Compiled by Neil Hawkins


The prospect of the Japanese invading Northern Australia during the wet season was thought to be very remote, the combination of vast tidal flats, extreme temperatures, torrential rain, crocodiles, cyclones and such like were thought to be more than a match for anyone. At least by the majority of people who lived ‘up north’. The Australian Army however, had a different perspective; they sent some intelligence officers to do a survey and concluded that invasion was a definite possibility. They discovered that the belt of mangroves was never more than 200 yards wide, and even in the heaviest weather the enemy could penetrate the mangroves; sail up either of two inlets; land on red porous soil and push inland to the railway line at Cloncurry, 300kms away.

The Army had already formed a volunteer force called the Northern Australian Army Observer Unit (NAAOU), they were a ragtag bunch and were renowned for their lack of discipline, but few men could have performed the job they did, living in the bush for months on end. The following extract from Sydney’s The Sun Newspaper on the 6th of November 1943 describes them fairly well.

Soldier Explorers

Commandoes guarding isolated places in northwest Australia have charted rivers and explored wild country, probably never before visited by white men. Some of them have the loneliest jobs of the war. They receive rations at intervals of a month, and longer. Crocodiles, mosquitoes and sandflies infest swamps and dense bush, which they patrol. Donkeys are the only means of transporting supplies to some of their remote camps. In one case, two donkeys, transported in a small launch had to be swum ashore through surf.

Former bank clerks, shop assistants and other city men have become practical bushmen in the tough job allotted to them by the Army – and they like it!

Their exacting war role has its compensations. Teeming fish and wild game provide sport and a supplementary ration to Army diet.

This was actually the first and last time that the Australian public ever heard about the ‘Nackeroos’ as they called themselves. The NAAOU patrolled an area stretching from the Kimberley’s in the west to Cape York in the east, and at it’s peak had 500 men in a number of camps in remote areas. One patrol lasted 8 weeks and covered 800kms on horseback.

Anyway, the Army had foreseen an invasion and the Nackeroos were well placed to discover it. By November 1942, they had performed a number of surveys, both by sea and land and concluded that the most likely landing points would be the mouths of the Leichhardt or Albert Rivers or along the Flinders River. Five months later the Japanese ‘landed’ but not at these locations. At 1218 on Sunday 11 April 1943, the Volunteer Defence Corps, a unit of bushmen, station owners and such like, reported Japanese landing from ship and barge near Nassau River, strength unknown on the previous Thursday.

The next ten days was sheer chaos. Panic and confusion generated further sightings of submarines, barges and troop ships. There had for a long time been a large number of Japanese surveillance aircraft flying low along the coast, there were even stories that some landed on small bush strips or in clearings, but this was the first news of Japanese actually standing on Australian soil.

The scare began on the 6th when the Navy reported seeing lights, possibly from a Japanese submarine, near Aurukun, investigations by reconnaissance aircraft failed to locate any further signs. On the 8th the Navy reported that they had received word from Galbraith station, over 300kms south of Aurukun, that a vessel 30 to 40 feet long had been sighted south of the Nassau River. On the 11th it was reported that the Japanese had landed at Galbraith and were headed toward Normanton.

This really put the wind up the local population, who immediately began to pack their belongings and head south by any means possible.

On the 13th another vessel was sighted, this time near the mouth of the Norman River and barges were seen hurrying ashore. Two miles offshore was a submarine and unidentified aircraft were sighted at about the same time. There were more rumours the same night from the Morning Inlet.

A NAAOU patrol led by Lieutenant Munro joined up with a VDC patrol led by Captain McIntyre at Vanrook Station, and borrowing horses from the station, headed towards Inkerman, the closest property to the landing sight. When they arrived in the area, they found nothing, no landing site, no landing barges, no footprints, no Japanese. When they questioned some local Aboriginals that worked on the station they uncovered the real story behind the ‘landing’:

A black boy reported to the manager at Inkerman, that he’d seen a Japanese boat with Japanese on the beach to the north. The station manager got on his pedal radio and called wireless base at Cloncurry and that’s how the Army got to hear about it. Meanwhile the RAAF instructed to three young pilots to fly their Wirraway aircraft over Inkerman. Seeing no one about, the pilots flew low and shot up a shed, and the station people who were hiding believed that they were being attacked by Japanese aircraft.

Munro believed that the sub had probably surfaced to recharge its batteries and fill up with fresh water. Although the Gulf of Carpenteria is shallow, less than 10m in places, it would be possible for a small sub to manoeuvre without detection. There are many verified reports of strange lights and diesel motor sounds from throughout the Gulf, and it is highly likely that they came ashore for fresh water. But the rumours of them cutting submarine bays into the mangroves and hiding out during the day, cannot be verified.

After this the panic subsided some, but many families that lived in the area did not return until the war ended. It is believed that the only Japanese to step foot on Australian soil were isolated seamen. The invasion never came, and the Nackeroos were gradually disbanded and used as reinforcements. The last of them left the Northern Territory in January 1944. Very little was ever known about the Nackeroos, after the war, units that fought overseas received acclaim and memorials, but it wasn’t until 1977 that some of the stories were made known.

In 1977 the Special Air Service Regiment planned an exercise in the Gulf Country and researched the reports made by the Nackeroos; they invited the wartime Commanding Officer Major W.E. Stanner to observe the exercise and re-discovered the vulnerability of our northern coastline. As a result of this exercise, the CO of SAS recommended that a land-based surveillance unit be formed and on the 1st of July 1981 the North West Mobile Force (Norforce) was officially raised in Darwin, with a similar role and area of operations to that of the NAAOU, an AO that equals almost a quarter of Australia’s land mass, from the Kimberley Shire boundary to the southwest, and encompassing all of the Northern Territory. Other Regional Force Surveillance Units (RFSU) followed soon after, Pilbara Regiment in WA and 51 Far North Queensland Regiment in Cape York to continue the legacy left by the Nackeroos of WWII.

To learn more about this amazing bunch of men, read the research of Richard and Helen Walker. Allen and Unwin has published it, called "Curtin Cowboys, Australia’s Secret Bush Commandoes" (ISBN 0 04 520008 4). My sources are this book and patrol reports archived by Norforce in Darwin.

Neil Hawkins


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This page first produced 28 August 2000

This page last updated 08 Sep 2018