'On opening the bathroom door, I saw that the roof was off that part of the house and when I opened the door the ceiling of the room also disappeared; we then went to the toilet which was next door to the bathroom and as I opened the door, I saw the outside wall of the toilet disappear; I then went to the main bedroom of the house and saw that the end outside wall had disappeared and that the side walls of the room were moving under the pressure of the wind... My wife and I attempted to hold the bathroom and toilet doors shut and we placed our two children between our bodies to protect them.'
– Detective Sergeant Thomas C Baker[i]
BY THE END of that night, Christmas Eve 1974, Detective Sergeant Baker had lost more than his walls, his roof, his house: his entire town had disappeared, and when he scrambled out of the wreckage of his home at dawn on Christmas Day, Darwin looked as if it had been hit by a bomb.
Reading through policemen's personal accounts of their experiences of Cyclone Tracy, you see that there is poetry in duress. There is also sadness. Constable Dane Smith: '[I] was directed to the body of Peter Brian Daffey, 6 yrs. killed when bed under which he sought refuge collapsed over him. Body taken to Casuarina Post Office. I failed to identify the body with the result it remained unidentified for several days.'[ii] And exhaustion. Constable G Townsend: 'I was placed in the armoury section at the station and was also the pet destroyer... My hours of duty are not possible to calculate.'[iii]
Out of a police force of 208 only six failed to arrive at work on Christmas Day – rostered on or not – though one cop reported for work in his speedos, and several others were so badly injured they had to be evacuated. These more personal police reports had been filed in case there was a commission held into the capacity of police to adequately work in the aftermath of the cyclone, given their experiences during it. This issue – of the incapacitating nature of trauma – was a source of some contention. Did the town need to be put under emergency rule, under the command of Major General Alan Stretton, for five days?
There was a certain irony in the fact that Darwin had recently undergone disaster planning for war. That training stood it in good stead. Nonetheless, emergency rule could be construed as an invasion of the territory. Indeed, Crown Law Officer Clement O'Sullivan describes Stretton's visit to the magistrate's courts a few days after the cyclone, to berate Chief Magistrate David McCann, as an 'invasion attack'.[iv]
But if you try to avoid reacting to the symbolic nature of the military response, if you read what happened to the forty-five thousand or so people who endured winds that are believed to have reached three hundred kilometres an hour (the instruments recording wind strength blew away at 217) you understand why the federal government was uncertain about whether Darwin's residents would still be standing. Sure, Mayor Tiger Brennan, aided by a cocktail of rum, antihistamine and painkillers, slept through the night and woke in an intact house, but he was one of the lucky few.
TRACY – SO NAMED on 21 December – was a small and slow-moving cyclone. 'You could have walked, a quick walk, and kept up with it,' according to meteorologist Ray Wilkie.[v] And because Tracy was slow, it stayed. And stayed. And stayed. 'The big blow', as locals called it, went for more than five hours, rattling houses until everything that held them together, every nail along with the nuts and bolts, came loose, at which point the buildings 'unzipped'. Evaporated into the air. Exploded into the night. Seventy per cent of Darwin's houses were laid waste. Every public building was destroyed or seriously damaged. While the loss of life was limited, the material damage was unparalleled.
People sheltering in cars were picked up into the air, blown a few hundred metres and then dumped down again. Babies were blown from parents' arms. Housing girders twisted themselves into forms of abstract beauty. Thousands of sheets of corrugated iron scraped and scratched along the ground, sounding like millions of fingernails running down a blackboard. Ordinary household objects became lethal. Sergeant C Simpson: 'I was struck on the left shin by a china mug and the handle became embedded in my leg...'[vi] The ABC journalist Richard Creswick sat in the bath with three cats, a dozen tinnies and a bottle of cognac, and taught his housemate Eric (who was sitting under the hand basin) the words to 'Waltzing Matilda'. Elizabeth Carroll wore her new long nightie, one pretty enough to double as an evening dress, into the toilet cubicle where she took refuge, alongside three adults and five children, for the entire night. Dawn Lawrie, who went on to become the independent member for Nightcliff, escaped her collapsing house with nothing but her kids, a dog, a puppy and its special food. When she got to the cyclone shelter she put her kids in an industrial fridge for safety. Senator Bob Collins, who lived near Darwin, out in Howard Springs, spent much of the night trying to save his state-of-the-art stereo equipment. The palm in the botanical gardens that was due to flower for the first time in a hundred years that Christmas Day was destroyed. David McCann, whose marriage had recently ended, sat in the YMCA with a mattress pulled over his head. (A lot more marriages would be over by the time the cyclone's work was done. Separations escalated in the months and years after Tracy.) Ray Wilkie sat in his office, under the desk – on the phone, while he still had a line – trying to keep track of the situation. As lightning flashed, brilliant and bright, Wilkie had glimpses of a ruined Smith Street and began to get a sense of the damage being done. Architect Peter Dermoudy hunkered down in the gun battlements of East Point and watched the strange green glow of the otherworldly sky as the eye of the storm moved over the town. The sound of the cyclone returning after the eye passed was described variously as hundreds of petrol tankers heading up the street, a jet plane in your garden, and 'rather like an express train going through a tunnel' that went on for hours and hours.
After all the noise, around dawn silence descended. Don Sanders, a broadcaster and the voice of the cyclone warning that people had been listening to (and ignoring) throughout Christmas Eve, weathered the storm at the ABC studios. He described emerging to 'a most uneerie sort of sky and cloud formation. It was the utter silence. It was, as I can well imagine Hiroshima was two hours after the big egg went off, just nothing.'[vii] Hedley Beare, then the Northern Territory's director of education, described leaving his house for the first time as stepping 'into a world I could never have conceived of. It was almost like stepping onto another planet', but then 'some lovely things occurred...neighbours started to check out neighbours.'[viii] Soon after Beare saw a man, probably in shock, attempting to mow his debris-covered lawn.
Prisoners who had less than six months to serve on their sentence were released from Fannie Bay Gaol because it had practically been destroyed. As well, the prison officers had their own ruined homes and distraught families to attend to. A story went around about a guy who'd checked into the Mandorah Hotel, across Darwin Harbour, waking up and demanding room service. Rosemary Mayo went into labour at 1 pm on Christmas Day and gave birth to a son, Paul, that evening. There was a body in the Nightcliff Pool but the water was boiled and drunk anyway. Cars couldn't start because petrol vapour got sucked out of engines through exhaust pipes during the cyclone, and they had to be towed around the block to start.
Without any landmarks to orientate them people could not find their way to where their houses had once been. 'The whole geography of the area had completely changed – the topography nearly had changed – so you got lost,' Ray Wilkie said. There was no sewerage or water, electricity or phones, which led to the loss of another set of bearings, a peculiarly modern predicament. As Hedley Beare put it, 'When you're without telephone, post office and all of those things, you're actually standing alone in the universe.'
Pets suffered, alongside their owners. The day after the cyclone Barbara James, a journalist, found her cat – alive – in the washing machine, where it had waited for the storm to pass. Because of fears that hungry and traumatised dogs would form packs, they were shot – often without warning and in front of their owners. Wilkie describes a recurring scene around Darwin: 'one day an officer came around, and there was an old dog in our place – he was a nice old fellow – and the [policeman] said: "You got a dog there?" and I said: "Yes. He's not hurting any one"... Out he came and bang, that was it.' Lawrie, in contrast, managed to get her puppy evacuated and hid her Boxer bitch so she'd survive. Pets, she reasoned, were important to rebuilding a society.[ix]
THE MORE YOU read of the devastation Cyclone Tracy wrought, the harder it is to believe that only seventy-seven people died that night – though there are still 160 listed as missing – and it's no surprise to find that the figure is endlessly disputed. Little is known of the fate of those without formal addresses – the hippies who slept on the beaches, the Indigenous people known as 'long-grassers' – and from what I can gather no serious attempt was made to estimate the deaths in these groups. It's been suggested that some Aboriginal people left town before the cyclone because they knew something was up, while others were flown to Aboriginal communities after the storm. One man, Echo Cole, said: '...because of my Aboriginal identity
[I knew] – that something was going to happen to Darwin city at the time...everything just went dead. There was no bird life; no movement; even the trees were still. And when Tracy hit, it did hit hard; then the trees started to move.'[x]
When I wondered out loud about this figure of seventy-seven dead, and who was known to have died, an archivist at the Northern Territory Archives told me that the morgue photos were in the building. I could see them if I wanted. Then she hesitated. 'But I wouldn't recommend it.' I chose not to look.
Photos had been taken for identification because the bodies had to be buried quickly. It was hot and there was no refrigeration. David McCann, the Chief Magistrate, recalled: 'I said, "look, there's no way we can keep the bodies just lying as they are. They have to be buried smartly and there are all sorts of reasons, including public health problems if you don't".'[xi]
Once the cyclone receded rumours began to buffet the town. The cyclone was doubling back on itself and was going to hit Darwin a second time. Mass graves had been dug and unaccounted-for bodies dumped in them. As well, there were endlessly repeated stories of Greek men dressing up as women so they could be evacuated on the first planes out – something that my research suggests happened just the once. It took twenty-seven hours for the ABC to get back on air after its transmitter blew away on Christmas morning. The first song played when radio was restored, just after lunch on Boxing Day, was the theme song to the new television series Rush. A lot of people commented on the jauntiness of that tune and the lightness of that moment: how it lifted their spirits. After three days food still in fridges started rotting and the men who cleaned them out were often so overwhelmed by the stench they had to stop and vomit every few minutes. Because of fear of a cholera outbreak there was what some considered excessive spraying, particularly over the northern suburbs.
As always occurs in these circumstances, there was looting. This was also something Greeks were also accused of – one Greek man ending up in hospital with a broken jaw after being arrested at a roadblock. He was later found not guilty, but the NT News, which had been diligently fuelling all race-related rumours, failed to report the man's innocence. Reading accounts of the hours and days after Tracy struck it's hard to work out what the definition of looting actually was. A white public servant grabbing asthma drugs from a chemist wasn't considered looting. An Aboriginal man grabbing a bottle of whisky from a bottle shop was.
McCann elaborated: 'They charged this fellow and I was rather disappointed that the first person they'd managed to arrest and charge with stealing, which was in the area of looting, was an aborigine. It seemed unfortunate that they were again going to be represented in the record as people who were involved whereas I think it was, if not known, suggested by a number of people that lots of other people had been putting their hands on goods that didn't have an owner prior to that and it would have been a little more representative of what was actually going on had somebody other than an aborigine been charged.' The man in question had been charged with impersonating a police officer and stealing. Despite his disappointment that the man was Aboriginal, McCann went on to sentence him to either three or six months' prison – a sentence no one can clearly recall, despite it becoming a matter of much contention. Stretton, upon hearing about the case, went to the courthouse and accused McCann of racism. Both men's tempers frayed. McCann's take: 'My immediate view was I wasn't going to take orders from anybody, particularly orders relating within a courthouse situation... Stretton, I think he was in his full regalia, not in his best uniform but, you know, it was quite obviously a military presence.'
Stretton may well have been right to query the treatment of Aboriginal people in Darwin at the time, but did he have the legal authority to impose his views on the courts? No one seemed to know. And while Stretton was meant to be – indeed was – bringing some order to Darwin, he was starting to crack under the strain of what he has since dubbed those 'furious' days. He began to cry in press conferences – the effect, in part, of only sleeping two hours out of seventy-two, and returned to Canberra on New Year's Eve, which was sooner than expected. Just after he left, the Navy arrived. 'I remember sitting in our house on New Year's Day, when the fleet came up the harbour,' Hedley Beare said. 'It was one of those – almost a transcendental moment. They were just grey silhouettes as they moved up the harbour in the early morning.'
Police began to collapse with exhaustion. Constable Stephenson said: 'We were relieved by the Commonwealth Police five days later, I think, as we had lost track of the time and days.'[xii] The new cops carried guns and threw their weight around – so the story goes. Lorna Fejo, a member of the Stolen Generation, describes being 'really terrified of them'. When asked to talk about people who died in shootings that occurred in the (surprisingly mild) anarchy after Tracy hit, she acknowledged such things happened but declined to discuss them because they weren't 'her' knowledge.[xiii]
Hours after the cyclone died down Beare was quick to ask himself, '"What do you do, when the world has ruptured like this?" The first thing a public servant says is: How do we rehabilitate it?' He went on to organise the evacuation of thirty thousand people from Darwin – the largest evacuation in Australia. The first to leave were the injured, children and women. With no homes to live in and no facilities, the logic ran, there was the risk of an epidemic. As well, the task of feeding so many under these circumstances would distract from the job of rebuilding. This all makes sense. What is harder to understand was the recurring, not oft-challenged suggestion that women had less to offer the rebuilding process. As a consequence, many were shipped out when they didn't want to go. In an interview soon after the cyclone Jim Bowditch, editor of the NT News from 1954 to 1972, said, 'I do think it was a mistake to rush the women out. I go along with the view that far too many men who were left here were quite useless and contributed nothing.'[xiv]
Fejo found being evacuated particularly painful. 'Oh it was really devastating... We had no home; we had nothing, but we still was determined we wanted to stay in Darwin. But we were more or less ordered: "Get out of Darwin. Go!"' Meanwhile, 'All the men from eighteen years and up had to stay back...to help clean up the place.' Frejo was put on a bus to Mt Isa, though she ended up further south. She finally found a way to return to Darwin (illegally, without a permit) despite being told in Adelaide that Darwin was 'finished'. Aboriginal people in particular encountered prejudice after their evacuation and were not offered the level of support white evacuees received.
It was traumatic for them all. Elizabeth Carroll describes landing in Sydney with nothing but a man's shirt on and 'feeling like a refugee'. She has continued to feel traumatised by the events of that night and the days that followed, and still experiences anxiety attacks whenever the wind picks up. She couldn't bring herself to return to Darwin.[xv] This sense of ongoing trauma was more common among people who never returned. As Sally Roberts, who chose to stay, says, those who didn't come back lost the chance to 'see the optimism and the general cheerfulness of everybody who'd come back to rebuild Darwin, and all they could remember was the havoc and destruction.'[xvi]
Peter Dermoudy is one of several who say they wouldn't have missed the cyclone for the world: 'It cleansed me.'[xvii] Those who lost their children, their limbs, their minds, felt otherwise. Either way it's no easy thing to have life, as you know it, disappear into thin air.
The memories in this essay are drawn from archival records.
[i] Northern Territory Archives Service, NTRS 2999, Reports by police officers of personal experiences relating to Cyclone Tracy, 1974-1975, BAKER, Detective Sergeant Thomas C.
[ii] NTAS, NTRS 2999, SMITH, Constable Dane.
[iii] NTAS, NTRS 2999, TOWNSEND, Constable G.
[iv] NTAS, NTRS 226, Typed transcripts of oral history interviews with "TS" prefix, 1979 – ct, O'SULLIVAN, Clem, TS 447.
[v] NTAS, NTRS 226, Typed transcripts of oral history interviews with "TS" prefix, 1979 – ct, WILKIE, Ray, TS 675. All further quotes from Ray Wilkie come from this interview.
[vi] NTAS, NTRS 2999, SIMPSON, Sergeant C.
[vii] NTAS, NTRS 226, Typed transcripts of oral history interviews with "TS" prefix, 1979 – ct, SANDERS, Donald, TS 503.
[viii] NTAS, NTRS 226, Typed transcripts of oral history interviews with "TS" prefix, 1979 – ct, BEARE, Hedley, TS 917. All further quotes from Hedley Beare come from this interview.
[ix] NTAS, NTRS 226, Typed transcripts of oral history interviews with "TS" prefix, 1979 – ct, LAWRIE, Dawn, TS 505.
[x] NTAS, NTRS 226, Typed transcripts of oral history interviews with "TS" prefix, 1979 – ct, COLE, Echo, TS 508.
[xi] NTAS, NTRS 226, Typed transcripts of oral history interviews with "TS" prefix, 1979 – ct, MCCANN, David, TS 451. All further quotes from David McCann come from this interview.
[xii] NTAS, NTRS 2999, STEPHENSON, Constable.
[xiii] NTAS, NTRS 226, Typed transcripts of oral history interviews with "TS" prefix, 1979 – ct, FEJO, Lorna, TS 757. All further quotes from Lorna Fejo come from this interview.
[xiv] NTAS, NTRS 2366, Steedman, Pete, Transcripts of interviews relating to Cyclone Tracy, 1975-1975, BOWDITCH, Jim, TS 7902.
[xv] NTAS, NTRS 226, Typed transcripts of oral history interviews with "TS" prefix, 1979 – ct, CAROLL Elizabeth, TS 762.
[xvi] NTAS, NTRS 226, Typed transcripts of oral history interviews with "TS" prefix, 1979 – ct, ROBERTS, Sally, TS 567.
[xvii] NTAS, NTRS 226, Typed transcripts of oral history interviews with "TS" prefix, 1979 – ct, DERMOUDY, Peter, TS 833.