VERA Deacon’s 90-year-old hand hovers over the ghosts of Hunter River islands, tracing shorelines long gone, before her finger dive-bombs the map she drew.
“Here we are!,” she exclaims.
Vera is pointing to the spot where she discovered just how close the destruction of war had come to her home.
“Walsh Island,” she says, as her finger tracks the outline of its western shore. “The floating dock was here, and the shell was found here.”
Vera’s family, the Pembers, lived on Mosquito Island, just to the west across the channel from Walsh Island, and on the opposite bank from the BHP steelworks.
“It was our world, yet because we could see everything, it didn’t feel so remote,” Vera says.
Vera’s world felt unnervingly exposed in June 1942, as the teenager and her brother, Norman, went for a walk along Walsh Island.
“We saw this golden, glinting thing,” Vera recalls. “We ran up to it, and we saw it was a big shell, unexploded, pointing at the dockyard, only about 300 yards away, and I realised that if it had hit the dock, it would have caused a lot of damage.”
Yet it wasn’t just the dockyard, or the Pembers’ island idyll, that could have been blown apart.
Novocastrians had been involved in the Second World War for almost three years; now war was in their city. Newcastle had been under attack.
As Vera says with a hint of incredulity still in her voice 75 years on, “Japan was at our gates. Newcastle! It was rather amazing.”
FROM Fort Scratchley, on a perfect day, the sea is not just sparkling, it can be blinding. Your eyes water until you can barely see the beauty contained in the view, let alone any traces of history.
But Frank Carter knows where to look. He is the president of the Fort Scratchley Historical Society.
As he determinedly squints towards the north, Frank waves his arm, arcing his gesture over Nobbys, to Stockton Bight and explains what happened in the early hours of June 8, 1942.
“Okay, about a quarter past, twenty past two, the I-21 submarine has surfaced out in Stockton Bight and commences its attack on Newcastle,” he says.
From its deck gun, Mr Carter explains, the submarine first fired eight star shells. The night sky, and the city sleeping under it, was suddenly illuminated.
On Mosquito Island, young Vera Pember went outside with her siblings and parents, trying to make sense of what was happening.
“My father was mystified on the night by the great bright light,” she recalls. “Dad said, ‘They’re not fairy lights’, because it lit up everything. We could see the steelworks like day.”
With the city lit up, the submarine crew fired high explosive (HE) shells. How many rounds were fired is a subject of debate. Some believe it was 26 HE shells. However, Steven Carruthers, the co-author of A Parting Shot: Shelling of Australia by Japanese Submarines, 1942 and a former Royal Australian Navy serviceman, says his research indicates it was more likely that six HE shells, and up to 18 star shells were fired on Newcastle.
What is clear are the initial targets: the BHP steelworks and the Walsh Island dockyard.
“Newcastle was obviously a major target,” says Peter Morris, a former federal politician and one of the prime movers of the city’s maritime museum. “Newcastle was the centre of Australia’s war industry. Remembering that [BHP managing director] Essington Lewis was the government’s director of munitions and he became known as ‘Mr War’, he drove the war manufacturing effort, and most of that was happening in Newcastle. Newcastle was a major target for that reason.”
That tallies with the recollections of an I-21 crew member. On board the submarine was a small reconnaissance seaplane, which would be catapulted off the deck. Documentary maker Gary Jackson has an interview with the pilot, Susumu Ito. The interview was conducted in Japan in 2013, a year before Mr Ito died. In the interview, Mr Ito said “the submarine captain received an order from the headquarters to attack the steel mill…or rather the shipyard in Newcastle”.
Author Steven Carruthers believes the Japanese motivation was broader than the targeting of key wartime industrial assets.
“Basically they wanted to send a message to the Australian people that the Japanese could strike anywhere at anytime,” says Mr Carruthers. “They particularly wanted to scare the population.
“The reality was it was a form of terrorism.”
Steven Carruthers says the commander of the I-21 sat his craft, which was about a hundred metres long, at the limit of her firing range to reach the steelworks. The submarine was about four nautical miles off Stockton Beach, and about 6.8 nautical miles from Fort Scratchley.
“She was specifically positioned to minimise the risk to the submarine herself,” Mr Carruthers says.
A Newcastle landmark also offered the submarine some protection. Frank Carter explains what lay between the enemy and Fort Scratchley’s two guns was Nobbys. The six-inch Mark VII guns had been installed at the fort in 1911 and had never been fired in anger. Now their moment had come, yet they were forced to remain silent.
“These guns - remember, 1911 vintage - are line of sight,” Mr Carter says. “They don’t have modern sophisticated radars, they have to be able to see the target. So in the first part of the engagement, the sub is neatly, and most likely deliberately, behind Nobbys. Can’t see it, can’t shoot at it.”
Troops to the north, at Fort Wallace near the dunes of Stockton, were also frustrated, restricted not by sight but by their guns.
“From the time the I-21 surfaced, they never, ever lost sight of the submarine,” Frank says. “The trouble was they had long-range guns, and the submarine was too close. They couldn’t lower their barrels enough to come to bear on the target.”
While Fort Scratchley couldn’t fire at the I-21, the submarine could target the fort. When three searchlights - at Nobbys, near the fort and close to the ocean baths - spun their beams across the water, the sub began firing shells towards them. Residents around the city’s East End were in the firing line.
Allen Renwick was 16 and was about to begin his career as a merchant mariner. As he sat in the family home in Brown Street, he could hear the sound of a deadly threat screaming in from the very sea that he would be soon relying on for a living.
“My father was there [at home], and he was a First World War veteran, and he knew all about it,” says Mr Renwick. “And he said, ‘they’re going over the top near us’.”
Time and tide turned against the attackers. The submarine was pushed further out to sea, and the fort’s gunners could at last see their target. They fired four rounds at the submarine.
In the interview held by documentary maker Gary Jackson, I-21 pilot Susumu Ito described his reaction to the submarine coming under fire: “I was with the captain up there on the bridge, watching the bombardment with curiosity. From the enemy’s battery, shots were fired. Shells came flying towards us. Up went columns of water ... As you can imagine, I didn’t feel comfortable when live shells came whizzing by us.”
Frank Carter says the captain noted in his log book that the submarine was fired upon off Newcastle.
“He also says it was some of the most accurate shore fire he had ever encountered,” Mr Carter recounts. “One shell is reported to have passed in front of the conning tower above the height of the deck but below the top of the tower. He didn’t stay around, so I think that’s probably evidence enough they were on the money.”
The I-21 sunk below the waves and slunk away. Yet in the fury that lasted less than half an hour, history had been seared into Newcastle. The city had been attacked for the first time, and, after 31 years of benign vigilance, Fort Scratchley’s guns had fired at an enemy.
“In terms of history, it’s very significant, because it makes us the only land-based guns in Australia ever to be involved in a naval engagement,” Frank Carter says.
While Newcastle had been jolted awake, the residents had to wait until dawn to see the gravity of that history. They discovered the city had escaped virtually unscathed. Only three of the high explosive shells are believed to have detonated.
One shell had whizzed over the fort and exploded near homes in Parnell Place. Remarkably, there was little damage to buildings and a minor casualty, when a soldier was hit by shrapnel.
Shells landed in the steelworks. In Newcastle Museum’s collection is a map showing where shells were found around the industrial area, and in a confidential memo to BHP’s Chief General Manager in Melbourne, there’s mention of one HE shell and a couple of star shells landing in the works, a couple more in neighbouring industries, and a few nearby in the river.
“I think Newcastle was very lucky that there weren’t more casualties and there wasn’t more damage,” says Mr Carruthers.
No sooner had the shelling stopped than the stories began. In a report in the Newcastle Morning Herald on June 10, 1942, headlined, “Many Close Calls in City Shelling”, tales of lucky escapes filled the columns. Dymphna Cusack, who would later become famous for the novel Come in Spinner, was a school teacher in Newcastle and was woken by what “sounded like the crack of doom” when the attack began. She wrote a piece for the Herald, declaring, “Newcastle’s East End feels that it’s one with London’s East End - in sympathy, at least.” Cusack put the experience to creative use. She later wrote a novel set in wartime Newcastle, Southern Steel.
Allen Renwick joined the crowds heading to the East End to try and see for themselves the scars of the shelling; smashed windows, punctured walls and a small crater in the road.
“You couldn’t get too close, the army was there, the police,” Mr Renwick recalls.
Frank Carter says the mood could have been so different.
“I think it could have changed Newcastle, had [all] the shells exploded,” he muses. “It would have changed the whole outlook of Newcastle.”
PRIOR to the shelling there had been warning signs that the Japanese were close.
On the night of May 31 and into the early hours of June 1, three midget submarines had snuck into Sydney Harbour and caused havoc. One sub fired two torpedoes at a US warship, the Chicago, but missed. However, the blast sank a Royal Australian Navy barracks ship, HMAS Kuttabul, killing 21. While two of the midget subs were destroyed in the harbour, one slipped out and seemingly disappeared. More than 60 years later, the wreck of the midget submarine was found off Sydney’s Northern Beaches.
In the days after Sydney was hit, a pack of Japanese submarines that were part of the Eastern Attack Group lurked off the east coast. The shipping routes were their hunting grounds. One of those submarines was the I-21.
On June 3, BHP’s cargo ship, Iron Chieftain, which regularly cruised in and out of Newcastle harbour, was torpedoed off Sydney. She sank within five minutes, taking 12 lives with her.
“That was really the beginning of the Japanese rampage up and down the east coast of Australia,” Peter Morris says. “That was the first ship sunk by the Japs off the east coast.”
A couple of hours before Newcastle was shelled, another Japanese submarine, the I-24, sat off Sydney and fired rounds aimed at the Harbour Bridge. They fell short into the eastern suburbs but did little damage.
WHILE Newcastle showed few wounds from the shelling, the city was rattled and shaken.
“I think the great shock to everyone generally was that Japan had the capacity to undertake that,” recalls Peter Morris, who, at the time, was a 10-year-old living at Lake Munmorah, watching convoys of troops head north and with an anti-aircraft gun in his schoolyard. “It was just one submarine, firing off some shells, it didn’t do any damage of any substance, but the fact [was] they could do it, they had the resources to do it.”
Many were fearful of a Japanese invasion
“It was very scary,” recalls Allen Renwick, saying people thought the Japanese were “going to come ashore at Stockton Beach”.
“We thought they were coming the next weekend, but they didn’t, of course,” he says.
Yet that expectation provoked some nervous reactions. A week after the shelling, someone reported seeing a periscope in the harbour, and an anti-aircraft unit at Stockton, Wave Battery, began firing. One of the shells ricocheted off the water into the Zaara Street power station. The periscope was apparently a piece of wood.
Steven Carruthers says this was but one of a string of near-misses in the days after the attack, including one incident where a fuel dump near Horseshoe Beach was almost blown up.
“There was more confusion and pandemonium going on a week after when everyone was in each other’s cross-hairs,” he says.
Those fears were fed by the legacy of the shelling, dug out and picked up around the city, such as Vera Deacon’s discovery.
LIKE that June 1942 night, Vera Deacon’s island home exists only in the past, in her memory. Mosquito and Walsh islands, and a string of others, were subsumed into the Kooragang Island industrial development.
Yet as we stand by Heron Road, with industrial plants on one side and wharves and ship-loading facilities along the Hunter River’s south arm on the other, Vera can still find her way. She holds her hand-drawn map, and there’s another one in her mind.
Vera points to a building on the wharf.
“This green building with the conveyor belt,” she says. “Along there a bit. The shell had landed there in a white sandy rise.”
When Vera and her brother found the shell, they ran back to their island to tell the soldiers who were based at its southern tip, guarding the steelworks across the river. The children accompanied the troops when they retrieved the still-live shell.
Vera’s father and brother also found the canister of a star shell, with a parachute still attached. The military took it away, but the canister and parachute were returned after the war, and, in those straitened times, put to use.
“Mother cut up the silk and made blouses out of it,” Vera says.
The Pember family had already prepared for a Japanese invasion.
“I said to Dad, ‘What will we do if they get here?’,” Vera says. All he had was a grappling hook. He didn’t even have a rifle. And he said, ‘We’ll go upriver. They’ll be flat out finding us in the mangroves’, which was extraordinarily naive!’
THE Pembers didn’t have to head upriver. The city was not invaded, nor shelled again. The war moved further north. But the submarines continued to hunt for merchant ships off the east coast, to disrupt the island nation’s supply lines.
According to Steven Carruthers, the submarines attacked 41 ships, sinking 21, at the cost of 670 lives.
“They were marauding in those hunting grounds for about a year,” Steven Carruthers says.
As for whether the shelling of Newcastle was a success or failure for the Japanese, Steven Carruthers says it was both.
“If their goal was to strike terror into the hearts of Australians, then they succeeded,” he concludes. “They stopped production at BHP, it took them a while to heat the furnaces up again, there was slag everywhere that had to be cleaned up. So in terms of interrupting our war effort, they were successful. In terms of actual casualties and damage, they were unsuccessful.”
The physical reminders of that night are encased at Fort Scratchley. Among the exhibits are a shell found at BHP, a piece of shrapnel picked up in Parnell Place, and the canister and burn-speckled parachute of a star shell.
“It’s living history,” declares Frank Carter, saying the artefacts hold that moment when Novocastrians realised, “Heck! There’s a war going on out there, and it’s just come to our doorstep!”
As she surveys the industrial landscape, over to where Hunter Valley coal is loaded on to ships - many of them bound for Japan - Vera Deacon sees how it used to be. She sees the wondrous land of her childhood, and that shell glinting like treasure in the sand.
“Well, 75 years is a long time, but in my mind, it’s like a flash of a few minutes,” she murmurs.
“I always think of Newcastle’s war as our 10-minute war. It was very exciting to us, and we were lucky we weren’t injured and no damage was done.”