THERE'S always more to tell behind the main headline of the day.
The infamous Japanese submarine shelling of the sleeping city of Newcastle 80 years ago this week is a prime example.
The bare bones of the story, though, are worth repeating. Of how our maritime city came under bombardment from the huge Japanese enemy submarine 1-21, which surfaced to fire at 2.17am on June 8, 1942. It was a clear night with a light sea mist.
The exact number of their high explosive and star shells - to better illuminate their target - is still hotly debated. One estimate from city eyewitnesses is 21 enemy rounds (including eight star shells) raining down, while one Japanese witness claims 34 shells were fired from the submarine's stern-mounted 5.5-inch deck gun.
Besides trying to demoralise the Newcastle public, the aim of the Japanese gun crew was to hit the old Walsh Island shipyard and BHP Steelworks.
Their large submarine was shielded in a blind spot beyond Nobbys headland . . . until the 102-metre submarine started to drift with the waves.
The firing of the Japanese gunners, despite being out on a heaving sea, was extremely accurate. Luckily, many of their ageing shells didn't explode.
One shell, however, did detonate near the seawall north of the Ocean Baths, while a second exploded on the road in Parnell Place in the city's East End, shattering windows and peppering terrace houses with shrapnel. Two other rounds landed on the (then) tramway in Scott Street. Others fell harmlessly into the Hunter River, while 11 projectiles fell on or near the BHP works.
Newcastle's East End was then targeted to knock out the big twin 6.2-inch naval guns at Fort Scratchley above Nobbys and nearby searchlights.
The large submarine, which even carried a "Glen" seaplane on its deck, had been hiding at sea well out behind Nobbys. But return salvos from Fort Scratchley gunners caused the submarine to stop shelling and swiftly submerge.
Our fort gun crews (including oddly enough, one called Jim Cannon) also fired very accurately four times. Caught briefly by a spotlight, the 1-21 submariners were alarmed when geysers of water suddenly erupted either side of their vessel. The tables were turned.
Onboard and watching the fort's shells land ever closer was Susumo Ito, the scout plane pilot on 1-21. As he told Australian author Bob Wurth in Japan in 2007; "That was scary. If they hit us, we were dead. Even one (fort shell) would sink us."
The brazen attack on Newcastle came two hours after a similar strike on Sydney. Newcastle then became the only place where an Australian fort's guns directly engaged an enemy. The delay in returning fire on the 1-21 was partly caused by smoke from the pilot vessel Birubi returning to port, obscuring the seaborne enemy.
Surprisingly, the wartime city was ablaze with light during the enemy attack, which officially lasted 23 minutes. Two minutes afterwards, a coastal blackout was ordered from Sydney.
Now, here's some "unknown" tales from that frightening night. For example, one of the key central Newcastle searchlights was not working, and the fort's No.2 gun was put out of action at 2.31am after the recoil of the gun hit a water bucket that bent the breech mechanism. It was replaced, but it took more than an hour before the gun was ready for action again.
But why did our two more powerful 9.2-inch guns at Fort Wallace, at Stockton North, capable of hurling a high explosive shell 27 kilometres out to sea, stay strangely silent?
In 2002, former sergeant Athol Howley, then 82, of New Lambton, said he was manning a searchlight at Fort Wallace when the enemy shelling started.
"But it wasn't turned on because that would have given away our (exact) position to the sub," he said.
"For Scratchley was firing anyway. Another reason may have been because the sub was too close inshore in Stockton Bight," he said. Too close probably for the big, long-range guns to depress the barrels low enough to fire.
Today inside Fort Scratchley's military museum there are significant mementos of that historic engagement. They include a 1942 star shell mini-parachute and canister, an unexploded shell presented to the fort by BHP in 1985, and a model of the 1-21 enemy submarine.
I was once shown a 5cm by 4cm threaded shell fragment believed to be from the 1942 Japanese sub attack. Trevor Priestley, of Rutherford, brought it into The Herald in June, 1991, saying he knew a Japanese shell had struck the seawall on Shortland Esplanade below the fort.
"So, I came down from Maitland a few days later and searched and searched the rock shelf there at low tide. And, sure enough, I found this piece of shell metal," he said.
Another tale that came my way a year later on the same anniversary was from Athol Lightfoot, of Marks Point, a former manager at the Richmond Main Colliery, near Kurri Kurri.
He told me that in early June 1942 he was involved in tricky negotiations to ensure striking coal miners would return to work within days. He then had to organise workers to get the pit's 109 pit horses ready for the day shift start. That took until 3am, so Lightfoot said he went home for a coffee, but about 6.45am he heard the "crunch, crunch" of marching feet outside.
It was the miners, not starting work, but instead going home, he claimed
He stopped one worker to ask why, and said he was told: "Haven't you heard? The Japs shelled Newcastle last night and we've decided to take the day off to inspect the war damage."
Finally, a tale about the fate of the missing Japanese midget submarine M24. It was one of three that, a week earlier, had raided Sydney Harbour on May 31, 1942, trying to sink Allied warships. Instead, their torpedo tragically killed 21 sleeping sailors on the Newcastle-built ferry HMAS Kuttabul, being used as a floating dormitory.
Two subs were sunk but later recovered. The third, M24, completely disappeared for 64 years until being found by divers in 2006, sitting upright 54 metres down off Sydney's northern beaches. It's now a war grave site.
But one Defence Department researcher I'll call "Mr Mac" was convinced as far back as 1997 that the M24 had escaped being bottled up in Sydney Harbour and had sunk off Cronulla.
He cited reports of a fisherman finding a human leg in June 1942. The mystery limb was sent by the local police constable to the coroner, who reported only that it belonged to a mature male who was small in stature.
"It didn't have 'Made in Japan' written on it, but it wasn't wearing thongs either," 'Mr Mac' was quoted as saying.
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