JAPANESE AIR ATTACK ON DARWIN
Shortly after midnight on February 15th, a fast troop convoy had left Darwin. Aboard the Mauna Loa and the Meigs were Australian troops while the Tulagi and the Portmar carried a U. S. infantry regiment. Their purpose was to reinforce the garrison at Koepang, in Timor, and to establish a base there. As escorts, Admiral Glassford had provided the Houston and the Peary. About noon on the 15th, two heavy four-engined Japanese seaplanes were sighted. The Houston fired unsuccessfully, and the planes circled at a high altitude for about an hour before departing for the north. Though one report states that two bombs were dropped at this time, it seems likely that this was a reconnaissance flight only. After the planes had left, the convoy reformed and continued on its way.
On the 16th the convoy was severely bombed. The attacking planes were described as carrier-based, though they are elsewhere described as
heavy bombers. Flying at a high altitude in three horizontal rows of nine planes each, they approached from the east. The first wave concentrated on the Houston, and each plane dropped one bomb. The Japanese scored no hits, and likewise the Houston's fire had no visible effects. Out of the second wave, however, she shot down 7 of the 44 enemy planes, and her recently provided antiaircraft equipment proved of great value in protecting the convoy. This second attack used a formation similar to the first, but the planes came from the southwest-an unexpected quarter. By this time the convoy had scattered, and each vessel sought protection by radical maneuvering and high speed. The planes attacked in groups of 9, the first one heading for the Houston and each successive one concentrating on a transport. The Mauna Loa received a glancing blow, and all 4 transports started leaks from near hits. The number of bombs dropped may be gauged by the Portmar's report that 23 bombs had landed within 200 feet, although the Meigs had been able to lay down a smoke screen for her.
Though the enemy's attack had failed, the position of the convoy was obviously precarious. The presence of a Japanese carrier was likely, and Japanese warships were rumored to be lying in wait near Timor. The ships reassembled, however, and continued on their northward course for several hours. A scouting plane from the Houston was launched in an effort to gain information of the enemy's position. Soon afterwards directions were received to return again to Darwin, and by the morning of the 18th the convoy had safely reached the port.
Limited facilities caused the Portmar and the Tulagi to anchor in the harbor, while the Meigs and the Mauna Loa proceeded to the dock so the troops aboard might disembark. The Houston and Peary refueled at once and by the evening of the 18th had headed out to the west. They had been ordered to join Admiral Doorman's striking force, which was preparing to defend Bali from invasion. A prolonged attack on an enemy submarine outside of Darwin delayed the Peary, however, and she was directed to return to port for refueling while the Houston proceeded independently. For this reason the destroyer was at Darwin during the attack on the 19th.
The airport, warehouses, docks, and virtually every ship in Darwin Harbor was destroyed by severe air attack on the 19th. A total of about 72 high-level bombers and 18 dive bombers were used, and the almost complete lack of defenses resulted in much damage. The city itself was
strafed and set aflame, and so severe was the destruction that the evacuation of the entire area was ordered by nightfall.
At 0955 18 heavy bombers appeared, flying in horizontal rows of 4, with 2 planes bringing up the rear. Their size indicates that they were based on carriers or seaplane tenders. No warning of their approach was given though they came from the south; proper identification was presumably not made because once again the attack came from an unexpected quarter. The docks were the first targets. By this time the Meigs and the Mauna Loa had unloaded the troops and were anchored in the harbor, with their equipment and ammunition still aboard. The British ships, Zealandia and Neptuna were at the dock, however, discharging ammunition and both these vessels were hit. Shattering explosions and brilliant flashes shook the area as the Neptuna blew up and turned on its side. Hits scored on a Norwegian tanker, the Benjamin Franklin, and another vessel caused loud and extensive detonations. Hits on the docks themselves started fires and scattered debris over a wide area. Though all the bombing was done at a high level it was accurate. Meeting practically no defense, the planes could afford to take their time, and while the dive bombers were attacking, the big bombers would circle around without even dropping bombs.
The airport was next subjected to a severe bombing attack by a second wave of high level bombers. Two-perhaps four-of our planes were able to take off and a P-40 shot down a dive bomber before succumbing to the hopeless odds. A survivor from the Mauna Loa described the destruction at the airport as "like the battle fields of France; hangars, planes, and everything blown to bits, burnt holes all over the field." For over 24 hours fires burned from gas tanks and ammunition dumps.
Immediately following the second wave of high level bombers came the dive bombers, painted a dull green in contrast to the bigger planes which were reported as "shining like silver, with a red sun and a burst of red and gold stripes." The single-engined dive bombers swung in on their individual targets at low angles of not more than 50°. By this time many vessels were heading for the harbor entrance, some dragging anchor in their haste to escape. The British Motorist, a tanker which had backed away from the dock during the first attack, had now managed to back into the harbor, but she got no farther. The Japanese planes first concentrated on the transports and naval vessels, then attacked each mer-
chantman in turn. For over 2 hours harbor shipping and shore facilities endured almost continuous attacks.
The destroyer Peary was hit five times by Japanese dive bombers. While trying to put a smoke screen around the Australian hospital ship Manunda, she was hit on the fantail, removing the depth charge racks, propeller guards, and flooding the steering motor room. An incendiary bomb landed near the galley, while the third went through the fire room without exploding. The fourth bomb set off the forward ammunition magazines, while the last an incendiary, exploded in the after engine room. Though the ship was damaged severely, her machine guns continued to blaze until the last enemy plane had departed. She sank stern first at about 1300, with a loss of all but 52 men of her crew. One officer survived. The Manunda, which the Peary had been protecting, was also hit by a bomb which failed to explode, and was strafed several times.
The transports were also hit. The Meigs and the Mauna Loa were sunk, and the Portmar beached. Details of damage to the Tulagi are not available. The latter two vessels still had troops aboard but casualties seem to have been small. The William B. Preston, a U.S. destroyer-type seaplane tender, was severely damaged. She had been operating our reconnaissance PBY's with her base at Darwin, but after the raid she was forced to seek shelter at Broome. The Admiral Halstead, an American cargo vessel loaded with 14,000 drums of aviation gasoline, was strafed and had her plates sprung by near hits but escaped more serious damage. After the raid she was brought to a pier where Army volunteers and survivors of the United States and Philippine merchant vessels helped to unload her. The Don Isidro was also bombed by the Japanese, starting a fire which gutted her and necessitated beaching her near Melville Island.
Besides bombing the relatively unprotected transports and merchant ships the enemy dive bombers executed machine-gun attacks at the ships' decks from a level of about 50 feet. Sustained machine-gun and cannon fire caused many casualties among the crews and troops seeking refuge ashore. Their small boats were mercilessly attacked. The city was also subjected to low-level attacks, and the hospital was hit. That night evacuation of the city was ordered, and the Army directed everyone to head south. Gas tanks, warehouses, as well as many localities in
the city were afire, and ammunition dumps continued to explode. The road south was soon blocked with vehicles of every description loaded with whatever could be salvaged.