FIVE hundred bombs were unleashed, more than 150 servicemen were killed and troops in Australia’s most vulnerable military outpost managed to thwart a relentless attempt at invasion.
Yet the Japanese raids on Horn Island in World War II barely rate a mention in Australia’s history books.
On the 70th anniversary of the first bombing of the island, historian Vanessa Seekee and Federal Member for Leichhardt Warren Entsch are calling for more recognition of the event and the role Torres Strait islanders played in defending Australia.
On March 14, 1942, Japanese fighter planes targeted Horn Island as part of their campaign to cripple military positions in northern Australia.
Ms Seekee, an expert on the Torres Strait’s role in defending Australia during the war, said the island’s aerodrome was a strategic, but vulnerable, operational base for Australian and Allied forces, including the 7th Pursuit Squadron of the 49-Fighter Group, when the first raid took place.
Coast-watchers in southern New Guinea managed to alert the troops on Horn Island of the impending raid when they spotted a large formation of twin-engine planes and escort fighters flying at about 20,000-feet en route to the Torres Strait.
Fearing an attack, the Government had earlier evacuated residents from the island, but civilian contractors working on Thursday Island witnessed the mid-air duel between eight Japanese Betty Bombers and 12 Zeros and about nine US Kittyhawks.
“They were watching these aerial dog-fights over the island,” Ms Seekee said.
“The Allied Force’s were outnumbered but they still managed to ward off the attack.”
She said remarkable tales of heroism emerged from the first air raid: 2nd Lt. A.T. House, of the 7th Pursuit Squadron, bought down a Japanese Zero before targeting another which was attacking a plane being flown by his flight leader. When House’s guns jammed, he deliberately speared his right wingtip into the Zero’s cockpit, bringing it down and saving the life of his flight leader. House somehow managed to land his damaged Kittyhawk at 300km/h.
Horn Island was attacked eight more times by the Japanese over the next 16 months. Ms Seekee said about 500 bombs pounded the island during that time.
One hundred and fifty-six people died in active service on or around the island.
“The targeted area was very concentrated; only about 2-3km,” she said.
“They were attacking the airfield.”
At least 36 craters remain on Horn Island, reminding locals of the bombing barrage the island was subjected to during the prolonged invasion attempt.
Ms Seekee said Horn Island was the second hardest hit base in Australia after Darwin, which was raided 64 times by Japanese fighter crews.
By the end of 1942, about 5000 troops were stationed on Horn Island, and an additional 2000 on Thursday Island.
While national war historians focus on remembering the attacks on Darwin, Broome, Port Hedland and Townsville, the Torres Strait was often overlooked for the vital role it played in repelling Japanese forces.
“Many people, even in our own government, appear to have forgotten, or are just oblivious, to the fact that Horn Island was second only to Darwin as the most attacked Australian location in the Second World War,” Mr Entsch said.
“We cannot forget this, nor can we forget what the people of the Torres Strait gave and lost during the campaign to prevent a Japanese invasion.”
Torres Strait Heritage, a museum and tourism centre run by Ms Seekee and her husband Liberty, received a Premier’s Reconciliation Award for educating the public about the role of the Torres Strait during World War II.
Ms Seekee and Mr Entsch are continuing to campaign for personnel who served in the Torres Strait to be officially recognised for their duty and receive service pensions.
“It’d be nice if the government could focus on recognising these significant events so at least some of the veterans can receive the recognition they deserve in their lifetime,” Mr Entsch said.
They were successful in getting the government to award Star Medals to members of the Torres Strait Light Infantry, who were acknowledged 60 years after fulfilling their duties.
Ninety-seven Japanese air raids were carried out on northern Australia during WWII. On July 30 1942, a Japanese sub-lieutenant bombed a farmhouse in Mossman, believing he was attacking Cairns, and left a child with non-fatal shrapnel wounds.