Unlike many World War II veterans, Basil Hackett never left mainland Australia.
Now 94 and living with wife Berenice in a quiet retirement village in Port Kennedy, Mr Hackett still vividly recalls his service in Berrimah in the Northern Territory, some 4,000km away.
“I was 19 years-old then. At the time, I hadn’t fired the [anti-aircraft] guns at all,” he said.
“Most of the gunners that went with us were volunteers. They had come from units around Fremantle. Some had only joined the army a fortnight before they had left. A few of them were 16 years of age, which was quite common in our unit.”
Mr Hackett enlisted in the Australian Army when he was just 17, with the approval of his parents. Eventually, he volunteered to go to Darwin, joining the 2nd Heavy Anti Aircraft Battery in 1942.
Unlike many military units, which assembled in the southern parts of Australia, the 2nd Heavy Anti Aircraft Battery was formed in Darwin.
“When Pearl Harbour happened, and Singapore fell, we knew the Japs were getting pretty close to Australia [but] we didn’t know exactly where they were,” he said.
“We just carried on as normal until the morning of February 19, 1942. Rumour had it the American Air Force were going to come to Darwin in a very large strength so, when all these planes started to come in from the south, we were standing there looking at them for a while. Until someone realised that they had Japanese insignia on their wings.”
Mr Hackett said the Japanese had already started dropping bombs on Darwin by the time the alarms sounded.
Mr Hackett spoke of his mate, Wilbert Hudson, nicknamed ‘Darkie’, who was in the shower when the alarm sounded.
Darkie grabbed only his tin hat, boots, and a towel, and ran for his machine gun.
As Japanese planes strafed the battlefield, Darkie ran out into the open with another soldier, who was known as Tex. The pair propped the machine gun on Tex’s shoulder, allowing Darkie to shoot down a Japanese dive bomber.
“As the action got a little bit more intensive, Darkie lost his towel. So there was Darkie with his tin hat and boots going like hell,” Mr Hackett said.
Wilbert ‘Darkie’ Hudson became the first Australian Army serviceman to be awarded a gallantry medal while fighting on the mainland of Australia.
“After the war, we used to say to Darkie, ‘now come on Darkie, we want to know the truth; did you actually shoot that Japanese plane down, or did the pilot look over the side, see you, and die of fright?’”
Mr Hackett said the situation got tougher as resources became scarce in the aftermath of the bombing. Rationing was implemented and soldiers received just one scoop of uncooked rice each day.
“Years later, at reunions up in Darwin, we found out that it wasn’t rice at all really,” he said. “It was cattle fodder. They were feeding the cattle with it.
“We were able to go out and shoot wild goat, pigs, and we tried wild buffalo but gave that away because it had a disease in it, so we lived off the land practically.
“We also had some indigenous fellas with us as gunners. Lucky we did have them, because they were local fellas, Larrakeyah tribe, and they knew the bush.”
Many of the gunners slept in small, damp ‘dugouts’, just a few metres from their anti aircraft guns.
“Eventually, most of the gunners’ clothing rotted. I have got photos here of the gunners and they were reduced to wearing just sandbags around their waist,” Mr Hackett said.
Mr Hackett said he would immediately look to the skies when he heard a plane. Japanese planes often approached with the sun behind them and, as a result, Mr Hackett suffered solar damage to both of his eyes and is now almost completely blind.
But he said he didn’t mind telling his story because young people rarely heard about the attacks on mainland Australia.
“There was more aircrafts coming off the carriers over Darwin then what was over Pearl Harbour,” he said.
“The weightage of explosives dropped on Darwin was bigger than Pearl Harbour. The only thing that wasn’t bigger was the loss of life, but fortunately Darwin escaped that one, mainly by good luck.”
After the war, Mr Hackett met his future wife. Mrs Hackett said she first met her husband at a dance at a small hall in Safety Bay.
“There used to be quite a few dances. That’s when we met more or less,” she said.
Apparently, Mr Hackett knew how to cut a rug.
During their 68 year marriage, the couple has raised three children and now has seven grandchildren.
“I say, ‘God, it is about time I got a great grandchild’,” Mrs Hackett said.