WHILE others covered their ears to soften the boom, David Needham didn't so much as flinch as he pulled the lanyard to fire the number two gun at Fort Scratchley.
"If it was being fired in earnest, it would have made a much bigger boom than that," said Mr Needham.
David Needham knows what a gun fired in earnest sounds like. The 97-year-old is a World War Two veteran, having served in the Royal Australian Air Force in the South-West Pacific theatre against the Japanese forces in 1943 and 1944.
"I worked at a table, plotting the courses of all the aircraft around the area," Mr Needham said, explaining he helped Kittyhawk and Spitfire pilots intercept enemy planes, "scrambling fighters, to direct them to the target".
He recalled hearing very loud artillery booms in March 1944. For at that time, Corporal David Needham was part of the landing force at Los Negros Island, to the north of present-day Papua New Guinea. But at least the shells were not landing near him.
"The Americans had the artillery, so it was going away from us," Mr Needham said.
David Needham was invited by the Fort Scratchley Historical Society to be a guest gunner at the Queen's Birthday open day held at the Newcastle landmark overlooking the harbour and the sea.
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"I was excited and very pleased to be asked to do it," Mr Needham said, adding it was his first time to fire such a big gun.
Historical society president Frank Carter said he was delighted to see Mr Needham fire one of the historic six-inch Mark VII guns, which had been installed at the fort in 1911.
"He's not quite as old as the guns, but he's getting there," said Mr Carter.
After Mr Needham had created the boom, the commander of number two gun, Don Roser, shook the veteran's hand for making history at the fort.
"Congratulations, sir, I think you're the oldest person to have fired the gun," Mr Roser said.
David Needham had come to the fort with reinforcements, including three generations of his family and fellow members of the Wangi Wangi RSL Sub-Branch, along with a convoy from the Newcastle Military Vehicle Club.
According to NMVC member Jason Becker, of the 16 historic vehicles on display at the fort, 13 were from World War Two.
"It's about remembering the past, preserving the past, and this all adds to the story," Mr Becker said.
Firing number one gun at the ceremony was retired army reservist, Wangi RSL Sub-Branch member and proud Weilwan man Wayne Dixon.
"I've still got the biggest smile on my face," said Mr Dixon. "It really means a lot to me, to see these guns and know how they were pointed out to the Japanese [during World War Two]."
This ceremony was held just a few days after the 79th anniversary of the sole time the fort's guns were fired in anger.
In the early hours of June 8, 1942, war surfaced just off Newcastle, when the Japanese submarine I-21 fired a series of high explosive shells at the industrial city.
In the submarine's sights were the BHP steelworks and the Walsh Island dockyard.
As Peter Morris, a former federal politician and champion of the city's maritime history, said in 2017, "Newcastle was obviously a major target. Newcastle was the centre of Australia's war industry."
Shells landed not just in the steelworks and near the dockyard but also close to homes in Newcastle's East End. Remarkably, there was little damage and only a minor casualty, when a soldier was hit by shrapnel.
But the city was shaken and rattled by the shelling.
"I think the great shock to everyone generally was that Japan had the capacity to undertake that," recalled Peter Morris. "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."
While the Japanese submarine shelled the city from its position in Stockton Bight, the fort returned fire from its two guns, blasting out four rounds.
"It's very significant, because they are the only two land-based guns in Australia to have ever been involved in a naval engagement," said the historical society's Frank Carter.
Apparently the fort's shells came close to hitting the submarine. Frank Carter said the Japanese submarine captain wrote in his log book that the vessel was shelled off Newcastle, noting "it was some of the most accurate shore fire he had ever encountered". The Japanese sub slipped away.
David Needham remembers that night in 1942. He had enlisted in the RAAF and, while waiting to be called up, was still working at Burwood Colliery. At the time of the attack, the young miner was not at work but snoozing in a double-decker bus at Broadmeadow.
"Well, I was astounded," Mr Needham said when he heard of the Japanese shelling. "I didn't think they'd be cheeky enough."
Seventy-nine years on, the fort's air was filled not with menace and fear but celebration and peace on a perfect winter's day. Tibetan Buddhist monk Bagdro, who migrated to Australia in 2019, approached Mr Needham to shake his hand.
"I'm so happy to meet you today," he told Mr Needham.
As for the veteran, he was relishing making such a big bang - even if "I'm used to louder noises than that".
"At my age, I didn't expect to be asked to do this," Mr Needham said.
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