‘THE INTENTION IS TO HOLD DARWIN’ (1) A GLIMPSE INTO AUSTRALIA’S INDIGENOUS BLACK WATCH DURING WORLD WAR TWO.
In a letter to the Editor of the Melbourne newspaper The Argus dated 8 January 1941, Mrs Helen V. Lane of Lilydale had warned that Darwin was going to become a more important wartime naval base than Sydney.(2). According to her argument, it was because a Japanese Naval Officer named Lieutenant Commander Tota Isimari, had already identified Darwin Harbour in his book Australia Must Fight Japan, as being the inevitable fall back base for the defeated British Fleet after their escape from Singapore. Both were to be proved right less than a year later when Isimari’s threat and Mrs Lane’s forewarnings came to fruition. By 8 December 1941 Malaya had been invaded and occupied; Pearl Harbour had been bombed; Hong Kong was lost; and within two months by early February, Singapore had fallen. Just over a week later on 19 February 1942, the first and largest single air raid mounted by a foreign power on Australian soil decimated Darwin, the small town capital of Australia’s Northern Territory.
Strategically positioned in northern Australia, the relatively undefended outpost had become an important part of key South Pacific and Southeast Asian air ferry routes. Following some civilian and military infrastructure development following the outbreak of war, not only was Darwin increasingly being used as a forward staging platform for Special Operations into Japanese occupied and mandated areas, it was also increasingly a hub of Allied activity. As the Japanese had rapidly made their way unchecked down the Malay Peninsula and into Singapore, and were equally advancing with similar speed into the Netherlands East Indies (now the Indonesian archipelago), the very real fear of invasion gripped Australia. That Darwin was of vital strategic importance to the regional war effort, and was the only logical place for mounting any anti-Japanese counter-offensive from northern Australia, meant it wasn’t long before war came to Australia’s doorstep. Just before ten o’clock on the morning of Thursday, 19 February 1942 hundreds of Japanese air planes bombed areas in and around Darwin and Darwin Harbour.
In the lead up to the bombing, most of Darwin’s self-defences had been left to several local taskforces, one of which was known as the Black Watch. This was a Unit of Australian Aboriginal men operating in and around mainly the northern reaches of the Northern Territory. Mostly headquartered in and around Darwin, several of the Black Watchmen were based at Delissaville (sometimes written as Dilassaville) located near Waigait Beach, just across the harbour from Darwin town. Delissaville at that time, was alike so many other major living centres insomuch as it was also the home of the Delissaville Catholic Mission.(3).
The Black Watch, alike other similar Units including the North Australian Observer Unit, undertook a wide variety of wartime-related actions in and around the Darwin area.(4) These included mounting day and night time patrols in and around areas deemed of military strategic importance. And it was on more than one occasion that several Southern military officers found themselves unnervingly caught offguard by their northern comrades in arms. (5). It was probably the stealth and surprise of invisible ‘Black Watchmen’ on duty, challenging them as to why they were in certain prohibited areas, that unsettled them the most. Elsewhere, other Black Watchmen operated as coastwatchers up and down along the Northern Territory coastline, including in and among offshore areas such as the Bathurst and the Tiwi Islands. Some worked further inland, sometimes alongside Royal Australian Air Force personnel in preparing, guarding and maintaining equally important isolated airstrips and radar stations. A few went to sea in vessels appropriated by the Royal Australian Navy, such as the peacetime lugger that later became the wartime HMAS ST Francis. Many were trained by the Australian Army as Special Reconnaissance Units, often being taught to fight guerrilla-style in hand-to-hand and unarmed combat. For several other individuals of the Black Watch, one of their additional important tasks was in various search, rescue and surveillance operations, most notably in actions associated with reporting enemy aircraft and locating downed Allied or Japanese pilots.
In late June 1942 for example, a member of the Black Watch reportedly known as ‘Smiler’ had spent three days out bush tracking down an Allied pilot.(6). A former police ‘Black Tracker’, his outstanding observational and tracking skills were highlighted in the way that on reaching the crash site, he’d been able to work out that the pilot had survived, and in which direction the pilot had walked away from the plane. He did this by noting the way the pilot’s footprints had bent various blades of grass as he’d stumbled through the bush, and through other notable human disturbances to the trained eye, such as overturned stones and furrowed vegetation. Reportedly, ‘Smiler’ could also tell by the cadence of the pilot’s footsteps how the crash survivor had started off energetically enough, but then had eventually slowed down to more of a shuffle-type of pace rather than a walk. The pilot was no doubt, feeling the tyranny of the midday tropical sun and suffocating humidity beating down upon him. Not only had ‘Smiler’ shown his brilliance in tracking skills, but it he’d also shown his selflessness. Despite spending three days out bush looking for the pilot, and although carrying survival rations, ‘Smiler’ had set about killing and cooking magpie geese or snakes in fire ashes for his own consumption, rather than taking survival rations away from the pilot. Whatever his wife and two sons may have thought about him wading through crocodile infested waters, with little regard for his own safety, and total regard for saving the Allied pilot’s life, sadly, seems lost to history.
Similarly on Melville Island in the immediate aftermath of the Darwin bombing raids, it had been local man Matthius Ulungura, who’d captured the downed Japanese pilot Hijime Toyoshima.(7). Toyoshima had been a pilot with the Imperial Japanese Navy, and had crashed his relatively intact A6M Zero plane onto the island, only to initially be met by a group of Indigenous women. The importance of this pilot’s capture was important, because it also highlighted that Japan’s air and navy power had progressed to one of the most capable carrier-based fighting forces in the world at that time.(8). It also meant Japan’s air superiority, combined excellent manoeuvrability, and a long range capable aircraft that could also double as a land-based fighter, could easily reach Australia’s frontlines. Not only had Mr Ulungura captured one of the few enemy pilots to have been shot down during the air raids on Darwin, but he had in effect taken the first Japanese Prisoner-of-War (POW) on Australian soil.(9).
Perhaps one of the most important acknowledgements of the Black Watch at the time, can be found in the compelling portrait of Private Samuel Feju (Fig. 2).(10).Private Feju was a trained Gunner with Darwin’s Fixed Defences Citizen Military Forces, and a member of the Black Watch. Painted in 1944 by official Australian war artist and Archibald Prize winner Arthur James Murch (1902-1989), it is a study of just one of the men of the Black Watch.(11). As the casually seated sitter stares directly at the viewer, with his broad shoulders and sinewy arms hanging loosely and resting casually on his muscular thighs, you get the feeling that this is a man who means business. Even though he’s wearing what appears to be a khaki-coloured Australian military tropical uniform of the time, replete with gaiters, long socks and boots, his demeanour is not that of man unsure of his identity. This is a man who is ready for whatever is coming. His jaw is forthright. He’s not going anywhere. This is his land. Is his ancestors land. Together they will fight whatever new threat is coming on the horizon, and in this particular place and time, it is the Japanese.
While further research is needed into Darwin’s Black Watch, it is also known that many of the Black Watchmen came from further afield. Some came from the Kimberleys; others from desert country along the Western Australian-Northern Territory border; a few ventured into town from the Gulf Country mangrove swamps; and several more from the pearl luggers off the Northern Australian coast.(12). And while we don’t yet know many of their names or what they did, we can be sure that these Indigenous men were more than mere ‘defacto’ servicemen. Despite the fact that many were paid with rations and tobacco, some didn’t have uniforms and even fewer had been given rifles or other small arms to defend themselves, these men undertook precarious and often dangerous wartime work and their achievements should not be forgotten. So the next time someone starts talking about the ‘Black Watch’, it may not just be referring to the famed British infantry battalion known as the Black Watch, Third Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland (3 SCOTS), maybe it’s someone talking about something closer to home. Maybe we should be talking more about the brave, resilient and heroic Indigenous men who made up Darwin’s Black Watch, and may be we should be recognising credit where credit is due.
1. This was the signal (message) the depot ship HMAS Platypus located in Darwin Harbour in the Northern Territory of Australia, repeated to all Royal Australian Navy (RAN) units in northern Australian waters after the initial bombings and all subsequent Japanese air attacks on the Darwin region. ‘Australian Naval History on 20 February 1942’, in Naval Historical Society of Australia, https://www.navyhistory.org.au/20-february-1942/ (accessed September 10, 2020).
2.’Darwin’, in The Argus, 8 January 1941, p.2 (accessed September 9, 2014).
3. In the Northern Territory, the largest number of religious institutions including Missions and Missionary Schools were overwhelmingly initiated, operated and controlled by the Catholic Church. James Franklin, Catholic Missions to Aboriginal Australia: An Evaluation of their Overall Effect, https://web.maths.unsw.edu.au/~jim/franklinmissions.pdf (accessed September 10, 2020). Black Watch is Efficient’, in Northern Star, Tuesday, 13 February 1940, p.7.
4. ‘Black Watch’, Northern Territory Library, http://www.ntlexhibit.nt.gov.au/items/show/1350 (accessed September 9, 2020).
5. ‘Black Watch is Efficient’, in Northern Star, Tuesday, 13 February 1940, p.7.
6. ‘Smiler” is possibly a European appointed nickname. ‘Darwin’s Black Watch “Smiler” Reverts to Civil Occupation’, in Border Morning Mail, Friday, 26 June 1942, p. 1. ‘”Smiler” Goes Back to Blacktracking’, in Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, Friday, 26 June 1942, p.2.
7. Matthias is also named as Matthias Ngapiatilawai.Douglas Lockwood, Australia’s Pearl Harbour Darwin 1942 (Rigby Limited: Adelaide, 1977) 183. ‘Black Watch’, Northern Territory Library, (accessed September 9, 2020).
8. Thomas Newdick, Japanese Aircraft of World War II 1937-1945 (UK: Amber Books, 2017) 75-72. Peter C. Smith, Mitsubishi Zero: Japan’s Legendary Fighter (Great Britain: Pen & Sword Aviation, 2014) Chapter 4 passim.
9. Toyoshima would later be imprisoned at the Cowra POW camp, and would also go to become one of the main ringleaders in the Cowra breakout. Harry Gordon, Voyage of Shame (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1994) 18.
10. There is an alternate spelling of Samuel Fejo. ‘War Paintings Come to Perth’, in The Daily News, 17 January 1944 (accessed September 9, 2014).
11. Arthur James Murch Biography (https://www.awm.gov.au/people/P65115) (accessed September 11, 2020).
12. ‘Out of the Mail Bag’, in The Mail, 31 July 1943, p.4, http://nla.gov.au/nla/news-article55872861 (accessed September 9, 2014).