Curiously, one of the first tunes played by the army band at the 70th anniversary ceremony of the day the Japanese Air Force reduced Darwin to rubble was Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.

To most of the 5000 or so who came to the city's cenotaph yesterday to commemorate the attack, the choice of music made not the slightest difference. And if it had, they would probably have enjoyed a good laugh.

For those who witnessed the bombing of Darwin on February 19, 1942, and who have survived the seven decades since, such things go down, at worst, as insignificant amusements.

"If you've been around for as long as I have, you're just thankful to be here," said George Woodward, who was 18 and an army private on the day the war came to Australia.


"To be here today is a wonderful privilege."

Woodward was one of about 90 veterans who returned to Darwin for the commemoration.

Lieutenant-Commander Eric Thompson, who is 98, was a gunnery officer on HMAS Deloraine and was one of the most popular people in Darwin during the past week.

"It's fabulous that they've done this. I won't forget the day."

Ray Chin has seen more days in Darwin, both good and bad, than just about anyone.

Chin was 17 on the day of the bombings and was evacuated to Katherine the next day, and then to Adelaide. He boasts that he survived more Japanese attacks than most.

"When I was a young boy I was sent back to China to go to school and got bombed there when the Japanese invaded," Chin said.

"Then I was bombed here in Darwin and after that they bombed Katherine when we were sent there. After that we were sent to Adelaide and I joined the air force the day after we arrived."

For Chin and the other veterans, one of the more satisfying aspects of the 70th anniversary is that it has made more Australians aware of what happened in the north of the country during World War II.

The death toll in Darwin is put at 243, and while an exact number will never be known, others say it was closer to 1000, although the weight of evidence is in favour of the lower figure.