Respecting Our War History Key

Photograph taken by Ian RoachOrder reference: AWM2021.4.5.161Contact: esales@awm.gov.au

There are many incredible Territorians whose history and stories we must preserve and remember.

One of those is Dick Butler, whose life managed to touch almost every key moment of modern Top End history.

He was by every definition a true Territorian.

He was born in Katherine in 1908 to an Aboriginal mother and a European father.

As a mixed-race child, he was taken from his family in Katherine and brought to Darwin to be raised in the Kahlin Compound at Myilly Point. 

He was a very capable boxer, and famously fought Timmy Angeles at the Darwin Botanical Gardens in 1929. They remained mates for the rest of their days.

Dick married Louisa Fanny Spain, daughter of Anastasio Pedro Spain, in 1931 at the Christchurch Cathedral.

When war broke out in Europe, Dick was keen to defend his country, and he enlisted in the army. His military career would ultimately span almost a quarter of a century.

He served in the Darwin mobile force with a number of other prominent Territorians, including William McLennan, Samuel Fejo, Juma Fejo, Stuart Chernoff, Bill Muir, and Victor Williams. 

On the 12th of December 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the NT administration approved the immediate evacuation of women and children from Darwin. 

Dick Butler's wife, Louisa, and their four children, plus Louise's mother, Fanny Spain, were among the many who were evacuated from Darwin over the following weeks. 

They were not to return to the Top End until June 1948.

When the Japanese attacked on 19 February 1942, at the start of what would be an 18-month bombing campaign, Dick Butler was on duty at the Naval Oil Fuel Tanks. 

He narrowly evaded death. But Louisa’s uncle Catalino Spain was not so lucky.

An employee of the Commonwealth Railways who worked at the Darwin Wharf, Catalino was killed when Japanese bombs hit the passenger ship MV Neptuna.

As military historian Paul Rosenzweig says, Dick Butler was “a Territorian in every sense of the word. He had grown up in difficult times, made harder by his part Aboriginality” in a time that didn’t fully respect that identity.

Through life at the Kahlin Compound, throughout the Depression, the 1937 cyclone that hit Darwin, and then the Japanese bombing campaign, Dick Butler’s life toughened him. But he would be truly tested in 1974, when his wife Louisa was killed during Cyclone Tracy.

Dick and his family and many other extraordinary Darwin families, were recognised by plaques on the civilian memorial wall on the Esplanade that was established for the 60th anniversary of the bombings in 2002. 

The wall was backed by many Darwin locals who paid for the plaques mounted on the walls.

These families were shocked when they recently learned that the walls had been removed to make room for the RSL Cenotaph Enhancement Project. The removal of the wall and plaques without consultation has been deeply upsetting to them.

The City of Darwin is building a civilian memorial in the Cenotaph precinct, and has now written to the families confirming that they will be consulted and that the plaques of these Darwin families will be included in the memorial.

Next year is the 80th anniversary of the Bombing of Darwin, and I’ve invited the new US President Joe Biden to attend the ceremony.

By then, the civilian memorial will be re-established, and we will be able to pay our respects to those who lived through that difficult time and to those that rebuilt Darwin.

This Friday the 19th of February, we will mark the 79th anniversary of the Bombing of Darwin, and we will remember all of those who sacrificed so much during the war. 

And we’ll give thanks for the efforts of previous generations in rebuilding Darwin, this vibrant and wonderful city we call home.

Luke Gosling is the Federal Member for Solomon and a former Army Officer.


This opinion piece was first published in the NT News on Sunday, 14 February 2021.