Bombed Ships and Dumped Struts

by Dr James Hunter

Reflections on the Archaeology of Darwin’s Submerged Second World War Battlefield

Bombing of Darwin

Beneath the waves

During the latter half of 2012 I was invited to participate as a consultant in an archaeological assessment of submerged heritage sites in Darwin Harbour. I was in the final throes of completing my doctoral studies, and—as is common with those transitioning from full-time studies back into the working world—desperate to re-establish a toehold in my chosen occupation. The work in Darwin was associated with a much larger project to develop a Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) onshore processing facility on the East Arm of Darwin Harbour, and involved comprehensive maritime archaeological surveys of areas of the harbour floor located within the development footprint. Because the project was carried out to commercial standards, all maritime archaeologists working underwater were required to hold an occupational dive certification. I did not have an occupational ticket, and so was one of several staff archaeologists responsible for documenting and assessing artefacts that were brought to the surface for analysis and identification.

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Sketches were produced of artefacts recovered during the archaeological survey of Darwin Harbour. This example drawn by the author shows part of the rudder pedal mechanism from a Consolidated Catalina flying boat. Image: James Hunter.
Sketches were produced of artefacts recovered during the archaeological survey of Darwin Harbour. This example drawn by the author shows part of the rudder pedal mechanism from a Consolidated Catalina flying boat.

Image: James Hunter.

Within the East Arm itself are remnants of six Consolidated Catalina flying boats. Three were assigned to the U.S. Navy’s (USN) Patrol Wing Ten, and three were operated by the Royal Australian Air Force. The USN aircraft were responsible for conducting reconnaissance and patrol duties in northern Australian waters, but were caught at their moorings when Japanese aircraft attacked Darwin on the morning of 19 February 1942. Three Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters strafed the Catalinas during the first wave of the assault, causing two to sink almost immediately. One remained afloat and was ultimately destroyed by a Japanese dive bomber. Incredibly, no loss of life occurred with any of the American aircraft, although one was undergoing maintenance at the time of the attack, and its ground crew was strafed on at least two separate occasions.

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Small artefacts associated with the upkeep of Catalina aircraft were found within their mooring area in Darwin Harbour’s East Arm. The grease contained within this grease gun was still useable, despite being on the seabed for 70 years! Image: James Hunter.
Small artefacts associated with the upkeep of Catalina aircraft were found within their mooring area in Darwin Harbour’s East Arm. The grease contained within this grease gun was still useable, despite being on the seabed for 70 years!

Image: James Hunter.

Today, all three USN flying boat wrecks are located on the seabed where they sank and are in varying states of preservation. In 2012, one of our goals was to assess the overall condition of each of these sites, and make recommendations for their long-term management. We were also tasked with documenting the seabed within the Catalina mooring area, which contained evidence of their operation and upkeep. Artefacts associated with these activities included hand-pumped fire extinguishers, grease guns, an array of tools, and damaged aircraft components. Most were likely discarded on purpose, although more than a few were probably lost overboard by accident

Darwin Harbour also contains the wrecks of American military vessels, as well as Australian ships employed by the merchant marine during the Second World War. The highest loss of life of any vessel attacked during the Bombing of Darwin was that of the American destroyer USS Peary, which was struck by five bombs—including one that detonated the ship’s forward ammunition magazines. The damage to Peary was extensive, and 88 officers and ratings perished with the vessel, but incredibly some crewmen returned anti-aircraft fire at their attackers until the raid ended. Two other American military vessels, the troop transports USAT Meigs and USAT Mauna Loa, were also attacked and sunk by Japanese dive and torpedo bombers. Thankfully, the loss of life was significantly less aboard these ships—only one Meigs crewman was killed as a result of the raid, and all of Mauna Loa’s complement of 44 escaped unharmed.

In an effort to obtain an overall picture of the current condition of Peary, Meigs and Mauna Loa, each was documented with multi-beam echo sounder (MBES) in 2012. Ironically, the superstructures of all three wreck sites were removed by a Japanese salvage company during the 1950s, but their lower hulls were left largely intact and undisturbed. Consequently, both Meigs and Mauna Loa still retain portions of the military cargoes they carried when they sank, including complete armoured personnel carriers, motorcycles, military trucks, gas masks, small arms, and various types of munitions. Peary’s salvage appears to have been much more comprehensive; in addition to its missing superstructure, very little evidence exists of its armament or propulsion system. Only a scattering of small artefacts have been observed atop the seabed within the surviving hull, but additional material could still be present within buried hull sections that have remained largely undisturbed.

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A multi-beam echo sounder (MBES) image of USS Peary shipwreck site, c. 2012. Image: Heritage Branch, Department of Tourism and Culture, NT Government and Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Program.
A multi-beam echo sounder (MBES) image of USS Peary shipwreck site, c. 2012.

Image: Heritage Branch, Department of Tourism and Culture, NT Government and Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Program.

While quite a bit is known about the Bombing of Darwin and the immediate and devastating effects on Allied ships and aircraft it left in its wake, far less attention has been paid to other military activities that occurred in and around the harbour—both during the war and (especially) following its conclusion. Among the many hundreds of artefacts I documented during my time with the project were tools, car jacks, automobile engines, aircraft parts and iron bed frames of Second World War vintage. Far from being isolated finds, these objects were often found together in small clusters or even linear scatters (suggesting they were dropped overboard from a moving vessel). Wartime expediency would have dictated that broken and irreparable items be quickly cast aside and replaced, and for those working on and around Darwin’s shores, the harbour would have been a vast—and obvious—choice for a dump site.

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MBES image of the USAT<em> Mauna Loa</em> shipwreck site, c. 2012. Image: Heritage Branch, Department of Tourism and Culture, NT Government and Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Program.
MBES image of the USAT Mauna Loa shipwreck site, c. 2012.

Image: Heritage Branch, Department of Tourism and Culture, NT Government and Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Program.

One particular instance comes to mind. I was responsible for documenting two landing gear struts and a wingtip section from a Supermarine Spitfire fighter aircraft. The struts showed clear evidence of damage (likely from a hard landing), and the wingtip was pierced by several large holes. While I initially thought these might be bullet impact marks, closer scrutiny revealed they were rectangular-shaped rather than round! In the end, the solution to the puzzle came from two other finds I was responsible for documenting. The first, a wing float from a Catalina, featured several similar rectangular holes. The other comprised several iron pickaxe heads that were found among a larger scatter of tools littering the seabed. It soon became apparent that the cross-section of the pickaxe heads generally matched the shape of the holes. From this, we determined that a pickaxe was intentionally used to puncture both the wing float and wingtip in an effort to prevent them from floating and becoming a hazard to navigation (or, at the very least, washing up somewhere along Darwin Harbour’s shoreline).

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The author with a small Second World War-era automobile jack recovered from Darwin Harbour. Concentrations of these jacks were often found scattered on the seabed among tools, aircraft components, and other artefacts. Image: James Hunter.
The author with a small Second World War-era automobile jack recovered from Darwin Harbour. Concentrations of these jacks were often found scattered on the seabed among tools, aircraft components, and other artefacts.

Image: James Hunter.

Ultimately, it’s discoveries like this that are the true stuff of archaeology. Objects such as the Spitfire wingtip have interpretive value in their own right, but when examined within their broader context and in association with other artefacts, a much more interesting story emerges. The archaeological investigation of Darwin Harbour is expanding our understanding of a truly momentous event in Australian history. I feel fortunate to have been involved in the project, and very much look forward to seeing how our work continues to contribute to the overall narrative of the raid and its aftermath—not just on this 75th anniversary, but for years to come.

References

  • Clark, Paul, 2008: Ten shipwrecks of the Northern Territory. Darwin: Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.
  • Coroneos, Cosmos and Aleisha Buckler, 2011: Ichthys Gas Field Development Project Nearshore Development Area: Assessment of Marine Heritage Survey Methods. Maroubra (NSW): Cosmos Archaeology Pty. Ltd.
  • Grose, Peter, 2009: An awkward truth: the bombing of Darwin, 1942. Crow’s Nest (NSW): Allen & Unwin.
  • Hall, Timothy, 1980: Darwin 1942: Australia's darkest hour. Sydney: Methuen Australia.
  • Jung, Silvano, 1996: Archaeological Investigations of the Catalina Wreck Sites in East Arm, Darwin Harbour. Bulletin of the Australian Institute for Maritime Archaeology, 20(2): 23-40.
  • Jung, Silvano, 2000: Quarantine Island, East Arm and its significance in solving the Darwin Harbour Catalina puzzle. Bulletin of the Australian Institute for Maritime Archaeology, 24: 105-114.
  • Lockwood, Douglas, 2005: Australia under attack: the bombing of Darwin – 1942. Frenchs Forest (NSW): New Holland.
  • McCarthy, Sophie, 1992: World War II shipwrecks and the first Japanese air raid on Darwin, 19 February 1942. Darwin: Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.
  • Steinberg, David, 2009: Raising the war: Japanese salvage divers and allied shipwrecks in post-war Darwin. Bulletin of the Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology, 33: 11-18.
  • Steinberg, David, 2015: Addendum to Fujita: A firsthand account of Darwin’s post-war salvage program. Bulletin of the Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology, 39: 92-96.