The bombing of Darwin. Photo: Australian War Memorial
February 19 this year represented the 80th anniversary of the first Japanese bombing raid on Darwin on the north coast of Australia during World War II. A short, wiry man called Brother Eddie Bennett laid claim to being the first to sight the invading armada of some 188 aircraft carrying the insignia of the Land of the Rising Sun as it flew southwards over Melville Island towards mainland Australia.
Situated in the Timor Sea and part of the Tiwi Islands group, Melville Island is about a one-hour flight from Darwin in a single-engine aircraft, and in 1942 was the site of a mission for Aboriginal people by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.
Brother Eddie held the responsibility for the radio shack on the island. He rushed to report his sighting to the military authorities in Darwin but was laughed at and told if they had been Japanese planes, they would have already arrived!
Unknown to both Eddie and the recipient of his message, the planes had turned and flown west before heading south, then doubling back to attack Darwin not from the sea but the land. The Japanese armada, led by Fuchida Mitsuo, the same man that had commanded the attack on Pearl Harbour only weeks previously, caught the Australians napping.
It was the first of 64 attacks on Darwin and 97 on northern Australia. There was great fear of Japanese invasion, and in the event of the northern fortress ever falling, road signage was altered, directing any convoy heading south by road out into the sand pits of Rabbit Flat and the endless stretch of the Tanami desert.
As a deacon, some 30 years later, I spent a few months at Santa Teresa Mission near Alice Springs in Central Australia. A veteran of the Australian bush, Eddie was charged with keeping me alive; teaching me how to drive in sand, avoid the traps presented by water in case of rain and bleed a diesel engine.
He was also a great man of stories with which he would regale me from the end of his curved pipe stem during the soporific evenings of the Australian desert. Wondrous tales told and retold. He was philosophical about the rebuff of his report of the approaching Japanese planes but narked whenever it was denied, his displeasure expressed in language normally reserved for the colonial administrative officials whom he held in great disdain.
Eddie and I remained friends until his death in 2008 at the age of 95. He was a brother for 73 years, but for a boy from Sydney who left school at the age of 14 before going bush droving cattle and sheep, then taking up an apprenticeship with a butcher, joining the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart put him on a journey during which he received much and gave much more.
As I watched ceremonies to mark the anniversary of the bombing on television, I thought it would be remiss not to recall the humble contribution of this true son of the earth.
As a 17-year-old, he had watched the two arms of the mighty Sydney Harbour Bridge edge closer over the water until they finally met on August 19 1930, and a little over a decade later reported the first aerial onslaught made in anger on Australia’s shores.
No military or government authority is going to admit it treated a warning of the magnitude Eddie had radioed in with ridicule and contempt and would surely prefer the matter swept far under the carpet.
The usual cautionary designated to wartime contribution is Lest we forget... but for those of the ilk of my longtime friend Eddie, it seems to have become Lest we remember…!
Columban Fr Jim Mulroney resides in Essendon, Australia.
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