour.

As Japanese planes fly across the map and begin bombing, visitors can tap smaller screens on the edge of the table to activate audio reminiscences from people who were present. As they speak, a thick red line magically snakes across the map to highlight where they were standing as the bombs dropped.

There are some gripping stories here, including Able Seaman Bill Chapman’s terrifying account of his ship being bombed, and the devastation that followed.

This has all been very impressive; but the best is yet to come. Every 20 minutes a siren and flashing light activates above the entrance to the final large exhibition room, and its doors slide shut. Within this space a huge animated film, the Bombing of Darwin Experience, is projected across a series of glass panels. It’s brilliantly done, mixing cutting-edge computer graphics with period photography and an urgent soundscape.

One of the most memorable moments in the film is one of quiet contrast, however, as the Japanese pilots find their targets and their bombs begin to quietly drop through the blue sky as music plays softly in the background. This abruptly shifts to a crescendo of bomb blasts as a February morning is transformed into chaos and destruction.

It’s remarkably moving, an immersive experience which rolls back the decades and gives the viewer a sense of what it was like to stand in Darwin on that darkest of days. The film, like the museum it’s housed in, adds new meaning to the phrase “Lest we forget”.

Dr Lewis agrees. “There’s an awakening of the debt that we owe to World War II Australians. I call 1942 the year we nearly went out, because we were having disaster after disaster. The Darwin attack was only three months into the war, but for the first time Australians and Americans were standing shoulder to shoulder.”

The Defence of Darwin Experience is at 5434 Alec Fong Lim Drive, East Point, Darwin, Australia. Adult entry $20. Find more details at the museum's website.

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