November 17th, 2011
08:02 AM ET
When President Obama touched down in Darwin, Australia, he wasn’t just the first American president to ever set foot on that country’sNorthern Territory; he was also the first one to personally pay his respects to the sailors who lost their lives aboard the USS Peary. World War II buffs and military historians know well the legend of the American destroyer, which sank under attack decades before this president was even born.
The ship with about 150 crew was anchored off Darwin Harbor on the morning of February 19,1942 when it came under attack without warning. Nearly 200 Japanese bombers—launched from carriers that attacked Pearl Harbor just two months before- were on a mission to strike the city. The Peary, which was refueling at the time, was a sitting duck.
It took a while for her to set sail and mount a defense, with evasive maneuvers, and anti-aircraft guns firing. But it was too late. The Peary was hit in succession with five bombs, engulfing the destroyer in flames and black smoke.
Nevertheless, the brave crew kept firing even while the ship was sinking. According to the US Destroyer History Foundation: “the last unknown gunner was firing even while the water rose… still at the gun controls- loading, aiming and firing, unaided-when The Peary went down stern first.” According to official documents, that was 1300 hours- 1pm local time—3 hours after the initial attack.
89 sailors died that day, in what was known as the greatest loss of life suffered by the US Navy in Australian waters. 57 survived.
Today, President Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julian Gillard walked side-by-side down a sloping lawn toward Darwin Harbor, stopping near a 4-inch gun that was salvaged from the destroyer. They pinned personal messages to two wreaths nearby, listen to a lone survivor play Taps, and then greeted-and in one case comforted- some surviving family members.
The gun points offshore, towards the vast sea, and the final resting place of the USS Peary.