A DARWIN EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT - Stoker 2nd Class Charlie Unmack

Stoker 2nd Class Charlie Unmack was aboard HMAS Gunbar in Darwin harbour during the first Japanese air raid.

When War came to Australia - Recollections of 19 February 1942

I arrived in Darwin on 31 January 1942 aboard HMAS Gunbar. My ship was a 480 ton minesweeper, and it would be stationed in Darwin and carrying out minesweeping duties in the coastal area off Darwin.

On the morning of Thursday, 19 February 1942, my ship was heading out of port and those of us who were not on duty were sitting on deck. We had not cleared the harbour, when we noticed a formation of planes approaching over East Head. It would have been close to 10.00 am when we first saw them. The planes were glinting in the morning sun, and we remarked on the good formation they were keeping.

At first we thought these planes were ours, and then we noticed some silver-looking objects dropping from them. It was not long before we knew what they were as they exploded in smoke and dust on the town and waterfront. More Japanese planes came in from another direction. These were dive bombers, and they attacked the ships in the harbour. We saw a couple of planes crash into the sea. I thought they were ours.

Then it was our turn for some attention. They began strafing us from almost mast height. As the only armament we had against aircraft was a Lewis machine gun, and this had been disabled by a Japanese bullet hitting the magazine pan, the skipper was firing at them with his .45 revolver. This strafing went on for approximately half an hour before my first taste of action ended. Our casualties were nine wounded out of a crew of thirty-six, and one of these died on the hospital ship Manunda on the following day. The skipper had both knees shattered by Japanese bullets.

We transferred our injured to the Manunda, and then our motor boat began rescuing survivors in the water.

The scenes in the harbour during the raid were horrific, with ships on fire, oil and debris everywhere, ships sinking, and ships run aground. The merchant ship Neptuna was berthed alongside the wharf. It received a direct hit and blew up. The tremendous explosion was ear-shattering and sent debris flying up to half a kilometre. Neptuna had been loaded with depth charges and ammunition.

The Japanese came over again at about 12.15 pm. This second raid was mainly concentrated on the RAAF base and airstrip.

Early in the morning of the following day, in response to rumours of a Japanese invasion fleet approaching, we proceeded up one of the arms of Darwin harbour until the tide went out and left our ship high and dry. A patrol boat came alongside and told us to go back down harbour when the tide came in and refloated us. When this happened, we went back down harbour and went to work salvaging the beached American transport ship Port Mar. We were also put to work recovering dead bodies of raid victims from the harbour and mangroves.

I was eighteen and a half years old when the Japanese attacked my ship in Darwin harbour, and I have never forgotten the terrible scenes during that first air raid on Australia.