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Wednesday, February 19, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Australian `Pearl Harbor' Recalled -- Darwin Notes Anniversary Of Air Attack

AP

SYDNEY, Australia - Feb. 19, 1942. It was a typical steamy morning in subtropical Darwin. But the skies poured death, not rain, ravaging the vanguard of Australia's defense in this country's Pearl Harbor.

By official count, Japan's air attack killed 243 people, almost half of them Americans, and it wounded more than 300. Some estimates say as many as 1,000 died.

Naval ships were sitting ducks. Eight sank in Darwin's harbor.

The USS Peary went down with 91 sailors. Other ships were badly damaged. Twenty-three aircraft were destroyed, communications and utility lines were cut, public buildings flattened.

As the attack leader, Cmdr. Mitsuo Fuchida, put it, the Japanese used "a sledgehammer . . . to crack an egg." Fuchida also led the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Prime Minister Paul Keating today joined about 1,500 veterans, including Americans, in marking the 50th anniversary of the first and deadliest enemy attack on Australian soil.

Keating pressed Japan to apologize for the attack.

"In Japan's case, more candid recognition of responsibility for past acts will enhance the wider acceptance and legitimacy of its emerging leadership role in the Asia-Pacific region," he said.

At last year's 50th anniversary of the Dec. 7 attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese leaders expressed regret but didn't apologize.

At today's ceremony, a minute of silence was followed by flybys of warplanes, including a B-52 from Griffiss Air Force Base in New York state. Wreaths and smoke flares were dropped where ships sank.

"Some of us are in wheelchairs, but they wouldn't miss it," said John Roth, once a member of the U.S. Air Force's 49th Pursuit Group.

Mel Duke, a gun captain on the Peary, and Dallas Widdick of San Diego were among the survivors. Duke, now a resident of Australia, recalls:

"Somebody looked up and said: `Oh, well, (President Franklin D.) Roosevelt hasn't let us down. He promised us air supremacy in the southwest Pacific in 30 days. There it is.

"About that time, the dive bombers came in out of the sun, and then it was too late to do much," he said.

Australia had feared an attack.

In the 75 days after Pearl Harbor, Japan overran Hong Kong and Malaysia, had U.S. forces on the run in the Philippines, captured Singapore and Rabaul, and began the invasion of the Dutch East Indies, now known as Indonesia.

But the attack - designed to block any interference with the Japanese invasion of Timor due to start the next day - still took Darwin by surprise.

Warnings just before the attack were shuffled around or ignored. As a result, only about five Japanese aircraft were downed.

Two hours after the first raid by 188 aircraft from four carriers, 54 bombers attacked from newly captured bases in the nearby Dutch East Indies. Most attack planes and personnel had taken part in the Pearl Harbor attack.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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