Relics of War

Beside the road to Carnarvon Gorge is a damaged aircraft wing mounted on steel pylons and a wing tip set into the ground.

D-C47 Air Crash Memorial, Carnarvon Gorge Road Photo: tripadvisor.com.au

Nearby, on 16 November 1943, this USAAF Dakota C-47 broke up in a severe storm and crashed. Five Americans and fourteen Australian soldiers died. This is their memorial.

There were many plane crashes across Queensland during the years of World War Two. Traces of crash sites, wartime airstrips, military bases and hospitals, radar stations, fortifications and ammunition dumps are located across the state, from Torres Strait to the New South Wales border. A Queensland government website lists the wartime sites: https://www.ww2places.qld.gov.au/place?id=1686  Some, like the memorial beside Carnarvon Gorge Road, have been cared for by dedicated locals. Others have become tourist attractions. Many are lost in the scrub.

1942 was a year of great anxiety for Australians, especially in the northern states.

The British fortress city of Singapore fell on 15 February 1942, a terrible shock to Australians. My father became a Prisoner of War. Two weeks later in Brisbane, my mother, in great distress, gave birth to her first baby, two months premature.

Now Russia has invaded Ukraine, and civilians and the military are preparing valiantly for what must come. Many have become refugees, and many have died. Unlike in Ukraine, tanks can’t drive across our borders. Troops can’t just march in. Nevertheless, in 1942, Queenslanders were frightened.

Trenches were dug in parks, school yards and house yards. There were air raid sirens and drills, and saltwater pipelines were laid through city streets for fire-fighting, and black-out warnings in place.

Con’s father, a sergeant, spent his wartime years driving army trucks across Cape York Peninsula, delivering fuel to military airfields and outposts.

Con as a wartime baby, with his father in uniform, in Innisfail

“There are old wartime airfields all over the Cape,” a pilot once told me, and as I was in a small plane over the Peninsula at the time, this gave me comfort. If we got into trouble, we would always find somewhere to land. We might have to chase cattle and kangaroos off the strip first.

Relics of Brisbane’s preparations for war can still be found across the city.

With my grandson Gus, I recently visited the remains of World War 2 Naval installation RAN No. 9 in the old suburb of Myrtletown, Pinkenba.

In 1943, from here near the mouth of the Brisbane River, an indicator loop was laid under the river and a Photo Electric beam installed to shine over it, to detect enemy craft. The concrete block house, once vital to the defence of Brisbane, still stands in long grass in the Myrtletown Reserve. Nearby information boards give details.

Control Building for the indicator loop (nearer window) and Photo Electric beam, Myrtletown Reserve

Among the mangroves on the riverbank nearby lie the remains of the SS Koopa, which also played its part. A small section of the hull tipped sideways above the mud at the mouth of Boggy Creek; a few sad, rusted steel parts.

Gus looks at the sad remains of SS Koopa

After Pearl Harbour was bombed, on 7 December 1941, the US “Pensacola” Convoy on its way to the Philippines was abruptly diverted to Brisbane, and on 23 December, nine large warships quietly dropped anchor in Moreton Bay.

No one knew, until the Koopa came down the river.

The SS Koopa was a much-loved excursion steamer that took passengers down the Bay to Redcliffe and Bribie Island, both before and after the War. My family took a trip on it when I was four. All I remember is a band playing on the wharf, an on-board kiosk down steep steps, and going to sleep under a seat.

SS Koopa in peacetime Photo: Yvonne Darcy peterlud.wordpress.com

To quote the book “The Battle of Brisbane”: The first Australian civilians to greet the Americans were in the SS Koopa… Joan Staines, an 18-year-old secretary, said: ‘We came out of the river and suddenly saw all these huge ships at anchor. My father said, “Cripes, it’s the bloody Yanks.”’[1]

Up to one million US servicemen would be stationed in Queensland during the next four years. In 1941 the population of the entire state was not much more than that. As Prime Minister John Curtin made clear at the time, it was the Americans, not the British, that we would be looking to for help in the Pacific War.

The SS Koopa was requisitioned from 1942 to 1945, stationed at Toorbul and in the Milne Bay area of PNG, before becoming a Moreton Bay excursion boat again. Eventually, she was brought here to Myrtletown and broken up. Those rusting scraps of steel are all that is left.

Brisbane’s Archerfield Airport was an important RAAF base, also used by the Dutch and British air forces and the USAAF.

Archerfield Airport “igloo” building today

Many of its WW2 buildings have been redeveloped for business, those fine old sheds and the “igloo” hangars with their curved roofs.

Wartime sheds and “igloo”, Archerfield Airport

One smaller igloo, now used by a mechanic, was a mess hall during the War. Another one nearby, almost derelict and used for storage, was once perhaps a dance hall or the Officers’ Club.

Just down the road from Archerfield Airport is an old quarry now filled with water. On one side, partly submerged, are concrete air raid shelters built during the war in case of air raids on the airfield. In 1992, some military aircraft and equipment, dumped here after the War, were salvaged from the water.

Partly-submerged air raid shelters, Beatty Rd, Archerfield

In 1942, bomb shelters were rapidly constructed in Brisbane, Townsville, Mackay, Cairns and coastal towns.

Air raid shelters in Ann St, Brisbane, 1942 Photo: State Library of Qld
Air raid shelter in a park in Babinda, FNQ. Now a public toilet

Many are still in use, converted to bus shelters, park shelters and public toilets. They are Queensland’s most common and visible relics of WW2.

Bomb shelter in Nundah, Brisbane, now a public toilet plus bus shelter

There was concern that Mount Isa might be a target, and in 1942 miners carved out a fully functioning underground hospital in the hills near the Base Hospital, complete with electricity, operating theatre, delivery room and wards.

Photo: Mt Isa Underground Hospital and Museum

Now, interested people can visit the Mount Isa Underground Hospital and Museum. https://undergroundhospital.com.au/hospital/

Photo: WW2 Secret Base

Charleville has a “WW2 Secret Base”, where over 3000 US soldiers were stationed, with B-17 bombers and P-40 fighters. A tag-along car tour takes visitors around the sights. https://book.bookeasy.com/agent/wwii-secret-base–tour/8305037/tours/wwii-secret-base/140066#/tours/140066

Newstead, Brisbane, is now gentrifying, but in the 1940s it was a place of warehouses and industry. In Stratton Street, Newstead, old wartime igloos have been redeveloped for entertainment purposes: The Triffid, a much-loved music venue https://thetriffid.com.au, and the upmarket Stratton Bar and Kitchen https://www.stratton.bar.

The iconic curved igloo roof is celebrated in The Triffid’s logo:

A few years ago, Con and I spent a night in a railway carriage at Possum Park, twenty kilometres north of Miles. During the War this was a top-secret RAAF munitions dump, situated, so it’s said, on the notorious Brisbane Line from which Australia would have been defended in the event of a Japanese invasion. 3CR RAAF Kowguran had its own railway branch line and a system of twenty underground concrete bunkers dug into a hill, reportedly storing up to 2500 tons of bombs and ammunition.

“Soldiers storing explosives at 3CR RAAF Kowguran during WW2. Note the ventilation shafts” Photo: ozatwar.com

Now surrounded by gardens, some of the bunkers and the troop train carriages have become tourist accommodation.

Con at the entrance to a WW2 explosives storage bunker, Possum Park

Much of Queensland’s wartime industry was located in the suburb of Rocklea, and many of the old sheds and factory buildings are still there, some derelict and some repurposed, many heritage listed. There were large munitions factories here, and at least one of them remains.

WW2 Munitions Factory, Assembly St, Rocklea

Recently it caught fire, and one end of the enormous building was burnt out. Gus and I, always curious about these things, went to have a look. We walked the 100-metre length of the old factory, past an overgrown bomb shelter, and stared, fascinated, through the chain-link fences and locked gates.

Overgrown bomb shelter, Rocklea

Huge steel beams had been twisted in the heat of the fire, and the roof had collapsed.

After the Munitions factory fire, Rocklea

“It would be great to fly a drone right through there,” said Gus. “We could get a look at what it was like inside.”

WW2 fort, Bribie Island Photo: visitbrisbane.com.au (Main photo: Fort complex, Magnetic Island – en.wikipedia.org)

WW2 coastal fortifications still stand on Bribie Island and Magnetic Island, attracting visitors.

As Gus and I have found, these old sites are fascinating. For amateur researchers there are plenty to explore.

In Queensland and Australia there were bombings, but the threatened invasions didn’t happen. These places were never the scenes of such appalling tragedies as are taking place right now in Ukraine, where the enemy can walk across the border at will.

We were lucky. And we had a powerful ally.


[1] “The Battle of Brisbane”, Peter A Thompson and Robert Macklin. 2000. ABC Books, Sydney. Page 31

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