1On 19 February 1942 Japanese warplanes struck Darwin harbour, where an important section of the American fleet was at anchor, with a force greater than that hurled against Pearl Harbour, causing the death of over 300 people and extensive damage to the harbour, airfields and city. Despite the significance of this attack - the most serious ever launched against Australian territory - it received comparatively little recognition in the post-war era outside of Darwin until November 2011 when Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that 19 February would become an official national day of commemoration. This article considers some of the motives that underlie the inter-related processes of forgetting and remembering in relation to the Darwin bombings, from the moment of their occurrence to the establishment of a day of national commemoration. It is concerned with the politics of forgetting and remembering as these are implemented at the level of community and national life, and in particular with the tension that may exist between different agendas of remembrance.
2There has been much theoretical and empirical work on memory, remembrance and commemoration over the past twenty years. Coinciding with the ‘era of commemoration’, with its explosion of commemorative activities, days of remembrance, community and national memorial initiatives of all kinds, there has been a parallel development in academia of programmes, journals and conferences in Memory Studies. If considerable attention has been paid to the politics of remembering, however, rather less has been paid to the role of forgetting in the construction of collective memory, even though, as Jean-Pierre Rioux writes, ‘la mémoire collective est un processus incessant de tri et donc d’oubli’ (Rioux 2002, 163). One of the persistent claims made over recent decades by proponents of the commemoration of the bombing of Darwin is that this attack had been unjustly ignored in the post-war period. It is of particular interest therefore to consider what tools are available to analyse the processes involved in forgetting, and not to assume that forgetting is simply the passive obverse of remembering. Just as there are ‘agencies of remembrance’ (Ashplant 2004, 17) so there are agents, usually the same agents, that can promote forgetting, agents that notably include Federal and State governments through their control of a range of institutions such as museums and schools and through the implementation of modes and practices of commemoration and memorial diplomacy.
3The promotion of forgetting ranges along a scale of intensity, from highly directed, coercive forms, to those that involve mere symbolic gestures. At one end of the scale of government intervention in forgetting, we might identify imposed or forced forgetting, the occultation or suppression of memory that results from the censorship of embarrassing or ‘inconvenient truths’; and perhaps the persecution of those that bear those memories, with the resultant confinement of remembering to the unofficial arenas of community life, or personal memory. In his influential article, ‘Seven types of forgetting’, Paul Connerton (2008) refers to this form as ‘repressive erasure’.
4In less extreme forms of forced forgetting, governments also play a key role in what we might term strategic forgetting. This may involve intervention in the school curriculum to remove ‘difficult pasts’. It notably involves the organisation of commemorative activities of many kinds since it can be argued that all commemoration involves strategic forgetting: only certain aspects of the past are recalled (the horror of war; the crimes of the enemy rather than the war crimes committed by one’s own side for example). Strategic forgetting may be turned inwards, towards the national community, in a bid to create a more homogeneous nation. It may also be turned outwards, towards other nations: memorial diplomacy supposes strategic forgetting in the interests of pursuing contemporary political, geopolitical and diplomatic objectives.
5Governments also possess the significant power to prevent or facilitate inter-generational forgetting: with the passing of generations with direct experience of an event, lived collective memory disappears unless transmitted to new generations through schooling, media, and commemorative activities. Hence campaigns for remembrance by veterans typically take on renewed urgency as the generation involved begins to die out, and they formulate their demands in terms of the necessity of the state commitment and involvement that will guard against forgetting.
6Many writers on memory have noted the possibilities of resisting forgetting opened up by new technologies: the opportunity to create virtual sites of remembrance on the web, to bring campaigners together, to develop research tools and so on; and the affective impact of modern technologies in ‘bringing together images and sounds that give remembering and forgetting issues surprising speed, scope and emotional resonance’ (Gong 2001, 48). Events that have disappeared from the public arena can be revived through media campaigns and social networking sites with the claim that an event has been ‘forgotten’. The statement that a war or battle has been ‘forgotten’ has a pragmatic function: it implies that the forgetting is not justified and there is often an implicit comparison with similar events that have not suffered the same neglect. Thus the web sites of Korean veterans on three continents declare that the Korean war is a forgotten war1 - a claim that implies that the veterans should be remembered and perhaps even compensated in various ways (financial; symbolic), as the veterans of other wars have been.
7This article considers whether the Darwin bombings were in fact ‘forgotten’ in the post-war era, and if this was the case, why it was so, and seeks to establish the reasons for the recent re-emergence of memory at the national and even international levels.
8The bombing of Darwin in World War II was the first attack by foreign forces on Australian soil since the invasion by the British in 1788. The attack of 19 February 1942 was an attack of formidable military might, involving the dropping of more bombs, although a lesser tonnage of bombs, than at Pearl Harbour, two months earlier. 242 enemy aircraft – 188 carrier-borne aircraft and 54 land-based bombers from Ambon - dropped 683 bombs over the harbour, wharf, town and airfields, in two waves, an hour apart. The task force, led by Vice Admiral Nagumo Chuichi, was the same force, with the same commander that had bombed Pearl Harbour. The bombings caused considerable loss of civilian and military life: Paul Grose claims that ‘a little over 300, perhaps as many as 310 or 320’ were killed on land and sea (Grose 2009, 193). This first bombing run was followed by more than 60 raids across the north of Australia over the next 13 months, including a raid that inflicted serious damage and loss of life at Broome in March 1942.
9It was therefore, by any measure, an extremely serious incident. In the months preceding the raids Darwin had been identified as the ‘weak link’ in Australia’s defence, and indeed Darwin’s strategic importance had long been identified. In the early years of British settlement the colonial government feared Russian and French imperial expansion and the risk of rival colonies in the north of the continent. As the nation’s gateway to Asia it was exposed to the ‘Asian invasion’ from the north that haunted policy makers from the late 19th century onwards (Frei 1991). The bombings took place only a few days after the fall of Singapore, when the southward march of the Japanese, who had swept down the Malay Peninsula and taken the Dutch East Indies in a few short weeks, seemed unstoppable. Yet despite this grave situation and the long-standing fear of invasion from the north, the raids exposed a serious lack of effective civil and military preparation in the town.
10For a long time after the war it was widely believed and claimed that the bombing and subsequent losses had been ‘hushed up’ by the government of the time. Certainly the losses and damage caused by the bombing were downplayed by the Australian government, and this reaction was very different from that of the American government in relation to Pearl Harbour. The American government gave its population frank assessments of the damage and losses at Pearl Harbour and the terrible blow struck by the Japanese became the rationale and motor for war. The Australian Prime Minister John Curtin refused to give the parliament or the people details of the damage caused by the raids, because, he said, this would help the enemy to assess the success of the bombings. The government initially announced the loss of only 15 lives, and this figure was repeated in the press for some weeks. However at the end of March the government issued a truer account of the numbers killed, citing the estimate contained in Justice Lowe’s interim report of 243 killed on land, sea and air,2 which, while short of current calculations was probably as accurate a total as could be obtained at the time. The figure of 243 deaths was widely reported in the press, for example in The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 April 1942, and The Barrier Miner, 1 April 1942. By then, however, the event had passed off the front pages, and the information was de-dramatised in the context of wartime censorship. Curtin’s limited summary of Justice Lowe’s interim report (which was not released) was reported widely but soberly, with negative headlines of the type: ‘No evidence of espionage’, Canberra Times, 31 March; ‘First raid on Darwin. Deaths did not exceed 240’, The Advertiser, 31 March. The Barrier Miner editorialises, however, under the headline ‘Tell more’. Ignoring the distinction that Curtin makes between those killed on land and those killed in the harbour and on the wharves, the paper claims that the deaths were still wildly under-reported and rails against the withholding of information, as if ‘we were children’ (The Barrier Miner, 1 April 1942). Lowe’s final report, delivered on 9 April estimates the deaths as ‘approximately 250’, and, crucially, recounts in great detail the failings of the civil and military authorities, but this information was withheld from the public until after the war.
11It is highly probable that the delay in giving out information and the lack of frankness flowed not only from the desire not to give information about the success of the raids to the enemy but from the revelations of the lack of civilian and military preparedness. Failure was revealed on many fronts: failure to organise civilian defence (partly because of discord between the Administrator of the Northern Territory and the fire wardens); confusion over who had the authority to give orders; failure to organise an ordered evacuation of civilians; scattering and even desertion of servicemen, who, perhaps misled by confusing instructions, left their posts in large numbers – 3 days after the attack 278 servicemen were still missing (Grose 2009, 200-204). Even worse was the role of sections of the armed forces in undertaking forms of, let us say, ‘appropriation of property’, some of it to feed and re-equip themselves; some of it simple looting. So the government had good reason to downplay the impact of the bombings, to preserve the morale of the population and confidence in the military.
12However the government, concerned by the slow pace of civilian mobilisation, did use carefully crafted, sanitised references to the bombing of Darwin to fan patriotism and mobilise the population to greater efforts: a series of advertisements appeared in the newspapers in the weeks following the bombings referring explicitly to these raids, in which Curtin exhorted his fellow countrymen to draw the lessons from Darwin and turn all their efforts to the pursuit of the war. Note that the references to Darwin imply that the assaults on the city were faced ‘with gallantry’:
"Darwin has been Bombed-but not Conquered.
"We must face with fortitude the first onset, and remember that whatever the future holds in store for us, we are Australians and will fight grimly and victoriously.
"Let us each vow that this blow at Darwin and the loss that it has involved, and the suffering it has occasioned, shall gird our loins and steel our nerve.
"We, too, in every other Australian city, can face these assaults with the gallantry that is traditional in the people of our stock."
John Curtin PRIME MINISTER
(The Advocate, 23 February 1942)
13Over the next weeks and months, newspapers too exhorted the population to remember the Darwin bombings in order to draw lessons about the need for civilian mobilisation (‘Applying a hard lesson, on the lessons of Singapore and Darwin’. The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 February 1942). Some however speculated on what the government was trying to conceal: was it the lack of preparedness on the part of the authorities? The editorial in the Courier-Mail for 23 February, entitled ‘Are we learning Darwin lesson?’, demanded to know:
Is our system of reconnaissance, observation and warning as efficient as it should be? Planes were damaged on the ground. Was there proper dispersal and camouflage? Why did these machines not take the air? Has our ingenuity failed to provide other fields from which an invading enemy air fleet can be attacked? There may not be much time to absorb the lessons of Darwin, but they must be examined quickly and applied at once in other centres which may become early targets for enemy raiders.
14Lowe’s report was finally tabled in parliament at the end of the war, on 5 October 1945. In summarising the findings at that time, the newspapers placed great emphasis on reports of Japanese fifth column activity, even though Justice Lowe attaches little significance to such activity (he says only that it ‘could not be disregarded’). They also headline the ‘panic’ that ensued amongst the population: ‘Darwin Raids. Inquiry findings. Enemy fifth column. Panic among citizens’(West Australian, 6 October); ‘Raids on Darwin, Japanese fifth column activity. Findings of Mr Justice Lowe’ (Cairns Post, 6 October); ‘Panic in Darwin after first raid, (The Advocate, 6 October). Less prominence is given to Lowe’s findings of military and civil lack of preparation, though a number of the longer articles do recount these failings in detail (for example in The Advertiser, 6 October).
15It might be suspected that the prominence given to ‘fifth column activity’ was an attempt to disculpate the authorities from some of their responsibility in the debacle and even to distract attention from the shame of the actions of some of the military. Nevertheless, the newspaper accounts of Lowe’s report were sufficiently detailed to ensure that the post-war memory of the Darwin bombings would long be tainted with the associations of panic, incompetence and worse.
16After the war, then, Darwin belonged to those places that William Logan and Keir Reeves describe as ‘places of difficult heritage’, sites that represent painful or shameful episodes in national or local history and that pose a challenge to remembrance (Logan and Reeves 2009, 1). Speaking to the Northern Territory Legislative Council in March 1955, while unveiling a plaque commemorating the civilians killed by the bombing at the Darwin Post Office, the Minister for Territories Paul Hasluck described 19 February as ‘not an anniversary of national glory but one of national shame’(Grose 2009, xi). It was thus an ‘unquiet memory’, one whose legacy was difficult to define or to integrate into a positive local or national narrative, although politicians and government ministers continued to use the bombings as ‘lessons’ to be drawn on for the present. The bombings were often in this period used to draw lessons about the need for development of the north of the continent in order to be able to resist any future aggression and to ‘defend our way of life’. On the eleventh anniversary in February 1953, the message sent by Minister for the Territories Paul Hasluck to the Territory administrator included the warning that ‘Northern Australia is of even greater strategic significance than it was before the last war’; the sub-editor has given the article the title: ‘Australia’s frontline’ (Townsville Daily Bulletin, 25 February 1953).
17The first reference to commemoration of the Darwin bombings that I can identify after the war dates from February 1947. A small article in the Barrier Miner reports on a meeting held by the Northern Territory Administrator, Mr Driver, to discuss ways of commemorating the bombings (Barrier Miner, 1 February 1947, 3). There are reports in the local newspapers of commemoration ceremonies being held on 19 February in Darwin in the early fifties. By the 1960s and 1970s however I can find no record in the national or state newspapers of commemoration ceremonies being held in Darwin on that date, even though there are references to Anzac Day events held there; if they were held, they must have been low-key.3 Only a few small plaques commemorated the events in the town. Note too that post-war Darwin was characterised by a rapidly changing, transient, and unstable population. Darwin had been largely emptied of its civilian population during the war years; rapid population growth after the war meant that there could be little continuity of generational or collective memory. This demographic disruption continued when Cyclone Tracey hit the city in 1974, killing 71 people and destroying seventy per cent of buildings; as many as sixty percent of Darwin's 1974 population were no longer living in the city in the 1980s.
18Only in 1999 was an association of veterans founded: the Darwin Defenders 1942-45 Inc, ‘an association for WWII veterans, their families and friends’ whose aim is ‘to promote national recognition of the efforts of those who defended Darwin and whose efforts have been forgotten’. It was founded as the generation that had witnessed the events was beginning to pass away: in the context of the gradual death of direct memory the Darwin Defenders state the need to teach new generations about ‘Australian history’ and ‘Australia’s defence during WWII’ amongst their principal objectives.4 But even more than fifty years after the war, they came up against traces of the stigma of shame attached to the events of February 1942. When in 2002 the Darwin Defenders wanted to place a plaque to Darwin war veterans in the Mornington memorial park, the local RSL vetoed the proposal, partly because of what it described as the less than commendable actions of so many servicemen who fled town as soon as the bombing began.5 In a submission to council opposing the proposal, compiled by its own historian, John Burns, the RSL cited historical accounts of the desertion and panic and ‘infamous looting’ that followed the bombings.6 Moreover when the campaign to commemorate the Battle for Australia Day was underway in the early 2000s, the date of February 19 was not chosen, indeed does not appear to have been seriously considered by the organisers, although it was put forward by the Darwin Defenders. Instead the date of a successful battle against the Japanese, the battle of Milne Bay, was selected, a battle that was unknown to most Australians.
19One of the most persistent claims made recently about the Darwin bombings is that they have been forgotten; this claim has surfaced repeatedly in the media in the last few years.7 It is a claim made by the Darwin Defenders and by Trish Crossin, Labour Senator for the Northern Territory, in her speech to parliament in the adjournment debate, February 2011. Tom Lewis, director of the Military Museum in Darwin, implies that the lack of commemoration results at least in part from prejudice by the rest of Australia against Darwin: their war experience has been overlooked by the national community as a whole, and in particular ignored by southern Australians and Federal governments.8 It is not at all clear however that the events were forgotten so much as considered by some to be embarrassing or even shameful. Paul Connerton refers to this type of forgetting as ‘humiliated silence’ brought on by collective shame (Connerton 2008, 68).
20Over the past ten years or so, however, coinciding with the formation of the Darwin Defenders, there have been significant changes in the media prominence given to, and the public interest expressed in, the Darwin bombings. This can be illustrated in the spread of commemorations and memorials beyond Darwin to other towns and cities (a memorial was inaugurated in Bankstown, Sydney, for example, in 2003); in the many books published on the events (Ruwolt 2005; Wurth 2008; Grose 2009); and in the new focus of the Darwin City council on its war heritage. The result has been a gradual, even programmed, forgetting of the less glorious aspects of the city’s response to the raids, and a focus instead on the ‘lived experience’ of the inhabitants and on the historical and military significance of the events.
21The recent decision by the Darwin Council to focus its heritage identity on the bombing of Darwin, to ‘remember the civilian effort and hardship during the bombing of Darwin in 1942’, has led to a number of initiatives designed with ‘war tourism’ in mind. War tourism can be seen as an example of ‘thanatourism’ or ‘dark tourism’ (Lennon and Foley 2000) involving visits to sites associated with death and suffering. At its darkest, ‘atrocity’ tourism involves visits to sites such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, or Japanese-run POW camps. While not as extreme as these latter examples, Darwin’s turn towards war tourism parallels and seeks to exploit the increase in visits by Australian tourists to the sites of battles in Northern France, Gallipoli and the Kokoda track. It coincides too with the increasing ‘militarisation of Australian history’ identified by Lake and Reynolds (2010).
22In 2005 the Council called for nominations for plaques to be placed in a memorial wall adjacent to the existing cenotaph. In 2006 it organised a fly past of wartime planes – these events and the annual commemorations have attracted increasing numbers of attendees (Grose 2009, 208). In late 2011, the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory opened the ‘Defence of Darwin Experience Centre’ at East Point. The intention is to develop a tourism hub, NT Minister for Arts and Museums Gerry McCarthy said: ‘We are delivering a whole new way to experience Darwin’s military history – visitors will be encouraged to go from the Museum and Defence of Darwin Experience to the other historically significant sites across Darwin and beyond using a guided tour application available on smart phones or the website.’9
23The increasing focus on Darwin’s role in the Pacific War has gained impetus from the very recent announcement by the Australian and US governments that they will develop military cooperation in the Pacific region through a significant increase in US Marines stationed in the Northern Territory. During his brief (first) visit to Australia in November 2011, President Obama went to Canberra, where he addressed parliament and laid a wreath at the Australian War Memorial, and to Darwin (and not to Sydney or Melbourne). In Darwin he laid a wreath at the USS Peary memorial (the USS Peary had been sunk with significant loss of life during the bombings) and addressed Australian and American troops on their long-standing cooperation. This combination of military commitment and symbolic gesture is a powerful indication of the renewed focus of US power on the Pacific region: Darwin offered the ideal site for the diplomatic discourse and symbolic actions underlining the reaffirmation of US/Australia defence ties.
24Darwin has also served as the arena for other recent acts of memorial diplomacy. In 2011, for the first time, the Japanese Consul General Masahiro Kohara attended the commemoration of the 69th anniversary of the bombing and, according to the report of the event given to parliament by Natasha Griggs, Federal member for Solomon, he expressed his personal regret ‘to a number of people’ for the damage the bombing had done.10 This apology was made officially by Japan’s Senior Vice-Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, Tadahiro Matsushita, in January 2012, on the occasion of the signing of a natural gas project in Darwin.11
25The first appeal that I can identify for the Federal Government to mark the Darwin bombings with a national day of commemoration was made by the Member for the Northern Territory Jock Nelson in 1952 when he called for official recognition of 19 February: ‘to remind Australians of the first ‘Blitz’ on Australian soil’ (Northern Standard, 22 February 1952, 1). His request seems to have received no response. But over the last ten years there have been increasingly vocal demands by Darwin Council and the Darwin Defenders, by Territory and Federal politicians, that the bombings be acknowledged nationally, a campaign that has crossed party lines. Trish Crossin, Labour Senator for the Northern Territory, called in February 2011 in an adjournment debate in Federal parliament for the establishment of such a day. The Coalition federal member for the Northern Territory seat of Solomon, Natasha Griggs on 20 September 2011 lodged a notice in parliament for the day to be declared a national day of remembrance,12 a call she has been making for several years. That year, however, she was supported by her leader Tony Abbott who issued a press release on the same day identifying the bombing of Darwin as ‘the most significant act of aggression against Australia’. He committed the Coalition to working with veteran groups to ensure that the bombing of Darwin would be commemorated across Australia each year on 19 February.13 This campaign culminated in the recent announcement by Prime Minister Julia Gillard that 19 February will indeed be a ‘day of national observance’ to commemorate the bombing of Darwin; the announcement was timed to coincide with the visit of US President Obama to Darwin in November 2011 and the agreement struck with Australia to station 2,500 Marines in bases around Darwin.
26The decision to inaugurate a national day of remembrance of the bombing of Darwin must be seen as an extension of the recent decision to commemorate ‘Battle for Australia Day’. The Rudd government had agreed when in opposition to support the naming of an official national day in recognition of Australia’s role in the war in the Pacific and announced very soon after coming to office in 2008 the inauguration of ‘Battle for Australia Day’, to be celebrated each year on the first Wednesday of September. The decision helped to fuel a renewed round of ‘History Wars’ that centred on two principal issues: the first, a debate over the relative commemorative weight that should be given to the different theatres of war in which Australian troops were involved in WWII, a debate that touched on much broader issues to do with the role and motivation of Australian involvement, its relationship with allies past and present and in particular its relation to Britain and America. The Rudd government’s commitment to this commemoration can be seen as a stake in the ongoing ideological and political battle between the two sides of politics over the relative importance of Australia’s links to Britain and the US (Rechniewski 2010).
27The second issue of contention was the debate over whether the Japanese ever intended to invade, which pitched Peter Stanley and some other military historians against a range of writers and representatives of service personnel. This controversy was recently revived by the Daily Telegraph (23 October 2012) when the military historian David Horner made some rather mild remarks about the excessive attention given to the Kokoda campaign in view of the lack of Japanese intention to invade Australia. Horner was subjected to a front-page denunciation by the Sydney newspaper, which continued its attack inside over a double-page spread and an editorial, accusing him of denigrating the contribution of those who fought in the Pacific arena.
28The decision to inaugurate these two national days of remembrance, the ‘Battle for Australia Day’ and the ‘Bombing of Darwin Day’, can thus be seen to reflect not only contemporary geopolitical concerns and political priorities but a broader preoccupation, even obsession, with national identity that uses a sanctified commemoration of war as a tool for defining ‘who we are’. This article has sought to identify what has had to be forgotten in order to ‘remember the Darwin bombings’ in a way that contributes to a sense of national pride. The new prominence given to this day is surely a further illustration in support of the claim by Lake and Reynolds that our national memory, and even the mainstream of Australian history, have been increasingly colonised by past military events.