Phew, it was open.
Originally conceived as a museum dedicated to Australian Artillery and to contain photographs and artefacts from Darwin’s History during World War 2 – it quickly grew to include all facets of that War including a plethora of Vehicles, Weapons and exhibits dedicated to the Vietnam War and other theatres of conflict. The setting is pretty much perfect as it is set among real concrete gun emplacements and fortifications that were used during the Defence of Darwin.
It is a journey began in the 1960s when the Royal Australian Artillery Association (RRAA) fenced off sections of the disused fortifications and started planting trees and created a garden around it. Over the years vehicles were added in. From 2009 they took over direct operational management of the site after receiving $10m in funding to turn the museum into what we would enjoy today.
Sydney Harbour has a number of gun emplacements and barracks but this was something else. It was one of the most heavily fortified parts of Australia during the war and was manned and guarded by over 110,000 soldiers.
There are a number of American exhibits and nods as Darwin played a critical role in the United States campaign against Japan. It was here that General Douglas MacArthur launched his campaign to liberate Manilla and the Philippines from occupation. (Fulfilling a promise he kept after escaping Bataan on PT boats in 1942).
We paid for our tickets and headed straight out to the Garden. The Set-up was like a Gardening Centre with a number of huts intermixed around trees and plants. Only instead of gazebos and statues you had armoured vehicles and AAA Guns. (The Ticket price btw was $18 would turn out to be a bargain for what we were about to experience).
The first few huts contained mostly small arms and models of the War in the Pacific. Mini-dioramas of Admiral Yamamoto’s Aircraft Carriers and an assortment of carbines alongside unit citations and flags
Outside the huts those artillery pieces and tanks and cars were soaking up the NT sun. Bofors 40mm AA Guns,12 and a half pounder cannons and a Bren Gun Carrier (in mint condition I might add). The Allies used these extensively in North Africa so was quite chuffed to see one up close.
All the leaves are brown
We escaped the really strong sun by ducking into the large gun emplacement. The BL 9.2 Inch Gun was an absolute beast of a cannon. Serving as the main British choice for Naval Defence it was also the same types that we encountered on Robben Island during our visit to South Africa.
As well as the gun and it’s enormous ammunition there were a number of rooms and compartments below. We explored the first few but quickly got lost among the twisting hallways and crawl spaces. It was at that point that John started singing All Along the Watchtower by Jimmy Hendrix (“There must be some kind of way out of here, said the Joker to the priest”). What prompted this was not madness but the fact that we could really hear Hendrix’s dulcette tones and trashing guitar play wafting down the corridor to our right.
Following the sound we turned the corner and into a room that was floor to ceiling covered in Vietnam War Memorabilia. Uniforms, propaganda posters (from both sides), maps, monitors, and in the corner, a radio playing the songs of the 60s and 70s – the soundtrack of the conflict in South East Asia.
While not as impressive as the Museum in Ho Chi Minh City or the Tunnels this veritable Aladdin’s Cave was still a great testimony to that time and place. But what was it doing here in Australia?
Between history lessons in Ireland and those lasting images only celluloid can produce (Apocalypse Now, Platoon, The Dear Hunter and many more) the conflict in Viet Nam was between Communism and the good ol USA. What really happened was a complicated series of events that dragged in combatants and actors from over 21 countries – one of which was Australia.
From 1962 to 1976 they committed 60,000 Troops to fight there with a peak strength of just over 7,500 at any one time. The first casualty was Sergeant William Hacking (due to an accidental weapon discharge), the last fell at the Battle of Nui Le in September 1971. Between them another 519 Australians died and over 3000 were injured).
There is a great movie about Australia’s involvement in the war, The Odd Angry Shot (1979) starring Bryan Brown.
It was not ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ in the Northern Territory. Although geographically isolated and a long way from Japan, Darwin was not a long way from the Imperial Navy and it’s aircraft carriers. It suffered 64 separate bombing raids on Darwin (out of 100+ Raids on the NT) with those very first raids killing over 230 people.
The Museum had an interactive experience describing the raids, the lead up to them and the consternation of the populace as the War came home to them in a very graphic way on 19thFebruary 1942. Flashing lights, moving parts and first hand audio accounts combine to create a very immersive experience right from the Air Raid Siren that announces the start.
We also quite enjoyed the air conditioning after spending a few hours in the garden and it meant we could escape a very intrepid peacock.
Out of Towners
With the Museum complete it was time to get back to the CBD. This turned into an awful ordeal that involved continuous attempts at calling the only Taxi Company in town, miss-timing buses, walking all the way back to Fannie Bay (probably an extra couple of kilometres than we had ever planned to walk that day) and eventually catching a random night bus bringing revelers with body paint and carry outs into the city nightlife.
In the end we made it back. Camera and explorer weary both. The only thing left to do was to grab some dinner and have an early night. Luckily we planned ahead and made a reservation at The Pearl – a very trendy place near our hotel and what turned out to be an absolute amazing dining experience.
Tomorrow the only people dining so well would be the Crocodiles on the Adelaide River as we had an early rise for a rustic tour of Litchfield National Park.