Darwin war history
Harold Healy joined the RAN in 1935, rising through the ranks to Chief Petty Officer before sailing into Darwin on December 1941.
Through his diary, Healy recorded his time on the waters around Darwin hunting submarines and the bombing on 19 February 1942 where he wrote, "Today will live in my memory forever as long as I live..."
Harold Ronald (‘Tim’ or ‘Nuts’ to all who knew him) Healey was born at Williamstown, Victoria on 23rd October 1916, the only child of Frederick and Alice (nee Goff) Healey.
‘Tim’, as we shall call him, joined the RAN on 10th April 1935 with rank of Seaman following which he moved through the ranks to Able Seaman, Petty Officer and Chief Petty Officer. He married Edna Grace Kirk at Hawthorn, Victoria on 6th November 1937 and four years and four months later found himself in the fight (and fright) of his life.
It is not known as to when Tim joined the HMAS Deloraine’s company, but he sailed in her for Darwin on 26th December 1941, after ‘spending the most miserable Christmas Day in my life’ on board, anchored in Sydney Harbour. The Deloraine sailed for Darwin via Brisbane and Townsville arriving at Darwin on 7th January 1942. His big, and terrifying, adventure was about to begin!
Shortly after arriving in Darwin, he suffered a bout of dengue fever that hospitalised for a short period, but to make matters worse he and his shipmates realised ‘there was no beer anywhere in the town’. On 16th January he recorded there was a ‘Big submarine scare’ and that the order went out for ‘the ship to be got ready to for sea immediately’. The submarine reported was one of four Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) submarines that were operating off the Darwin, NT coast at that time and could well have been the one that Tim and his mates would engage in a few days’ time.
On 20th January, Tim recorded in his diary that ‘Deloraine is off on a submarine hunt’ and that that day ‘turned out to be the most exciting day of the war for me’. He reported that at 1300 hours, an Able Seaman (AB) on lookout on the bridge ‘casually reported, “There’s a torpedo coming right at us sir”’. The Captain had a look and ‘exclaimed – Good Lord, so there is – Hard to Port!’. The Deloraine turned and as a result the ‘torpedo missed our stern by three feet’ Tim recorded.
It is not clear what duties Tim had on board at that time, but after the call to action stations went out he recorded, ‘just as I had taken over the wheel, the submarine started to surface about twenty feet away from us on our port [left] side’. He recorded that the Deloraine ‘let go’ with a depth charge from ‘the port thrower’ that ‘landed smack on his [the submarine’s] conning tower’ and that a Catalina flying boat hovering above ‘let go a load of bombs’ that also appeared to have damaged the submarine. The Skipper and crew were sure the submarine was done for, but Tim mentioned that, ‘just to make sure we dropped every depth charge we had in the ship and we blew enough oil [from the submarine] to the surface to steam this ship for Sydney’.
To make doubly sure of the ‘kill’, HMAS Katoomba also dropped depth charges on the now stricken submarine.  Later on the 20th, crew from HMAS Kookaburra and Platypus attempted to dive on the submarine but the attempts failed due to equipment failure, tidal rip and bad weather. The USS Holland, a US Navy (USN) submarine repair ship, also sent divers down. Reports on the damage to the submarine were completed but the submarine was not entered. The thrill, and fear, associated with the sub hunt and its demise was over and Deloraine returned to port.
Unbeknownst to Tim and the crew of HMAS Deloraine, they had just sunk the IJN submarine I-124 that had been laying sea mines in the entrance channels to Darwin Harbour and along the coast, as well as conducting reconnaissance of shipping movement to/from the harbour. The I-124 remains were she settled on the sea bottom on 20/21st January 1942 with all 80 crew members entombed in her. She was declared a war grave by the Australian and Japanese governments in 1985 and as a result no diving or interfering with the vessel is permitted.
Throughout the remainder of January, and into early February 1942, the Deloraine carried out patrolling duties in the Bathurst and Melville Islands areas and convoy duties for various Allied ships as far afield as Thursday Island. On 18th February, the Deloraine was steaming back to Darwin after convoy duty to Thursday Island when she passed a USN destroyer, probably the USS Peary, and the USN Cruiser USS Houston, both ships being on convoy duty escorting American and Australian troops to reinforce the garrison at Ambon. No one knew it at that time but both ships’ fates were sealed already and Tim’s moment of truth and bravery was about to arrive.
At 1700 hours on 18th February, the Deloraine ‘secured to buoy in Darwin harbour’ and at 2000 hours the Captain was taken off the ship to the Darwin Hospital – illness unknown. On 19th February, all hell broke loose in Darwin and Tim’s life changed forever.
On that day, the first day of air raids on Darwin by Japanese forces, he wrote in his diary, ‘Today will live in my memory forever as long as I live. I will never be able to forget the horrors that I have seen today – horrors which no mortal man could do justice to’. He wrote that at ‘approximately 1030 I heard the old familiar sound of bombs falling. I looked up in time to see the [Stokes Hill] wharf go up in the air and a stick of bombs hitting the Neptunia [sic]’. He said, ‘The Japs were raiding Darwin and as our ship has only a 12pdr gun which is useless against high level bombing, we had a first-hand view of the raid and what a raid it is’.
At that stage of the war, Tim reported the Darwin area as being ‘a proper hot bed of submarines’ with many reports of asdic, (‘A/S’), contacts and resultant depth charge attacks by various Allied warships. However, there were no more IJN submarines sunk in the area.
He mentions a USN destroyer, the USS Peary although he never named her, that was ‘blazing astern (she sunk later)’, ‘a stick of bombs straddling the [HMAS] Platypus’, the Zealandia ‘that was ablaze from a direct hit’, the Moana Loa ‘that was ablaze from a direct hit’ and that ‘the town was wreathed in smoke from numerous hits’. Besides that, ‘the aerodrome was a pall of smoke, death was riding wild and then the dive bombing and machine gunning started’. The HMAS Swan was hit with, as Tim recorded, ‘four dead and Christ knows how many wounded’. He recorded that the Japanese ‘machine gunned the boom defence vessels repeatedly’, ‘dive bombed the HMAS Warrego repeatedly without hitting her’, machine gunned the Deloraine twice ‘without hurting anybody and they dive bombed the hospital ship Manunda until they hit her just aft of the bridge. Her hull is riddled with shrapnel holes’.
He recorded that a troopship full of American soldiers, the ship being either the Portmar or the Tulagi, was hit resulting in several soldiers being wounded. In fact, a number of American soldiers on the Portmar were killed that day. He also mentions that ‘I was bombed for six months, night and day, but I’d crack under another raid like that. They missed nothing and they used 1000 bombs’.
After the Japanese had departed, Tim and his crewmates noticed a man ‘in the water near the jetty’ - meaning the Stokes Hill Wharf. Tim et.al ‘went away in the motor boat to pick him up and when we got there we found hundreds in the water. The two ships at the jetty were blazing and the jetty itself was ablaze. The water was no more – we were steaming through a sea of oil and some of it was afire and there were some men in the fire getting nicely roasted’. He and his mates picked up eight Malay crew members from the Neptuna after which Tim turned the boat toward the jetty only to be told by ‘jabbering’ Malays not to approach the ship as she was full of depth charges. Tim is honest enough to say ‘I could feel my knees start to shake as there was the ship full of deadly explosives afire from stem to stern and us only about fifty yards from her’.
He turned the motor boat toward a nearby beach and when about ‘twenty yards off it’ he ordered the Malays to jump overboard and swim to the beach so he could return for more survivors. The Malays however refused to leave the boat so Tim ‘jobbed one of them and slung him over [the side] and the rest soon followed’. Returning to the jetty area, he heard a man calling out ‘help me dig, I’ve got a broken leg’, following which he stopped to pick the man up but by the time the man was in the boat, five more men ‘were trying to clamber in and as our boat is very small she was in danger of being sunk so I went full ahead and jumped on their hands and they had to let go’.
He realised that if he went right into the jetty all the men on the jetty, or in the water, would, most likely, try to ‘jump into the boat and sink her as they were all in a panic’. As he turned the boat around, he noticed ‘another white man in the water’ who he picked up and at the same time he heard another man call out ‘help me with the doc, he’s in a bad way’. He picked one man up but realised it ‘was a waste of time picking up the doc for he was blown to ribbons’, so he left the doc, picked up two more survivors and headed to HMAS Platypus to drop the injured men off.
While coming alongside Platypus, the Neptuna ‘blew up, bits of her flew everywhere’ with one piece of steel plate ‘that must have weighed 2 cwt [hundredweight]’ flying through the air’. He goes on to mention other ships that were ablaze and rescuing survivors from various ships, including the Portmar, and from the fire-covered sea.
Finally the raids finished and Tim had survived that terrible day. He and his mates had taken their lives into their own hands and placed themselves in harm’s way to help their comrades, but it had taken its toll. Later that day he wrote, ‘I have never prayed for darkness before but I prayed for it today. I wish the sun would never rise again and I wonder what tomorrow will bring forth. There is a lot that has happened today that doesn’t appear in this book, mainly concerning cowardice of personnel but I never know where this book will finish up so I won’t put it on record but I will remember it – Christ I’ll remember it!’
On 20th February he commences his diary entry by writing, ‘No raids today thank God. One alert and a lot has happened but we are still alive’. He mentions the devastation around the harbour and town, that the ‘aerodromes are wrecked’ and that ‘the hospital was bombed and machine gunned’. He also mentions that ‘again today I saw much cowardice that I am not going to log’ and that ‘the Manunda put thirty bodies ashore today. They had died overnight. The bodies lay on the beach surrounded by millions of flies and of course in this climate they went rotten. The Manunda took them all back [that night] as she is sailing tonight and is going to bury them all at sea’. He finished that day’s entry by writing ‘I did the biggest thing today I have ever done since I have been in the Navy’. An understatement to be sure!
Tim recorded that there were no raids on the 21st but HMAS Warrnambool was attacked on the 22nd when she was ‘about 40 miles from Darwin’, HMAS Katoomba sailed for Thursday Island and the freighter Barossa that had been towed to a sandbank exploded. On 27th February he recorded that ‘The official list for the day of the raid is now 500 killed and 1000 casualtys [sic]’. The Deloraine, with Tim on board, remained in the Darwin area for another five months during which time she was attacked by a long range bomber on 5th March and survived several other air raids.
The Deloraine left Darwin for Thursday Island, Townsville and Brisbane on 12th July. She sailed from Brisbane for Sydney on 23rd July and whilst at sea received a message that a merchant ship had reported sighting a Japanese submarine off Newcastle. Tim’s laconic diary entry was ‘we might have some fun yet’.
His diary ends on 25th July but his war didn’t end then. He served throughout the war and was discharged from the RAN on 25th August 1947 with the rank of Regulating Petty Officer. Post-war he and Edna were shopkeepers in Collingwood and Orbost, Victoria, where they both played golf for many years. After retiring they moved to Nelsons Bay, NSW where they were living when Tim suddenly died of a heart attack at Newcastle Hospital on 6th April 1982.
Like many war veterans, Tim, spoke little of his wartime experiences and kept any ‘demons’ well within himself. Given his actions on 19th February 1942, and his decision not to speak about that horrible day, and many others that he undoubtedly witnessed, it is fair to say Harold Ronald (Tim) Healey was a quiet hero.
Harold Ronald Healey is amongst the men in this photograph. (Source: Darwin Military Museum collection.)
Tom Lewis, Sensuikan I-124, p. 49. HMAS Katoomba, a corvette like Deloraine, made the first attempt at contacting the submarine during the evening of 20th January. Katoomba dragged for the submarine using a grapnel in the hope of ‘bring up his aerial or something tangible’. The attempt was unsuccessful.
 The ‘official’ record is that the first bombs fell at 9:50am that day.
 One of the Neptuna’s portholes (scuppers) was later found on the far side of Stokes Hill and is now on display at the Darwin Military Museum
 In 1993, the author of this article visited several US Army survivors of the first raids in Darwin, members of the 148th Artillery Regiment, in the US and returned home with the bell from the Portmar. The bell is now on display at the Darwin Military Museum.
 The first raid was at 9:50am and the second at 12noon.
 The book was/is a Commonwealth Government-issued “Note Book for Stoker Training”.
Darwin Military Museum
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Darwin Military Museum