Those who stayed on the island that day were struck by the sound.
Like great dragonflies, the menacing hum grew louder by the second.
Janice Munhdhu Ganambarr remembers well the stories of her mother, from the day Milingimbi in remote East Arnhem Land was hit by Japanese bombers, 80 years ago, in May 1943.
“When they saw the plane flying across the land, they hid under the water,” she said.
“They thought they were gonna get hit.”
Retired Milingimbi schoolteacher Gwen Warmbirrirr’s mother was also among those who hid, frightened for her life.
“It was really scary,” she said.
“She hid amongst the mangroves, near the tower … it was really dark and the Japanese couldn’t see them in the mangroves.”
In a moment of fear, courage and bewilderment, some of the older Yolngu men hurled spears skyward at the Japanese planes as they approached.
“But it didn’t hit the pilot in the plane,” Ms Warmbirrirr said, laughing.
“It was a different kind of war. They’d never experienced anything like that before.”
Historians say two people were killed that day in Milingimbi – an Australian serviceman and a local Yolngu man – while about 15 others were injured.
War in the north remains nation’s ‘secret’
The remote Northern Territory community of Milingimbi is one of many left with a war legacy from eight decades ago; and one that descendants and historians believe is at risk of being forgotten on a national level.
Every February, a service is held to pay tribute to the 235 lives that were lost in the Bombing of Darwin – the deadliest World War II battle on Australian soil.
But the raids on Darwin were among more than 100 bombings across Australia’s north during the war, from 440 kilometres east in Milingimbi, to Broome in WA and the Torres Strait in Far North Queensland.
Prominent Top End historian Norman Cramp – the director of the Darwin Military Museum – believes the bombings on the north, including on Milingimbi, remain some of “Australia’s best kept secrets”.
“It’s one of the most significant facts of Australia’s history, but unfortunately, it seems to have been sort of put in the bottom drawer since 1942,” he said.
During wartime, the northern raids were played down to the southern public, so as not to cause panic.
But Dr Cramp believes the stories still remain largely untold.
“You can understand, I think, why from 1942 to the end of the war and for a while after the war that there wasn’t much said about what happened here,” he said.
“But for the ensuing 75 years I’m at a loss to understand why we don’t broadly teach the history of the Second World War in the northern part of Australia.”
Historian critical of Australian War Memorial
Dr Cramp said one theory was that the Commonwealth remained “reticent to acknowledge that Australia was left pretty well undefended and definitely underprepared to meet a foe of such strength and such determination as the Imperial Japanese were”.
He took aim at Canberra’s Australian War Memorial for what he perceives as a lack of inclusion in their public exhibits of the bombings on the north.
“We’re really quite disappointed with the Australian War Memorial,” Dr Cramp said.
“So, we don’t know why they’re not telling the story – it’s certainly, in my view, not balanced.”
Another historian, Melbourne-based Gwenda Baker, who has a decades-long connection to the NT, agreed there wasn’t enough national focus on the battles faced by the north, like in Milingimbi, or the sinking of the HMAS Patricia Cam off the coast of East Arnhem Land in January 1943.
“It’s probably locally recognised, but no more outside the local area,” Dr Baker said.
“It’s one of the problems of history in the Northern Territory – how do you get it out to be more widely recognised?
“Recognition in a positive way is always good. There’s a lot of good, positive stories that come from that history, and they’re not recognised.”
Australian War Memorial director Matt Anderson defended the centre’s coverage of the north.
“The memorial tells the story of northern Australian war history and commemorates it in various ways,” Mr Anderson said.
“This includes two large, prominent, permanent displays in the memorial’s galleries that specifically discuss the Bombing of Darwin and the attacks on northern Australia during the Second World War.”
As well as its exhibited collections, the war memorial also oversees a trove of photos from the era, including from Milingimbi.
Mr Anderson said the Milingimbi bombings were “significant as they are part of the broader story of Australia under attack during the Second World War”.
Descendants want stories to live on
For Ms Warmbirrirr, she wants to see the stories of her relatives live on into the next generation.
“We would like to see more recognition for our elders from the past who had been through the war, and who had been helping in the war, as well,” Ms Warmbirrirr said.
She concedes getting the word out from a remote community where English is often a second or third language to a national audience can be tough – but stressed that the stories needed to be heard.
“It’s the history that needs to be told to the younger generation,” she said.
“I think more people – whether they’re Yolngu or balanda, Indigenous or non-Indigenous people — they need to know that not only other parts of Australia were hit.
“Also a small island called Milingimbi was hit … that needs to be told to the people of Australia.”
She said the community was planning to hold a memorial for the bombing’s 80th anniversary in May.
Read More:Gwen’s mother hid in mangroves as her island was bombed. 80 years on, she wants Australia