Northern Territory Government Newsroom

Tiwi contribution to Darwin’s defence remembered

The contribution of Indigenous Australians to the defence of Darwin has been commemorated through the unveiling of a statue on the Tiwi Islands today.

The life-size bronze statue features Tiwi man, Matthias Ulungura, who captured the first Japanese prisoner of war on Australian soil.

Country Liberals Member for Arafura, Francis Kurrupuwu, who was born on Bathurst Island, said he was proud of his people’s contribution to the war effort and the Government’s recognition.

“The Tiwi Islands were the frontline to the defence of Australia during the attempted Japanese invasion,” Mr Kurrupuwu said.

“Before Darwin was attacked on 19 February 1942, Father John McGrath of the Sacred Heart mission on Bathurst Island, who was also a coastwatcher, sent a message using a pedal radio to Darwin.

“While he was sending his message, six Japanese fighters strafed the area and damaged some buildings.

“This was the beginning of the battle on Australian land.”

Chief Minister Adam Giles and the Minister for Arts and Museums Gary Higgins attended the unveiling ceremony, which was part of the Northern Territory Government’s $2.25 million Territory Remembers program to mark the 75th anniversary of the Bombing of Darwin.

“Today is an important day in recognising the contribution of Indigenous Australians to the war effort,” Mr Higgins said.

“This bronze statue of Matthias Ulungura is a permanent reminder of that contribution.”

Mr Higgins said the statue was sculpted by Paul Smits with the co-operation of Mr Ulungura’s extended family.

In the Bombing of Darwin, 11 ships were sunk in the harbour, 235 people died and 30 Allied aircraft were destroyed. Just four Japanese aircraft were lost.

Mr Giles said Matthias Ulungura, depicted in the statue, points to where he captured pilot Hijame Toyoshima following the crash-landing of his fighter aircraft.

“On the way back to the Japanese carriers following the raid, one of the Zero fighters was experiencing engine trouble, having been hit by the anti-aircraft fire sent up by the defenders,” Mr Giles said.

“Surviving the impact, the pilot was later captured by local hunter Matthias Ulungura, who used his tomahawk to simulate a rifle muzzle, quickly removing Toyoshima’s pistol from its holster.

“Toyoshima was handed over to military personnel on Bathurst Island. He later died, as one of the leaders, in the famous break-out from the Cowra prisoner of war camp in NSW.”

Mr Kurrupuwu said the story was just one example of the significant war effort by Tiwi Islanders.

“Other Japanese were also captured by the local people,” he said.

“Many Islanders served in the Navy and as Coastwatchers, and the islands were home to an airstrip and a radar station.”

Along with the unveiling of the life-size statue a new military historical display called “Tiwi Involvement in World War II” was launched at Patakijiyali Museum on the Tiwi Islands.

The NT Government provided $28,982 through the Regional Museums Grant Support Program.

The display recognises the Tiwi communities’ significant involvement during WWII and the defence of Australia.

It tells the stories of local Tiwi men and women. It also includes an animated video portraying the warning message sent by Father McGrath and the capture of the first Japanese prisoner.

Stories about the war are told in both the Tiwi language and English.

Media contacts:
For the Chief Minister – Michael Gorey 0437 249 003
For Minister Higgins – Sean Conway 0400 165 743