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Remembering the bombing of Darwin: making sense of war memories

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posted on 09.01.2017, 05:05 by Bourke, Valerie Patricia
"We don't really talk about that one. It was a bit of a mess I believe, looting and running away and all." So went Lloyd's response to my revelation that I was interviewing men who had survived the first and largest Japanese bombing raid on Darwin on 19 February 1942. This study aims to understand how a group of elderly veteran survivors of the raid on Darwin that fateful day, have responded to the ambivalent and at times negative representations of their behaviour at that time. It argues that the shifting nature of the Australian public narrative about, and representations of, the Second World War in general and of this event in particular, has had two major outcomes in relation to veteran testimony. Firstly, it predisposed these veteran survivors to come forward and share their experiences seventy years after the event. Secondly, it shaped the nature of their recollections. Analysis of their testimonies confirms that personal remembering cannot be dissociated from the effects of the public narratives prevailing at the time of its retelling. This historiographical study maps and explains the development of Darwin bombing remembrance in the post war decades with reference to an overarching and dominant cultural template, the Anzac legend, which increasingly shaped the public narrative during this period. At the heart of this research is the analysis of the recollections of twelve veteran survivors of that terrible day. I analyse these testimonies using the paradigm of an active constructive memory model articulated through theories of the 'popular memory group'. These veteran survivors make sense of this wartime experience by seeking psychological 'composure' between their personal experiences on the day of the bombing and the changing representation of this event in popular media during the post-war decades. A further aspect of this research has been an examination of the success the veterans have had, via their "agencies of articulation", and the fortuitous evolution of a 'new nationalism', in incorporating their own experiences of the bombing raid into the national Second World War narrative. Popular media representations of this event have become part of the survivors' own narratives. Oral history methodology, involving the critical interpretation of these veteran accounts, increases understandings of how, why, and to what extent, shifting public narratives, in conjunction with other factors, have worked to enable or hinder veteran composure. Whilst acknowledging the epistemological dilemmas and complex issues surrounding the use of such oral testimony to write history, especially the inherent partiality of such sources, this thesis demonstrates how more fully understanding veteran remembering can unlock knowledge about the imbedded beliefs and mythologies that consciously and unconsciously sustain and re-form attitudes to, and depictions of, past military events, what Murphy describes as "societal self knowledge".


Principal supervisor

Alistair Thomson

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Philosophical Historical and International Studies


Masters of Arts

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts