Military History

The Japanese Who Attacked the Top End

zero IIAn examination of Japanese air records from the Second World War has revealed a much bigger picture of warfare across the Top End than was previously thought. In addition, the stories of how scores of Japanese aircraft were brought down has for the first time revealed a human face in the two-year fight for aerial supremacy. The struggle was first won by the Imperial Japanese Navy, but then wrested from them by Allied forces.

We also now know for the first time the names of nearly 200 enemy aircrew whose remains still lie in Australian soil or in our country’s coastal seas.

The Pacific War first came to Australia in January 1942. On January 20 a short sharp battle was fought outside Darwin Harbour between a big eighty-man Japanese submarine and an Australian corvette. HMAS Deloraine prevailed, and the submarine was smashed into the seabed by depth charges. The I-124 remains outside the harbour to this day, and its three companion submarines fled. But the Japanese High Command still wanted to destroy Darwin’s extensive facilities, including a massive protected harbour and airfields, and so the next month they sent four aircraft carriers south.

This essay appeared in a recent edition of Quadrant.
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Before that attack however, an aerial action fought on February 15 brought the first Allied loss of life together with the death of the first Japanese airman.[1] To the north of Bathurst Island, a lone P-40 Kittyhawk fighter pilot took on a four-engined Japanese seaplane. The aircraft shot each other down, and Lieutenant Robert Buel of the United States Army Air Force and radio operator Kinichi Furakawa died as a result of the fight. Neither aircraft nor the body of either man was ever found. It was a lonely death for both, thousands of kilometres from their homelands, and it signalled the start of many a similar aerial fight.

Four days later the Japanese Navy trounced Darwin in a massive airstrike, flying off 188 aircraft from four aircraft carriers. The Mitsubishi Zeroes shot down nine out of ten of the defending Kittyhawks, and the Kate and Val bombers laid waste to the town, harbour and airfields. Two hours later the shattered survivors of the northern capital were hit again, this time by fifty-four heavy bombers flying from land bases. Eleven ships were sunk, thirty aircraft destroyed and 235 Allied people killed. Two Japanese aircrew died. [2]

Both Buel’s story and the air raid of February 19had been told before. So why is it important to cover them again using Japanese records? It was to separate the truth from myth; to tell the enemy’s human stories, and to publish the findings so all can know of a previously obscure part of the Second World War.[i]

So what did the Japanese sources tell us? Using Japanese records, the new research shows previous estimates of the attacks made on northern Australia have been well understated.

There were in total 1883 enemy flights over northern Australia in the Second World War. This was in 208 combined missions, in some of which more than fifty aircraft attacked the same target. There were seventy-seven raids on the Northern Territory reported, rather than sixty-four, as often previously claimed.

The first raid, the devastating strike on February 19 against Darwin, included 188 aircraft in the strike force: thirty-six fighters, eighty-one high-level bombers and seventy-one dive-bombers. The Japanese forces then settled down to a pattern of regular raids over the next two years.

The numbers of enemy aircraft brought down by the defending Allied fighters, anti-aircraft guns, radar and searchlight combination are startling too. The Japanese lost sixty-two aircraft, their remains scattered across the waters and arid bush of the north. Many of the downed aircraft have never been found, and most of the 186 aircrew who died are unburied.[3]

The bombers kept coming. Every week there were air raids, from Exmouth to Townsville, often involving scores of incoming enemy aircraft.

Kaname Harada

The individual combat reports, seen through Japanese eyes, bring an understanding of them as humans, not just enemies. Their stories include that of “the last Zero pilot”, Kaname Harada. Harada flew in the first raid on Darwin, and was disappointed to find on his arrival in the rear echelons that all of the defending Kittyhawks had been vanquished. Such aggression was a necessary part of being a fighter pilot. But Harada found blood later on in his military career. He was involved in many aerial dogfights, and was shot down too, surviving a crash-landing on a Pacific island. He lived through the final savage months of the Japanese empire’s devastation, and returned to a shattered Japan.

Depressed at his deeds and his rejection from society, by the 1960s Harada was in despair. His wife suggested that embracing humanity rather than destroying it might make a new man of him, and Harada put his savings into the building of a kindergarten in his native Nagano, three hours north of Tokyo.

He went on to preach against the folly of war, and lived until 2016. I was able to interview him for his story, in his home, where he was looked after by a daughter. He was a philosophical man: open about the war, and still sad about the loss of his comrades and of the enemy fliers he fought.

Hajime Toyoshima

One of Harada’s friends, downed on February 19 over Darwin, was also flying an A6M2 Zero, from the carrier Hiryu. It was flown by Flyer3c Hajime Toyoshima, a graduate of the 56th Class Oita Air Group in July 1941.

The aircraft had its oil tank holed by a .303 round over Darwin and was nearing Melville Island, returning to the carriers, when the engine seized and the propeller sheared off. The naval flier chose to force-land his crippled aircraft with a wheels-up landing in a lightly timbered valley, suffering facial injuries when his face struck the gunsight, but otherwise unhurt.

After wandering aimlessly for some time Toyoshima came across a group of Aboriginal women and children. He was soon captured by a young Aborigine, Matthias Ulungura. Matthias was with some friends but carried out the deed alone, thus becoming the first Australian to take a Japanese prisoner of war on Australian soil.[4] A statue was recently erected to Matthias Ulungura on Bathurst Island, a full-size bronze, which hopefully will be part of a new interest in how the northern Aborigines joined the fight for Australia at the time of great national need.

Toyoshima, giving a false name when he was handed over to Australian Army sergeant Les Powell, was transported south to Cowra, New South Wales, where a vast prisoner-of-war camp had been set up. Many months later he was one of the leaders of the mass breakout of Japanese servicemen. Toyoshima took his own life outside the wire, when it became obvious the prisoners’ escape was not succeeding. Rather than suffer what to Japanese eyes was the terrible dishonour of being captured a second time he slashed his throat with a borrowed knife. Toyoshima is buried in the Japanese war cemetery at Cowra along with hundreds of his countrymen, thousands of kilometres from their homeland and their families.[5]

Shinji Kawahara

Another human story concerned the family of another pilot shot down north of Darwin. Shinji Kawahara died on August 17, 1943, in a fight off Point Charles, north of Darwin Harbour. His Dinah twin-engined aircraft with its two crew were downed by two Spitfires.

The Dinahs were fast, armed and manoeuvrable. Their mission was to photograph a target, and the developed pictures would provide an attack target—or not—for the bombers. On this occasion the Dinah was not fast enough: the plane was brought down and the bodies of its two aircrew—CPOs Tomihiko Tanaka and Shinji Kawahara—were recovered. [6]

Airman Kawahara’s wife Miyoko survived the war with her two children. She never forgot her husband. Decades later, when she died, her family were well aware of her wish to be reunited in death with Shinji. Miyoko was cremated. The family then set about trying to find out how to have her ashes scattered in Northern Territory waters, in a land far away from Japan, where their language was little understood.

If you imagine trying to arrange such a matter for your own family, in perhaps Burkina Faso, it might give an idea of the depth of the problem. But in a combined effort from the Australian-Japanese Association, the Commonwealth and Territory governments, and the Darwin City Council, success was achieved. Several family members journeyed to the Territory for a cautious meeting: would they be welcomed or rejected? Prisoner-of-war camp stories are well known to Japan’s older generation.

A boat was arranged, courtesy of the Navy. A reception was arranged in Darwin’s Parliament House. An afternoon tea was arranged, courtesy of the City Council. One calm dry season afternoon, off a Steber launch, the ashes of a Japanese lady joined her husband’s body in the sparkling blue waters of the Top End. A Japanese family returned home, and a small bridge had been built between two countries, once long ago enemies but now trying to be friends.

Shunji Sasaki

Another curious story concerns an ace brought to earth near what is today a popular fishing spot. On August 17, 1943, Squadron Leader K.E. James, CO of 457 Squadron of Spitfires, intercepted and shot down another Dinah.

Ken James intercepted the enemy aircraft at 30,500 feet and machine-gunned it. Killed in the crash were Lieutenants Shin-ichi Matsu-Ura and Kyotoshi Shiraki. Curiously, in the wreckage, when the Intelligence team got to it, was found “a big Japanese doll”.[7]

Subsequent investigation found that the doll had been provided by another airman’s family. Captain Shunji Sasaki’s mother had sent the doll to be released “where she believed her son had died on July 18. She had also donated ¥3000 towards a new aircraft.”

Sasaki, a well-known Japanese ace, had himself been brought down some weeks before, with his navigator, over what is today known as “Shady Camp”—a popular fishing and camping spot. Both crew members were buried on site by RAAF personnel overseen by an intelligence officer, Flying Officer C.D. Pender.

Captain Shunji Sasaki was the Commanding Officer of the 70th Dokuritsu Hiko Chutai. This unit had their headquarters at Malang in Java.[8] Sasaki, while only twenty-six years old, “was a very excellent air officer”, his biographer wrote, “and flew many times over Australia by Dinah. It was natural that he was awarded a special citation after his death and this reached the Emperor’s ear”—a high honour.[9]

Sasaki’s accomplishments were extolled in a radio broadcast from Tokyo on September 19, 1943:

The Emperor has been informed of the citation granted to … the Sasaki Air Squadron by the Commander in Chief of the Army Air Force in the Southern regions, for meritorious service rendered in the Southern campaign and Australia region.

The citation says that the Sasaki Air Squadron has thus far carried out seventy raids on the Australian mainland. That Squadron participated actively in the big offensive against northern Australia in the last ten days of June of this year …

The Sasaki unit contributed much to the close cooperation between the Army and Navy air combined attacks in the Australian region, and the success of the raid of June 20 by the Army Air Force was due largely to careful and accurate information obtained by that unit.

Following Rangoon, the unit performed miracles in Burma, India, Java and Australia battles. Sasaki perished in an air reconnaissance mission to Port Darwin on July 18.[10]

The deaths of all four Japanese airmen must have been a profound mystery to the families concerned. They disappeared into a tropical environment thousands of kilometres away, with not even an attempt at a memorial. [11]

Two years of attacks

The Japanese air raids had been intended to keep Darwin from not being a usable base, but they never achieved that aim. Within weeks of being blasted, Darwin was flying out deterrence patrols; the radar that had been being assembled on February 19 was operating, and the wreckage had been cleared away from the streets. The concept of detection of the incoming attackers, getting our fighters up to height, and attacking the bombers, had begun. It worked, although not every time.

The Japanese attacks consisted invariably of an overflight a day or hours before a raid. A single aircraft, usually too high to be spotted or shot down, flew over and photographed the possible targets: the airfields dotted around Darwin, the ships in the harbour, the aircraft on the runways. Then the Betty bombers would take off, big lumbering long-range twin-engined machines. They would meet up with their escort of Zero fighters, and together they would approach the target.

If the RAAF and USAAF fighters could co-ordinate with the electronic eyes of the radar systems, and communications were working well, the Allied fighters could climb northwards to height. Once the enemy was visually detected, then the fight was on. It was much better to down the bombers before they dropped their ordnance, but that wasn’t always possible. Dogfights between the P-40 Kittyhawks and the Zeroes developed, and while the Japanese fighter was the better machine, the Allied pilots learnt to use height to advantage, diving down and through the formations.

The raiders did well though, penetrating as far south as Katherine, and often bombing with considerable success while the Allied initial organisation scrambled to keep up. The attacks widened, Broome suffering the second-deadliest raid in Australian history: on March 3 eighty-six people died in flying boats in the harbour as they readied for takeoff.

In Darwin itself the dead had been buried, trees had been cut down to improve fields of fire, and the administration of the Territory had moved south to Alice Springs. Evacuations were continuing, by road and train, everyone not essential to the war effort being sent south. The military took over the Top End, and that included newspapers too—for the rest of the war the only newspaper was Army News.

Spitfires eventually arrived, a much better machine than the Kittyhawk, and airfields by the dozen were hacked out of the bush and manned. Soon the Territory was home to over fifty airfields, most of them constructed by the United States forces.

Eventually the Allies pushed the raiders back. Using radar, searchlights and fighters in a network of defence, the Spitfires and Kittyhawks met the Betty bombers and their Zero escorts head on—and triumphed.

By that time scores of Japanese bodies had been recovered. They were buried to the east of Darwin at Berrimah, which was then on the very outskirts of the town. Today a secondary school stands opposite the site, but Kormilda College’s students probably have little knowledge of the grim rows of grave markers that once stood across the road from their grounds. The graves were all moved in the early 1960s, and the Japanese airmen joined hundreds of their compatriots in Cowra, where they remain today.

By the time the smoke had cleared, the Japanese had lost aircrew in the hundreds, and aircraft by the score. Many of these men met their deaths in the searing heat of the bush, or the sparkling blue tropical seas. Only sometimes were their bodies found. The aircraft were scavenged for intelligence purposes, and the dead aircrew hastily buried at the site.

There was of course little sympathy for the Japanese fighters, as by that time the prisoner-of-war camp stories were coming out. So for decades their story has not been fully told. There were some admirable beginnings. Douglas Lockwood, a journalist in Darwin at the time of the first raid, penned Australia’s Pearl Harbour (1966), interviewing the Air Group Commander, Mitsui Fuchida, for his book. Bob Alford, an excellent Australian aviation historian, wrote Darwin’s Air War (1991, 2010), and in two editions analysed Japanese records to present a good overall picture.

The Japanese aircrew themselves, however, remained mere ciphers and occasional names. They should be at least named and listed. For these were not men behaving without honour. The least we can do is mark their graves with their stories.


List of Works Consulted

Alford, Bob. Darwin’s Air War. Aviation Historical Society of the Northern Territory. Revised Edition 2010.

Alford, Bob. The Japanese In Northern Australia, 1942-1944. (In draft) 2015.

Appleton, Bill. Rikai. A Guide to the Japanese War Cemetery Cowra NSW. (Self published) 1998.

Aviation Statistics of WWII. “Aircraft and Aircrew Losses.” Accessed

Bartsch, William H. Every Day a Nightmare. American Pursuit Pilots in the Defense of Java, 1941-1942. Texas A&M University Press. 2010.

Cooper, Anthony. Darwin Spitfires. The real Battle for Australia. University of New South Wales. 2011.

Darwin Military Museum. Through Japanese Eyes. 2010.

Dunn, Richard L. “202 Kaigun Kokutai Rebuilds.” Air Combat Australia.

Ferguson, S.W. & Pascalis, W.K. Protect and Avenge—The 49th Fighter Group in World War II. Schiffer Military, USA, 1996.

Gill, G. Hermon.  Royal Australian Navy 1939-1942. Melbourne:  Collins, 1957.

Gordon, Harry. Voyage from Shame: The Cowra Breakout and Afterwards. University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, St Lucia, 1994.

Hall, Major R.A. Department of Defence. Employment of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders by the Defence Force during the Second World War. Sep. 1985.

Harada, Kaname. Former Zero fighter pilot. Interview with the author, Nagano, Japan, 2015

Hata, Ikuhiko and Izawa, Yasuho. (Translation by Gorham, Don C.) Japanese Naval Aces and Fighter Units in World War II. Airlife. 1989.

Hata, Ikuhiko. Précis of missions flown by Japanese units over Darwin during WWII. Copy courtesy R. Piper.

HistoryNet. “Japan’s Fatally Flawed Air Forces in World War II.” Accessed July 2015.

Horton, Glenn. The Best in the Southwest. The 380th Bomb Group in World War II. Mosie Publications. 1995.

Intelligence, Directorate of. Intelligence Information Memorandum No. 12 Japanese Air Services and Japanese Aircraft. Third Edition. HQ Allied Air Forces. South-West Pacific Area. September 1942. and Pacific Air War History Associates.

Journal of the Australian War Memorial. Hiromi, Tanaka. The Japanese Navy’s operations against Australia in the Second World War, with a commentary on Japanese sources. Issue 30 – April 1997.

Lewis, Tom and Peter Ingman. Carrier Attack. South Australia: Avonmore Books, 2013.

Lockwood, Douglas. Australia’s Pearl Harbour. Cassell Australia. 1966.

Military History Department of the National Institute for Defence Studies,Tokyo. Kodochosho.

National Archives of Australia. RAAF Historical Section, Russell Offices. Canberra ACT. Various files.

Series CRS M431 Item 1; Series F1; Series 1196; Series 1980; Series 11093; Series 11231; Series A816 Item 14/301/14; Series A1564/1 Item 1/4/2 INTEL, A1564/1 Item 1/4/3 INTEL, A1564/1 Item 1/4/4 INTEL, A1564/1 Item 1/4/5 INTEL, A1564/1 Item 1/4/6 INTEL, A9186 (various unit records), A9696/1 Item 606 and A9696, Item 690; and Squadron historical records Forms A50 for Nos. 54, 452 and 457 Squadrons RAAF.

Powell, Alan. The Shadow’s Edge. Melbourne University Press. 1988.

Pye, John. The Tiwi Islands.  (Manuscript held in North Australia Collection, NT Library.)

Rayner, Robert J. The Army and the Defence of Darwin Fortress. Rudder Press. 1995.

Sakai, Saburo. Samurai. New York: Ballantine Books, 1957.

Senshi Sosho. Chapter Nine of Bôeichô Bôei Kenshûjo Senshishitsu [Military history Department, National Institute of Defense Studies, the Defense Agency] ed. Ran’in Bengaru-wan hômen kaigun shinkô sakusen [The Dutch East Indies and Bengal Bay Area: Naval Advance Operations]. Vol. 26. Tokyo: Asagumo Shinbunsha, 1969. Translated by Haruki Yoshida with assistance by Darwin Military Museum historian Dr Peter Williams.

Shores, Christopher and Cull, Brian with Izawa Yasuho. Bloody Shambles Volume Two The Defence of Sumatra to the Fall of Burma. Grub Street. 1993.

Tagaya, Osamu. Imperial Japanese Naval Aviator 1937-45. Osprey Publishing. Undated.

Dr Tom Lewis OAM is a military historian, retired naval officer, and the author of fourteen books, many on the Second World War and its impact across northern Australia, including Carrier Attack Darwin 1942: The Complete Guide to Australia’s Own Pearl Harbor (with Peter Ingman, 2013) and The Empire Strikes South: Japan’s Air War against Northern Australia 1942–45 (2017), both published by Avonmore Books of Adelaide.

[1] Japanese movements were sourced primarily from the Kodochosho, that is, the record of imperial forces in WWII, specifically flights over northern Australia, accessed through records of the Japanese forces in WWII, now held in the Military History Department of the National Institute for Defence Studies, Tokyo. The Kodochosho gives limited information. Basically it shows the number of aircraft taking part; their destination; armaments loaded out and expended, and whether aircraft were damaged or lost. In most case the flight leader’s name is given.

[2] Alford. Japanese Air Forces Over the NWA 1942-1945. Pages 46-47. See also Rayner, Robert. The Army and the defence of Darwin fortress. Rudder Press, 1995. (p. 188) The latest statistics are derived from Lewis and Ingman’s Carrier Attack (2013).

[3] The writer is listing all of the names revealed in other publications.

[4] In some sources he is named as Matthias Ngapiatulawai. The surname spelling of Ulungura varies with two “L’s” on occasion, but the most prevalent uses one.

[5] Gordon, Harry. Voyage from Shame: The Cowra Breakout and Afterwards. University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, St Lucia, 1994.

[6] RAAF. Caldwell, Wing Commander Clive R. Narrative to Combat Report, “Enemy Air Reconnaissance No. 4. 17th. Aug.1943.” See also Fighter Combat Report. Flight Sergeant PA Padula. 17 August 1943. See also Alford file on Shinji Kawahara.

[7] Correspondence Susumu Akasaka to RN Alford 12 February 1989.

[8] Website. Oz at War.

[9] Correspondence Ikuhiko Hata to Bob Piper. 23 November 1979. Copy held RN Alford.

[10] Dunn, Richard L. “202 Kaigun Kokutai Rebuilds.” Air Combat Australia.

[11] RAAF. Combat Report. Squadron Leader KE James 18 July 1943. See also Form A50 Unit History Sheet. 457 Squadron and correspondence KE James to RN Alford 22 May 1989.

[i] This essay draws its conclusions and material largely from research carried out over four years for a book on the overall Japanese aircraft attacks over the two years across the entire northern frontier. The work lists all of the names of the aircrews; their machines; circumstances, and geographical activities.

3 thoughts on “The Japanese Who Attacked the Top End

  • en passant says:

    This article humanises the Japanese pilots who attacked Australia in support of an evil regime. I have no problem with that as these were just normal soldier-airmen doing their duty, though in today’s Australian Army the fact that they killed civilians would have them court-martialled by their own leaders! The Japanese who ordered and carried out the Tol Plantation massacre, the murder of the nurses, the Muar River massacre, the Sandakan Death March, etc were truly pre-meditated murderers who deserved to be hanged for their crimes. In today’s RAAF every pilot risks becoming a war-criminal as a result of every bomb they drop, or every missile they fire as they cannot possibly see into every building, trench, strongpoint or ambush hide. Best to disarm them as a precaution …

    How times have changed when the worst fear instilled into our combat soldiers is not from a ruthless enemy who kill indiscriminately, but from their own PC, socially-engineering senior officers and Emily’s List lawyers who will investigate them infinitely until they find something, anything to deter them from ever firing a shot – just in case.

    So, what are the benefits of being a social-engineering, LGBTIQWERTY advocating, diversity embracing, combat capability destroying, non-combat ‘general’? Well, you could become a State Governor, Australian of the Year, an MP or a lucratively paid consultant to investigate those who actually fight and risk their lives on combat. Surely that’s a much better proposition than dying for your country and upholding the spirit of the Anzac’s?

    Perhaps the ADF can call on that investigative paragon of ‘Holmesian’ skill, ‘Whitey’ Mueller and his crack team of Keystone Cops. That would just nicely provide the final cap for the decline of Oz.

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    The final 3 letters will do me

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