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Fenton: A Piece of America

Fenton Airfield, 200km south of Darwin, was a piece of America planted in the vast Northern Territory Outback. During 1943 and 1944 Fenton was the major offensive base for long range bombing operations against Japanese forces.

Found along the Douglas Hot Springs road 13kms south of the Stuart Highway turn off, Fenton Airfield is one of the most complete wartime airfields in existence in Northern Australia and is entered on the Northern Territory Heritage Register. The site includes the Group Headquarters, Fenton Headquarters, US 86 Station Hospital and the Fenton Aircraft Graveyard.

Construction of Fenton Airfield began in 1942 and was first home to American B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators to undertake strike and reconnaissance missions. Operations flown by the USAAF from Fenton, struck deep into enemy held territory, as far as Borneo to the north-west and the Soloman Islands to the east. The enemy was well aware of Fenton’s strategic importance and strike power, and the Japanese retaliated with a number of ‘Betty’ bomber air raids. Australian forces came to Fenton in March 1943 with the arrival of anti-aircraft batteries to defend this vital offensive base.

The Fenton Group Headquarters was located north of the airfield on the flat beneath the ‘headquarters hill’. The hill contained the commanding officer’s quarters, group administration, the intelligence unit, medical unit, an open-air picture theatre, and the officer’s facilities, including clubs and messes.

Lieutenant Clyde Barnet

At about 1.30 we got word to standby, that there might be something doing. My throat went dry as a bone and I couldn't swallow. At the time, my stomach heaved and I could taste sour bile in my mouth.

All this time I was running to my plane getting in, starting up. I taxied out. It was not until I was at 5,000 feet that I settled down. I was stretching my neck trying to look in all directions at once, when I heard Morehead’s voice, calling his flight. Very calm and distinct. Just like in practice.

“Enemy bombers, three o'clock high.”

Pretty soon we were closing, and above and behind him passing over the right side into the sun, I noticed there were several stragglers and one had a long stream of white smoke trailing back. As I watched his right wing burst into flame, crumpled off, he went into a flaming spin and crashed into the ocean. The flame was beautiful, rich, red orange. The smoke was black.

By this time we were on the right side of the formation and about 2,000 feet above them. We started edging in towards the bombers. I went into my dive and started firing from a pretty good way back. I had to pull in behind 'em and I swept the whole fuselage from tail to nose, and across the right engine. I pulled away, watched him burn and crash into the sea.

I heard a "thud, thud, thud" and imagined I felt the plane jump. I pushed the nose down and I looked over my shoulder and I saw zero about seven or eight hundred feet back, right at my tail. I headed straight down and was almost immediately in a 500 mile per hour vertical dive. I held it there for a few seconds, glanced around and started easing out.

I landed with about 15 gallons of gas. When I got out I found three small calibre bullet holes in my plane. One in each wing and one in the left elevator.

Final score for the eighth that day was: eight bombers and three zeros. There was some real excitement around there that afternoon. They brought us some sandwiches and iced tea, and I realised how much I needed it.

The US 86 Station Hospital was established to provide medical aid for the USAAF and support units at Fenton Airfield. The Hospital was staffed by eight doctors, a dentist, fifteen nurses, three administrators and about a hundred enlisted men. It provided a wide range of services including X-ray and pathology. Its staff dealt with a variety of disorders including scurvy, malaria, dengue fever and a number of communicable diseases.

Betty, nurse

We were treating every type of case: surgical, skins, medical, anything. We had eight or nine very badly burnt cases come in together. Unfortunately two of those died. An ammunition dump exploded, and they were all very badly burnt, mainly in the back from running away from it. Most of the men worked in just shorts, so had no protection. And just boots, and the boots were burnt off their feet, so it was a very very busy time for us. We worked sometimes from 7 in the morning ’til 10 at night.

With hundreds of American airmen and support units based at Fenton, in December 1943 Hollywood came to the Outback. A USO variety show starring John Wayne, Gary Cooper and other popular celebrities of the time performed under the stars to the delight of the hundreds of airman.

By August 1944 the American squadrons had moved north to Darwin and were replaced by RAAF units who continued long-range missions.

Inevitably numbers of aircraft were written off at Fenton, either through accidents or enemy action. A cleared crash-landing strip and an aircraft graveyard was established during 1943 to assist in the salvage and reuse of scarce parts and airframes. Assignment of aircraft to the graveyard – or salvage – depended on the extent of damage. In recent years souvenir hunters have removed many important items. Please respect this site and leave it as you find it. The aircraft graveyard is part of the declared heritage area entered in the Northern Territory Heritage Register.

Please note – this site is on private property and is not accessible to the public without owners’ approval.