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HomeIssue 15Douglas Lockwood's legacy, 40 years on

Douglas Lockwood’s legacy, 40 years on

By JOHN P McD SMITH

PART ONE: The first big scoop.

Douglas Lockwood is something of a media legend in the Territory.  It’s forty years since his death in 1980. 

His abiding interest in the people of the Territory, especially the Aboriginal people, was perhaps one of the strong attributes for which he is remembered.  

The other memorable moments were his two famous scoop stories.  Every journalist yearns for a scoop!

Lockwood (at right) worked for the Melbourne Herald where he described himself as a “gauche boy from the bush” who started off as a junior reporter – just a reporter and not yet a journalist. 

Early in 1941 his boss Archer Thomas called Lockwood into his office.  Thomas stared at the new boy rather disdainfully then asked if he would like to go to Darwin. 

Lockwood thought the idea wonderful for he would be going to an Australian “Wild West” town! 

When he told his colleagues, they chided him: “Sucker!  Darwin! – it’s a stink hole, and the Japs’ll be there soon!”  Poor Douglas was downcast, but remained determined.  He was going! 

Then Thomas called him into his office again. 

“I’m sorry, but you can’t go to Darwin. We have a house there but it’s only for a married man.” 

Lockwood’s heart sank.  “Can you give me ten minutes? 

“What for?”

“I’ll see if someone will marry me!”  Thomas grinned.  “You can have the day off to try your luck.”

Lockwood contacted a young woman he knew, putting his proposal to her.  Ruth, for that was her name, accepted saying: “I’ve been trying to think of a reason why I should marry you!”  The other reporters thought it all hilarious.

“Now he’s going to Darwin and getting married. Life can be tough.”

Douglas and Ruth settled into the new life quickly as the Territory blood seeped into their veins. Lockwood was now poised for one of Australia’s greatest scoops.

By Christmas 1941 troops had moved into Darwin and all women and children were evacuated. Ruth Lockwood stayed on as an army typist, never telling her husband anything about the contents of official letters.

The first bombing of Darwin by the Japanese started just before 10am on February 19, 1942 with screaming Zeros and crashing bombs.  Douglas Lockwood of all places was at the post office (below, right). 

“This is fair dinkum,” he mused.  The post office was an obvious target given that it carried the lines of communication south. A few yards away was the overseas cable office and not far from that Government House. Lockwood’s brain ticked over quickly.

“Gotta get out of here!”  

He disappeared quickly with his mind telling him that there was a scoop here if he could stay alive. 

Lockwood made for his house where he crawled into a three-inch gutter.  What sort of protection was that? 

However, after the post office the wharf and the shipping were the prime targets. 

The damage and death was devastating. From his crevice Lockwood watched a Zero on the tail of an American P40 less than a thousand feet above.  Spent machine gun shells fell around as smoke suddenly poured from the P40 that inevitably dived into a death plunge.

When the Neptuna exploded Lockwood watched from his house as lifeboats, the mainmast, steel plates, rafts, spars and funnels floated hundreds of feet into the air like so many soft toys being tossed about a room. 

All this would be graphic, first-hand information for Lockwood’s report to The Herald. 

Lockwood crawled out of his crevice to see USS Peary going down. Behind her he saw the Meigs and the Mauna in the throes of fiery deaths.  Then Lockwood watched sailors jumping into the sea from the almost vertical decks of the USS Peary moments before she disappeared below the surface.

When the All Clear sounded Lockwood raced to his typewriter and pounded his first take. This was really the first draft of history. It had to be a scoop given that he represented all the evening newspapers. 

Lockwood drove frantically to the telegraph office to file his scoop.  He stared aghast at what had been the post office. 

Nineteen bombs had effectively destroyed the entire PMG communications system! He looked on mournfully as the shattered bodies of nine people were carried from the bomb site and placed on the back of an open truck.

An Aboriginal man Lockwood knew came and stood beside him.  He made a remark to the Aboriginal man who replied: “All about blackfeller plenty fright all right! That Japan man, him proper cheeky feller all right!”

How was Lockwood going to transmit his incredible story? Axel Olsen and Merton Woods of the Sydney Daily Telegraph were in the same predicament. 

The three reporters pooled their resources deciding to make a dash for the Adelaide River telegraph office. After two hours heat-soaked travel they arrived at Adelaide River.  The line was under repair and no messages could be sent!

“You’ll have to send your message from Darwin.”  They were told by an army major. The only alternative was to go on to Katherine, which was just another one hundred and forty miles!  Then they were told:  “You can’t drive to Katherine! The road’s out!”  The men gasped in exasperation. “You can catch the train.”

“What train is that?”

“Oh, an evacuee train that’s coming through tonight or maybe in the morning.”  The reporters gasped again. Then thought for a moment.

“Can we try and get through by car?”  The major flashed his eyes at the men.

“You can try at your own risk: but we’re not going out to pick up the pieces of damn-fool reporters!”

They went on the train.  The three men slept on the ground by the train line which arrived at dawn. They were forced to sit on the flat top trucks in the boiling sun all the next day.  The reporters lodged their stories at Katherine thirty hours after the event. 

Lockwood was devastated when he saw the heavily censored version of his story in print. It was still a great scoop.

Detail for this article comes from the book “FAIR DINKUM” by Douglas Lockwood, published by Cassell – Melbourne and Sydney, 1960.

PHOTOS NT Government Library.

The Japanese lost four aircraft in the first raid – two Val dive bombers and two Zeke fighters. One of the fighters crash-landed on Melville Island, north of Darwin. Its pilot became the first prisoner of war taken on Australian soil when he was captured by Tiwi man Matthias Ulungura.

The Darwin Post Office was located on the site where Parliament House and the Northern Territory Library are today. As the first raid began, staff ran to a trench constructed at the rear of their building. Tragically, it received a direct hit, killing all 10 employees taking refuge there.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Different times, different styles of reporting. 24 hour news cycle is no replacement for frontline fear.

  2. Lockwood certainly was a hero journalist.
    His life should be studied in Australian history in schools.
    I loved his book “I the Aboriginal” when I was 16 and “The Lizard Eaters”.
    We have so many Aussie hero’s and heroines. Our youth are ignorant of them.

  3. “Our youth are ignorant of them.”
    Jacqueline you should ask how many politicians in this land have read them?
    Some of them had never seen an Aborigine with the exception of elected Senators.

  4. For a few years up until four years ago, I would enjoy the opportunity to give talks to students about “Life Of A Soldier” (Great War and WW2) in schools in Alice Springs leading up to ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day. Then the response universally became, it’s not relevant to Indigenous, so no thanks, no more.
    Who makes these decisions of “not relevant”?

  5. Who makes these decisions of “not relevant”?
    The ignoramus preferring not to know the truth and walk in life with blinkers.
    A number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people served in the Boer War (1899-1902).
    Over 1000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people served in World War I (1914-1918) and around 70 fought at Gallipoli.
    At least 3000 Aboriginal and 850 Torres Strait Islander people served in World War II (1939-1945).
    In both World Wars, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had the highest participation rates in the military as a proportion of their population in Australia.

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