Australia’s Air War
One of the most vivid images of the Territory in wartime remains the roadside airstrips. Flat tracks carved out of the tropical bush; home to the courageous pilots and aircrews who fought the Air War over Northern Australia and the enemy to the North.
As the Stuart Highway extends to the outer reaches of Darwin, traces of the Territory at war become more frequent, telling the story of the Northern Frontline from the earliest days of the war to its conclusion.
In the early 1940s, as Japan’s aggression in the Pacific began to rise, the RAAF started to develop a series of military airfields across North West Australia under the Aerodrome Development Program. An initial series of five major aerodromes were built between Adelaide River and Birdham to enable aircraft from Darwin to be relocated in the event of a Japanese raid.
My instructions were to be on the strip at 6am with the fire crew. Three planes would take off and you’ll be advised on the time of return.
I heard the first plane take off. Then the second plane took off. Well I just started off when there was a most unholy crash and blinding flash of light, and a bomb had exploded.
I kept on going and got out to the end of the strip, the South end, and had the whole of the strip in front of me - the planes had been taking off from a South to North direction. And we knew the plane had gone in, but we couldn’t make up our minds what we might do. And we were about half way down the strip when another bomb went off. Well this was pretty frightening because there was this huge flash of light and and then the roar of the bomb. And it sounded as though it was just a couple of hundred yards from the end of the strip.
Well when we got to the end of the strip, we were only able to proceed into the bush for perhaps a hundred yards when it got that thick that we couldn’t go any further. Well by this time it was, I would say about half light. By the time we got back into the camp, parties had gone out to look and see if they could find the site of the crash.
Flight sergeant Quinlan told me to take a four-by-four, pick up doctor Storne, who was the Dutch doctor of the squadron, and take him out to the crash. As I pulled up, a stretcher carrying a crew member was being taken to the ambulance. He was still alive and Dr Storne examined him for a moment, then turned away shaking his head. The crewman was shockingly injured and burnt and died later that morning, and he was one of the nine that were killed in the crash of course. I had the sad task of taking seven other bodies back to the squadron.
Next morning, I took a party of about sixteen of the Javanese soldiers to the Adelaide River cemetery to dig the nine graves that were required. The officer in charge was speaking to the Dutchman in Dutch, the Javanese in Malay, and to me in English. But everything got completed in time and with the arrival of the funeral party the burial took place with full military honors.
Following the Japanese attacks on Darwin on 19 February 1942, the program was accelerated; from Coomalie to the outskirts of Darwin, the Highway offers a glimpse of the intense activity and the scale of the infrastructure put in place to fight the Air War over the Top End and to take the fight to the enemy.
Between 1942 and 1944 over 40 airstrips were constructed along the length of the North-South road, most in the Top End.
Named initially by their distance from the Port of Darwin, and later after individuals, the strips have become perhaps the most recognisable symbols of the war fought in Northern Australia.
Livingston Airstrip, or the 34-mile strip was the first to be completed in early 1942. The strip was later named after Lieutenant John D Livingstone, a pilot with the USAAF, who crashed on landing after fighting over Darwin.
Hughes Airfield was established in May 1942 and was the base for RAAF Hudson Bomber missions into enemy territory. The airfield endured three air raids during its operation, but no loss of life.
Known as the 27-mile, Strauss Airstrip became home to American P-40 Kittyhawks, RAAF and RAF Spitfires and was named after Captain Allison Strauss who was lost over Darwin. Strauss remains the most intact of the roadside fighter strips and is a tangible reminder of the exploits and courage of Australian, American and British fighter pilots in the defence of Australia.
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.
North of Pine Creek, McDonald Airfield was constructed by American engineer units in 1942 who named it ‘Burkholder’. It was later dedicated to Wing Commander J R G McDonald who was killed in action in December 1941. Fenton Airfield, 200km south of Darwin was a piece of America planted in the vast Northern Australian Outback. During 1943 and 1944, Fenton was the major offensive base for long range bombing operations against Japanese forces.