DARWIN AIRPORT WAS the very first bit of Australia that I stepped onto as a nine-year-old migrant on the afternoon of September 23, 1966. My family was part of a plane load of ten-pound migrants bound for a new life in sunny South Australia. We waited in the luxuriant damp heat for our chartered Bristol Britannia to be refuelled for the final leg of a 36-hour journey from London to Melbourne. Even then vexillogically inclined, I took out my cheap camera and photographed the Australian Department of Civil Aviation flag fluttering over the brick terminal. Nearly 40 years on, I suppose the terminal's long gone, along with the Department of Civil Aviation. As a child in Liverpool I had often played on "bommies" – bomb sites remaining 20 years after Merseyside's blitz of 1941. Unknowingly, we had arrived in a bommie of a different kind.
In 1966, at the height of the migration boom from Britain, Darwin was the first port of call for would-be Australians arriving by air. But in 1942, it had been the first target of Japanese bombers. Twenty-four years before, Darwin's airport had been one of the targets of the first and most costly Japanese air attacks made on the Australian mainland. The attacks on Darwin of February 19, 1942, continue to resound in Australia's understanding of its history and, specifically, the way Australians think of the crisis of 1942. Indeed, the raids (there were two, close together but far enough apart to make talking of "the raid" strictly inaccurate) are central to understanding how Australians think about the Japanese threat of 1942 and the apprehension that pervades Australian thinking about its north.
AUSTRALIAN UNEASE ABOUT Darwin begins with the circumstances of the raid. On that February Thursday morning in 1942, Catholic missionaries on Bathurst Island alerted the RAAF in Darwin that a large force of aircraft had passed overhead, making south-eastwards. A formation of American aircraft was returning from an abortive attempt to reach Timor and the RAAF operations room staff debated the meaning of this report. Minutes later, army and navy observers reported seeing a large formation of aircraft approaching Darwin, and even an American Kittyhawk fighter crash into the sea. Only then did the RAAF commander in Darwin, Wing Commander Stuart Griffiths, accept that a raid was about to begin and ordered the alarm sounded. At 9.57am, Zero fighters attacked the auxiliary minesweeper HMAS Gunbar as it entered Darwin harbour just as the sirens were sounding. The raid began virtually without warning a few minutes later. Like the Pearl Harbor attack, the raid was a surprise.
Flying in tight formation at 14,000 feet, Japanese bombers attacked some of the 47 ships in the harbour and then, circling about, dropped bombs on the wharves and on the town. Meanwhile, dive bombers and fighters attacked individual targets, including ships. The first raid ended at about 10.30 but a second raid, beginning at about noon, struck the RAAF aerodrome. Eight ships were sunk or beached, including the American destroyer USS Peary, while 23 aircraft were destroyed, including all 10 of the American Kittyhawk fighters that met the attack. The raids destroyed the harbour's oil-tank farms and the post office, in which about nine civilians died. Bombs hit the main jetty where 21 wharfies gathering for smoko were killed. Though figures for deaths can never be exact (because the ships' watch bills sank along with their crews) it is thought that about 250 people died. The largest single group (about 80) were American sailors aboard the Peary, while large numbers were merchant seaman, mainly non-Australian. Seventeen of the dead were Australian servicemen and a servicewoman. About 40 Australian civilians were killed, including the wharfies, the post office staff and an Aboriginal housemaid killed at the Administrator's residence.
The first reports to appear in southern metropolitan dailies – the next day – acknowledged the facts of the raid but minimised the toll: 17 deaths were reported. The Department of Information's censors' reluctance to admit the real casualty figures (once they were clear) contrasted with the desire of the department's publicity arm to place advertisements in newspapers alarming Australians in the southern capitals with the suggestion that their turn was likely to come. The ambivalence suggests a degree of confused response and purpose within official circles. If it doesn't indicate, as Michael McKernan does in All-in!: Australia during the Second World War (Thomas Nelson, 1983), a rising "panic", it does suggest a lack of clarity of vision at a time of crisis.
Lack of clear official news fostered rumours that became folklore. Stories circulated of a panic – dubbed the Adelaide River Stakes – in which civilians and servicemen fled town on anything that moved. Gangs of panic-stricken fugitives were supposed to have arrived at Adelaide River aboard bicycles, cars, lorries and even the municipal nightsoil cart. In fact, nearly 20 years ago, Alan Powell, in the carefully researched The Shadow's Edge (Melbourne University Press, 1988), showed that reports of panic had been grossly exaggerated. Rumours of a death toll of up to a thousand, with corpses dumped at sea or fed to crocodiles to disguise the cost, are still occasionally picked up by gullible journalists.
Folklore, rumour and exaggeration still bedevil our understanding of the north's war.
On the afternoon of February 19, Darwin was a shambles, a shocking place of choking smoke and bodies decaying in tropical heat. But Australians may be surprised to learn how minor the raids were. In the league table of bombed cities, even in 1942, Darwin barely rates. Compared with the blitz that Britain had survived and the attacks being made against Malta (the most intensively bombed portion of the world's surface to that time), not to mention the great Allied bomber offensive getting under way against Germany at exactly the same time, Darwin was small beer. The Japanese force had been launched from the same aircraft carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Though almost exactly the same number of aircraft had attacked the casualties in Darwin had been a tenth of those inflicted in Hawaii. A further 62 raids were made up until November 1943, some merely nuisance attacks. They produced some spectacular aerial combat but little further damage and few casualties. For Australia, though, Darwin was as big and as bad as bombing became, and it has assumed significance disproportional to its size.
Not that we should diminish the experience of bombing or its horrific consequences. Hundreds of families, from the United States, Britain, the Netherlands and India, as well as Australia, eventually received letters or telegrams informing loved ones that someone dear to them had been killed (or was missing presumed dead) as a result of the raids. Hundreds of others suffered serious wounds or burns. The impact on individual families was profound. But in the scale of a world war, we need to be clear that Darwin was not Coventry or Cologne, still less, Warsaw, Rotterdam, Berlin, Tokyo or Hiroshima.
So why was Darwin bombed? Simply because it was the main Allied base in northern Australia, and with the Japanese invasion of Timor about to begin, it made sense for the Japanese to try to damage Darwin as much as they could. (The American Kittyhawks that were shot down defending the town had been bound for Timor that morning but had turned back because of bad weather.) Just as the survivors of the raids assumed that they preceded a Japanese landing, Australians generally still think there is a clear connection between the first and biggest raids and the invasion that Japan was surely intending to make. In fact, of course, there was no invasion; there was never going to be an invasion. But the people of Australia did not know that then, and most of them don't know it still. The "bombing of Darwin" still stands as a mimetic for invasion: while writing this article I heard a speaker at a historical conference – a lawyer – talk of "the invasion of Darwin".
THE FIRST RAIDS on Darwin fulfilled a longstanding expectation. Apprehension and threat had long been a staple in Australia's thinking of its place in the world. Among the earliest acts of Captain Arthur Phillip was the building of a gun battery on Dawes Point, now virtually under the southern pylon of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. In spite of its expansionist ethos and growing self-awareness, colonial Australia had been deeply apprehensive. During its first 50-odd years, its rulers had worried about internal threats: of Aboriginal resistance, convict rebellion and the depredations of bushrangers. As the battery at the mouth of Sydney Cove demonstrated, though, colonial Australians had also been aware of the possibility of external threat.
For the colonies' first 20 years the French remained a possible threat. Secure behind the Royal Navy's dominance in the world's oceans during decades of peace following Waterloo, the colonists were understandably complacent. In 1839, however, American warships on a polar exploring expedition sailed unnoticed into Sydney Harbour at night, suggesting what might happen if an unfriendly power did likewise. The end of transportation in 1840 and the wealth gained in the gold rushes of the 1850s transformed the Australian colonies. During the second half of the century they imagined various states coveting their increasing prosperity. Visitors to Fort Denison, a fort built during the Crimean War, are told that the threat facing colonial Australia was "the Russians". Fortifications in several other states are explained by reference to a Russian threat. In fact, no evidence has ever been found of Russian interest in the Australian colonies and the only signs of possible threat were around the Crimean War and during the Afghan crisis of 1879. Colonial commandants, however, understandably planned on the basis of possibilities magnified by distance and rapidly changing arms. As an admiral put it in 1890, a fleet "a thousand miles away on a Monday are with you on a Friday". The legacy was one of continual low-level apprehension, especially when the Australian colonists became aware that they possessed a continent worth both having and taking.
By the early 20th century, the new Australian nation faced a different strategic position. Japan, open to the West since the 1850s, had defeated China in 1895 and Russia in 1905. Though allied to Britain from 1902, Australia looked askance on Japan's seeming desire to imitate the West's imperialism as well as its military and naval technology. The Versailles settlement intensified Australia's suspicion of Japan's motives. While Billy Hughes spoke of the islands of New Guinea as "Australia's ramparts" and assumed a mandate over German New Guinea, Japan acquired imperial Germany's former Pacific colonies north of the equator. Australian and Japanese territories now met at the equator. The planning staffs of the Western powers in Asia – including Australia's – explicitly envisaged a Japanese expansion as the basis of the next war. Meanwhile, the popular perception of a threat from Japan was mirrored by speculative literature envisaging a Japanese invasion of Australia.
Japan's actual conduct did little to deter speculation. As the late Henry Frei showed, Japanese thinkers and writers debated the necessity for expanding Japan's economic base into the resource-rich "southern area". Under the control of an aggressive militarist clique during the 1930s, its forces embarked on a war of conquest in China. Dreamers and demagogues looked beyond South-East Asia. Australia had been included in the interests of naval espionage. Through the 1920s and '30s, Japanese pearl fishers and merchant seamen spied openly in Australian waters. In 1941, Japan's militarists finally precipitated conflict with the Western powers in Asia. The nightmare of an aggressive, seemingly expansionary power moving southwards towards Australia seemed finally to be coming true.
The Pacific war began badly for Australia and the Western allies. Hong Kong had surrendered by Christmas, Malaya had fallen by the end of January and Singapore, the bastion of British empire power in Asia, two weeks later. With its fall, John Curtin, Australia's prime minister since October 1941, warned the Australian people that "the fall of Singapore opens the battle for Australia". "Battle for Australia" committees have recently appropriated this phrase, seeking to redefine Australia's war around the idea of a deliverance from a Japanese threat. It is this connection with an essentially defensive and self-interested conception of the Pacific war that makes Darwin such a potent symbol.
IN THE EYES of nationalist historians, such as David Day, and popular writers who follow them, such as journalists Paul Ham and Peter FitzSimons, Australia faced an actual threat of imminent invasion, a danger dispelled by a combination of a resolute Curtin in Canberra and heroic diggers in Papua. In a succession of books dealing essentially with the same theme, Day has propagated a nationalist interpretation of the crisis of 1942. Curtin, his flaws making him all the more human, saved Australia from both Japanese aggression and British condescension. The populist writers following his lead repeat the same litany of half-truths or pseudo-facts: the British betrayed "us" at Singapore; Churchill tried to keep Australian troops to fight a different war in Europe; Curtin stood up to the bullying Churchill; and, above all, Australia was saved from a Japanese invasion in 1942. The significance of Darwin in Australia's thinking of its history cannot be understood without understanding the nationalist-coloured glasses through which Australians now view world events of the 1939-45 war.
Most Australians today still believe that, in 1942, Japan had been ready to invade their country and that only the determined resistance of Australian fighting men (with the help of some Americans, of course) prevented that happening. The traditional mythology of 1942 emphasised American deliverance through the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942. (This is in defiance of the fact that the Japanese invasion force turned back in the Coral Sea had been heading unambiguously for Port Moresby.) With the rise of the Australian nationalist view of 1942 over the past 20 years or so, Kokoda has supplanted the Coral Sea. Now, we are told, the Australian Militia and AIF who met and defeated the Japanese in Papua were "the men who saved Australia". FitzSimons, Ham and journalist Patrick Lindsay, and even a historian who ought to know better, Peter Brune, explicitly evoke a proposed Japanese invasion of Australia as the basis of extolling the Papuan victory. Ironically, popular sympathy is expressed more for subordinate commanders who were sacked (admittedly unfairly) by the Australian commander, Tom Blamey, acting as Douglas MacArthur's enforcer, than for Blamey and MacArthur, whose decisions actually did achieve success.
Like any mystery, the clue to the invasion enigma is a matter of who knew what, and when. The Imperial Japanese General Staff knew in March 1942 that it wasn't going to invade Australia and it never had the chance to change its collective mind. Churchill, Roosevelt, Curtin and MacArthur knew the same thing by about the end of May. Almost all Australians never knew that invasion had not been intended, and they still don't. Why not?
First, the Japanese decided not to attempt an invasion. Early in 1942, emboldened by the swift conquest of South-East Asia, middle-ranking officers in Tokyo urged that the advance continue beyond the perimeter from which Japan was to garner the economic wealth of the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere". Having calculated the troops and ships it would need, and the divisions and shipping available to continue the war in China, defend recent conquests and maintain a watch on the Soviet Union, Imperial General Headquarters decided not to even plan an invasion. And though it thought it might come back to that idea, the reversal in Japanese fortunes later in 1942 precluded any further consideration of it.
Second, the invasion myth has been useful to the reputation of key protagonists. Curtin has been portrayed as Australia's saviour; MacArthur cast himself in the same mould. MacArthur's pretensions as a commander of genius and a man of destiny have been deflated over the decades and his role in defeating the Japanese in the south-west Pacific now (in Australia) if anything underplays his achievements. For Australians, Curtin's growing reputation as a wartime leader remains the crucial element that has fostered the invasion myth.
Curtin, desperate to inspire a people conspicuously lacking his own passionate commitment to victory, used the invasion threat as a motivational device. Until about the end of May 1942, he had only British and American assurances (based on conventional intelligence assessments) that Japan did not have the military and naval capacity to invade. (These assessments have been denigrated by Curtin's disciples, but, in the event, proved to be correct.) His use of Darwin as a symbol of things to come was unjustified by events but was reasonable in the absence of evidence that an invasion would not occur. By the time it became clear (from intercepts of Japanese signals) that an invasion of Australia was neither possible nor planned, Curtin had been using invasion as a bogy to scare Australians into mobilising fully. To have altered the message would have been counterproductive. It would also have alerted the Japanese that the Allies were reading their secret codes.
The curious fact is that for more than 60 years, Australian historians have generally either been content to accept Curtin's exaggerations as the basis of a dramatic version of 1942 or have failed to challenge the fundamental misreading of the crisis. The official histories consigned corrections to the conventional view to footnotes, and serious authors have generally been content to talk about "attack or even invasion" as the threat was perceived at the time. The result has been to leave the impression that invasion was averted, in extreme versions as a result of the fighting in Papua. Sadly, Curtin's real leadership in reshaping Australian society and the economy for the postwar world have been overshadowed by an exaggerated view of his reputation as a wartime leader deterring an invasion that was never attempted.
AN ATTEMPT TO set the score right can arouse an extreme reaction. On May 31, 2002, on the 60th anniversary of the Japanese "midget" submarine raid on Sydney, I presented a paper at a conference "Remembering 1942". Drawing on the controversial wartime propaganda poster, I argued that it would have been correct to think that "He's (not) coming South". Not surprisingly, the story was picked up in the media. Soon enough, I spoke on ABC Radio National, on Philip Adams's Late Night Live and Sandy McCutcheon's Australia Talks Back. Essentially, I put the view that the Japanese had never intended to invade Australia in 1942, that they had considered the idea and rejected it, and that the invasion threat had been encouraged by the Curtin government in order to motivate the Australian people to work, fight and save. Curtin, along with other Allied leaders, had learned of Japan's actual plans in May 1942 but could not disclose that invasion was not planned (even if he'd wanted to) because that would have revealed that the Allies were able to read Axis codes. The invasion myth had remained alive for 60 years, abetted by the seeming need of Australians to dramatise their situation in 1942.
The range of reactions was predictably varied. Some challenged my citizenship and my patriotism. I was sorry to receive letters accusing me of denigrating the service and sacrifice of those who fought. I received anonymous hate mail ("You are a cunt of the lowest order") and copies of letters demanding that I be sacked. On one day in July 2002, however, I received two letters, both from ex-servicemen living in Mount Eliza, Victoria. One was abusive: "Did you fight the Japs?" he asked. The other came from a man who, in 1942, had trained as a linguist and code breaker at an offshoot of Bletchley Park. He was delighted to find someone challenging the assumptions that had been accepted for decades. He enclosed copies of Japanese signals supporting my interpretation.
Despite the wearing correspondence, I could not resile from the evidence on which I based my case. Indeed, I was interested to find that in every case, when challenged to produce evidence that an actual invasion threat existed (or even had occurred), no one was able to produce anything more substantial than stories of the "my uncle met a man in a pub in Townsville who'd seen a Japanese camp somewhere in the Gulf country" variety. Some referred to the 1927 "Tanaka memorial", which they took to be a sort of JapaneseMein Kampf, outlining a plan to conquer Asia. In reality, this was no more than one piece of expansionist advocacy, dating from 1927, which in fact made no reference to Australia at all.
The most common line of reasoning was to bring up the matter of the so-called "invasion money". These Japanese notes in pounds, shillings and pence were supposed to "prove" that invasion of Australia had been planned. In fact, they were never stamped "Japanese Government of Australia" (as many alleged) but had been produced for use in occupied British or Australian territories in New Guinea or Oceania – where they were indeed used.
However wearying it was to write letter after letter putting the story straight, as a public historian I relished the opportunity to engage with so many people vitally interested in an important historical question. If the research that I had done in writing the paper had not convinced me that Australia's view of the Second World War was fundamentally skewed to the parochial, this correspondence persuaded me. Indeed, the air attacks on Darwin were central to my correspondents' views. Many of those who challenged me asked, "Why was Darwin bombed if the Japanese hadn't been planning an invasion?" Here, then, we must acknowledge the extreme parochialism of Australia's view of the Second World War, with Darwin's bombing the central motif of that insular concern.
ACCOMPANYING THE INVASION threat were reiterated statements that the Japanese actually had made landings in northern Australia. Claims that parties of Japanese troops had landed came from many places across north-west Western Australia, through the Northern Territory to North Queensland. The range and character of these claims was striking. It was alleged that parties of Japanese marines had landed near Yeppoon in Queensland but had been rounded up and massacred by the local Volunteer Defence Corps. That part-time retreads could have annihilated a party of Japan's most skilful and ferocious troops strained credulity until it was explained that the episode was part of a Masonic conspiracy reaching to the highest levels of the papacy and the Australian government ... I see.
The popular view that the Japanese had invaded Australia but no one had noticed was abetted in April 2005. The journalist Paul Toohey published an article in The Bulletin repeating and adding to the samizdat stories that have circulated for years. They included familiar ones of parties landing and being exterminated by the Volunteer Defence Corps and of deserted camps found, but other stories were new. They included the ludicrous claim that a Japanese battleship squadron had sheltered in a bay near Geraldton in Western Australia in 1940. They included familiar allegations of massacre and of captives executed. But was there a shred of evidence? Nothing is offered beyond hearsay and the recollections of old men, many of whom are now dead. Either the allegations are true and there has been a huge cover-up, dating from 1942 and entailing the deliberate culling or falsification of the archival record, or the allegations are unsubstantiated. Armies generate massive amounts of paperwork that document practically everything: it is impossible to conceive of a cover-up on such a scale. These allegations are at best unproven; at worse they are cruel falsehoods that distort our memory and understanding of the war.
As Frei described it in his magisterial Japan's Southward Advance and Australia (University of Melbourne, 1991), the single documented exception was the party that entered Admiralty Gulf, in Western Australia in January 1944. Organised by an ambitious local commander in Timor, Major Yamamoto Masayoshi, a party of four officers landed in the remote bay, poked around for a day or so, took rock samples and cinefilm and left. A report to Tokyo led to no action. Australian forces had not detected the incursion.
And here's the irony. Except for the raids on Darwin and the northern towns, the only other documented incursions by the Japanese against the Australian mainland occurred in the settled southern regions. Japanese submarines operated off the south-east coast, sinking about forty ships. Japanese submarine-based aircraft actually flew over the southern capitals – Melbourne, Hobart and Sydney – in 1942; embarrassingly, not a single flight was detected at the time. As a futile diversion from the Midway campaign, Japanese "midget" submarines penetrated Sydney Harbour (where they missed their target, the American cruiser Chicago, and hit a converted ferry, the Kuttabul). Soon after, larger submarines shelled Sydney and Newcastle, albeit ineffectually: most of the shells fired failed to explode.
The real war is ignored in favour of a war that never happened. Except for sensational stories about Darwin every February, almost no one now recalls the air war that actually was fought right across the length of northern Australia for two years after February 1942. A mythical "Brisbane Line" is now better known than real actions fought over Australian soil; a non-existent invasion is believed when an actual, massive counteroffensive that liberated thousands of New Guineans is virtually forgotten.
The result of these related strands in Australia's memory of the Second World War is that Australians generally look on the war essentially self-interestedly. Rather than view the attacks on Australia's north for what they were – small-scale sidelights in the Japanese strategy of conquest of South-East Asia – Australians tend to make the threat to Australia the centrepiece of their view of the war. Accordingly, the great crusade against Nazism and fascism is underplayed – even denigrated as being not Australia's war – while the Pacific war becomes a matter of a supposed "battle for Australia", as if that was the point of it all. The epic loss and liberation of the European colonial possessions, a liberation that soon led to the great wave of decolonisation that changed the political geography and destiny of South-East Asia and the south-west Pacific, becomes obscured by hoary old stories about a midget submarine raid, alleged Japanese incursions and the bombing of a small town on the north coast.
IRONICALLY, IT NEED not have been so had Tom Blamey had his way. Blamey is the dark hero of Australia's war. Having created the army that gave Australia its means of influencing the war and planning its greatest campaign, the liberation of Australian New Guinea, Blamey spent the last year or so of the war essentially quiescent. While instigating costly and controversial campaigns in the islands, he waged a bureaucratic war with MacArthur, hanging on to his job and the limited power he deployed.
Blamey's greatest lost opportunity came in 1944, the last year of Australia's war, when he travelled with Curtin to Britain. There, as Allied commanders pondered the downfall of Japan, he offered a strategy for the reconquest of South-East Asia. Instead of a British thrust through Burma and Malaya or an American advance along the north coast of New Guinea into the Philippines and the Dutch Indies, Blamey proposed what was described as a "middle strategy". This envisaged a British-Australian force pushing into the Japanese-held Malay Archipelago – from Darwin. Blamey's plan would, of course, have given him a chance to lead a major Allied advance. His ploy failed – the wily political soldier had met even more astute political generals – but had it been adopted, perhaps the vision of Darwin in Australia's war might have been different. Instead of being the place where Australia was attacked, Darwin could have figured as the base for a great offensive in which Australian, British and American divisions liberated the Dutch Indies and beyond perhaps a year sooner than they were.
Such a vision was not to be. Once the bombs stopped falling, Darwin became a tropical backwater, evoked by Sumner Locke Elliott's powerful play Rusty Bugles. It was a place of tinea where men went troppo: where the root of the troops' frustration was that Darwin was where the war wasn't. Certainly north and north-western Australia became the base for air operations over the Timor Sea, but it remained a sideshow to the main advance made by MacArthur's drive along the north coast of New Guinea, which, by late 1944, enabled him to make good his promised return to the Philippines.
WHY IS IT THAT the stories of attack, invasion or incursion are so persistent? It seems to be that Australians want to believe that they were part of a war, that the war came close; that it mattered. Why can't we as a nation accept that the war the Allies fought was decided far from Australia – in North Africa, north-west Europe and above all on the steppes of European Russia? Why do we appear to want to believe that Australia really was threatened with invasion, that it was attacked; even that Japanese commandoes really did want to land on its shores? Set against the prosaic reality, the desire is poignant and rather pathetic.
It's significant that almost all the fabulous incidents occurred in the north, a mystic place that most Australians still know little of. But upwards of 100,000 Australian servicemen and a few servicewomen served across northern Australia between 1941 and 1945. Most of the camps, bases and depots they inhabited are long gone, marked only by memorial cairns, "heritage" signs and crumbling concrete foundations. We have comprehensively neglected to explore what that experience meant for them and for the people of the north. The soldiers, sailors and airmen who arrived in the north mainly came from the south and had mostly never encountered it before. They experienced an Australia that is still remote from most of us.
Many, for example, met black Australians for the first time and lived and worked with them. This may have changed and shaped attitudes and opinions: the receptive response to the 1967 referendum on citizenship for Aborigines perhaps derived in part from that encounter. For Aboriginal communities, too, exposure to white Australians who did not share the assumptions and behaviour of old Top End hands may also have proved a decisive impetus to change. Our tendency to focus on dramatic but militarily insignificant air raids deflects attention from the more profound consequences of the way the war in the north changed Australia.
I haven't been back to Darwin since that stopover in September 1966. Darwin remains an exotic holiday destination. Most of us would have difficulty finding Admiralty Gulf on the map. But events in Australia's north in 1942-43 remain of great importance to many. They have a half-life of anxiety that persists long after the detail of raids and rumours of incursions fades. The apprehension that murmured in the back of the mind of the Australian colonists has never really gone away. The identity and nature of the threat has changed – from mythical Russians, to yellow peril, to "the Japanese", to a red peril, to "boat people", and latterly "people smugglers" and "illegal refugees" – but the idea that northern Australia is somehow open to incursion persists. Darwin remains a symbol of vulnerability and threat, and of a self-interested, parochial conflict against chimerical foes.