Death from the sky

Colin Kerr | VOLUME 29, ISSUE 6
Flying boat wreckage exposed at low tide in Roebuck Bay, Broome.
Traces still remain of the day World War II came to the skies over Broome.

Long known as the Pearling Capital of the World and these days also recognised as one of Australia's most popular tourist centres, the Western Australian coastal centre of Broome has not always been such an idyllic place in which to live or enjoy holiday visits. In fact, Broome has probably endured more turmoil and drama in its history than almost any other Australian town.

Life in the early pearling days in Broome, located almost equidistant from Perth and Darwin, was about as rough and tough as it gets. Racial tensions, which were rife amongst its multi-cultural mix-mash of backgrounds and customs, regularly led to fights, riots, beatings and deaths. Life on the 400 or more pearling luggers based there in the early 1900s was also extremely dangerous, with many pearlers and divers taken by sharks and crocodiles, whilst hundreds died as a result of the bends (decompression sickness) and drowning. On top of all this, scores of luggers were destroyed at sea during violent cyclones - 22 in one storm alone in 1935 when 142 lives were lost. In one notorious incident, a lugger captain abandoned his divers to the deep so that he could flee to the safety of land ahead of an approaching cyclone. The divers were never heard from again.

But Broome's worst day was still to come; a day of horror on the water that was claimed emotively by some to be 'Australia's Pearl Harbour'.

Out of the blue

At 9:30 am on March 3, 1942, nine Japanese Zero fighter aircraft (from their newly occupied base in Timor) attacked the pearling town without warning. Lasting less than an hour, the attack was devastating. Some 25 American, British, Dutch and Australian aircraft were destroyed. Of the well over 40 official casualties, many were Dutch women and children, who were packed aboard 16 flying boats - Catalinas, Short Empires and Dorniers - anchored in what was believed to be the safe haven of Roebuck Bay. At the time they were either waiting to be unloaded and ferried ashore or being readied to fly further south.

A number of those on the aircraft, including crew, had, in fact, been forced to stay crammed onboard that evening because of a lack of available accommodation in the Broome township. Broome at that time was a staging point for thousands of evacuees, who were escaping the advance of the Japanese from Java. Most victims were killed instantly or incinerated, while others drowned or were taken by sharks as they attempted to swim ashore.

Elsewhere severe damage was caused to military aircraft on the ground and the buildings at the airport. A DC-3 laden with refugees was shot down and a recorded 32, mostly wounded US servicemen, died when their Liberator aircraft was also shot down and destroyed.

With no allied fighters in the area it seems the Zeros faced minimal opposition as they completed their bombing tasks with ruthless efficiency. Not a single operational aircraft was left in Broome when the Japanese finally departed barely an hour after the attack began. Long range fuel tanks had been fitted to the attacking planes to enable them to cover the distance and then return to base in Timor. Many of these long range tanks were jettisoned over Broome.

Only one Zero was shot down by ground fire during the raid. A second went down when it ran out of fuel on the way back to its Timor base. It is reported that the pilot concerned was found and picked up almost three weeks later.

Ghastly devastation

Reports from Broome at the end of the horrific attack told of a "scene of ghastly devastation... with huge clouds of black smoke everywhere, burning aircraft and petrol patches floating all over the sea."

Many bodies were never recovered and to this day no-one really knows how many lives were lost in Broome on that frightful day. One estimate, believed to be conservative, put the number in the region of 100.

It was reported after the war that the Japanese pilots were actually ordered not to attack the Broome township itself, but simply to concentrate on the aircraft in the bay, at the airport and other military targets. It seems they closely followed orders and with clinical and quite devastating effect. In hindsight, the main population of Broome can be thankful that the town was not targeted, otherwise the death toll would surely have been much, much worse.

The bodies of the Dutch victims recovered after the bombing were initially buried in Broome, but were relocated to the Perth War Cemetery at Karrakatta in 1950.

The Broome attack took place only a couple of weeks after the bombing of Darwin, on February 19 February 1942. By this time some 8000 mostly Dutch refugees, including many women and children from Batavia, Tjilatjap and Surabaya in Java, had passed through Broome on their way to other parts of Australia. Broome had actually become an important refuelling point for aircraft used in both evacuations and military operations. Thousands of servicemen also passed through Broome going to or from the frontline in Southeast Asia.

Prior to the bombing, Broome's airport had been one of the busiest in the nation as it was the first refuelling point on Australian soil, with as many as 57 aircraft landing on the airstrip each day. This was in addition to the constant shuttling of large flying boats, Sunderlands, Dorniers and Catalinas landing on the turquoise waters of Roebuck Bay.

Ghost town

Following the bombing, most residents were evacuated and for a short time, Broome was a virtual ghost town, with just a small military garrison. Most of the pearling fleet luggers were burnt or sailed south as part of the military's 'scorched earth' policy (leaving nothing of value behind) against a threatened full Japanese invasion that thankfully never came.

The raid on Broome was the first of four air attacks on the town, the last occurring on August 16, 1943, although thankfully there was only one more recorded casualty.

Several other towns across WA's far north, as well as Darwin, were also bombed by the Japanese during World War II. In fact, there were a total of 97 recorded attacks, the last occurring at Exmouth on September 16, 1943.

More than 60 years since the tragic Broome bombing, there is still clear evidence of the event lying on the sands and mud flats of Roebuck Bay. Located around one kilometre offshore from the town, the wreckage of a number of those ill-fated flying boats destroyed on their moorings can still be seen when the tides are right.

With tidal movements along this part of the Kimberley coast ranging up to 10 metres or more, at most times the flying boat wrecks are well underwater - however, at times of very low tides the wrecks can clearly be seen laying half buried in the sand.

Hovercraft visits

At these times visitors can walk out across the exposed tidal flats to examine what remains of the aircraft. A local hovercraft service also offers tours out to the wreck site, where passengers are able to alight for a close inspection.

For those choosing to walk out to the wrecks, be advised to check the tidal charts and consult locals as tides move very quickly and there is generally only a small window of opportunity to view them.

Unfortunately, due to their age the wrecks are gradually disappearing... and mercifully the awful memory of that fateful day will perhaps eventually fade with them.

The salvaged engine and propeller of a Dutch Dornier aircraft can be seen in Bedford Park in Broome. It has been mounted so that one of its propeller blades points towards the place where the aircraft sank.

The Broome Historical Museum has an extremely interesting collection of historic material and information on the bombing raid as well as artefacts and other historical material from the town's colourful pearling days.

Ironically, in terms of fatalities, history has not been kind to the Japanese in Broome. The town's cemetery has a special Japanese section with around 1000 graves, dating back to the early pearling days. Many of the lugger's crews and divers were, in fact, Japanese, and ended up in the graveyard due to the hazardous nature of their industry.