Seventy-five years ago this week, a camouflaged airfield hidden in the mulga of Queensland’s south west was a hive of activity as the Battle of the Coral Sea was being fought off Queensland’s shores.
A secret weapon housed in the unlikely location of Charleville was being used by American B17 Flying Fortress bombers to inflict damage on the Imperial Japanese Navy in the strategic 1942 naval combat that ultimately repelled the Japanese invasion of Australia.
These days, passengers waiting at Charleville to board routine commercial flights to Brisbane can easily immerse themselves in that era, and find out more about the relics left behind of a world war that touched Australia in many different ways.
The Murweh Shire Council and a variety of supporters have been working hard to let the world know the strategic role its town played in the life-or-death campaign.
Because of its distance inland, enemy planes were unable to fly there and back on one tank of fuel, and so Charleville’s airfield became home to a computerised bomb aimer developed by the American military.
Such was its ability to accurately direct bombs to targets kilometres below that the Norden bomb sight was guarded 24/7 by military police in a concrete bunker, only taken out and fitted just prior to take-off.
The story of the military advantage, and the huge US troop base surrounding it, is capturing the imagination of an increasing number of visitors, thanks to the development of its tourism potential, but supporters are keen for government financial support to make it a fully-fledged attraction.
Peter Wade’s ultimate ambition is to have a complete B17 Flying Fortress stationed in one of the revetments but he says US sources “aren’t coming to the party”.
Failing that, a mural has been created, and the old airport terminal is being turned into a museum to house the history behind the amazing story.
“It’s not just about the war either,” he said. “Charleville is a very aviation-minded town. Amy Johnson stopped here on an early air race, the first commercial Qantas flight took off here for Cloncurry, and we have the RFDS base.”
The Charleville Airfield and World War II Museum Ltd Co has formed to begin the cataloging process, and has been planning a public night to help the public understand possible relics they might have, without knowing their significance.
It has also been in touch with Regional Development Minister, Fiona Nash to raise awareness of the wartime treasure it is keeping safe.
“We are going to need some funding if we’re going to achieve our goal of converting the old terminal building into a museum,” Peter Wade said. “The time is right now to move ahead, with the interest in tourism and history.”
Airside in wartime
The statistics are mind-boggling – 3500 US airmen and auxiliary personnel stationed at Charleville from 1942 to 1946, 101 buildings constructed, a civil construction corps of 400, taking up an area greater than Eagle Farm airport in Brisbane – in a secret location away from Japanese attack capabilities.
These are some of the gems revealed in the tagalong tours being conducted by the Murweh Shire Council to interpret the scattered remains of the community built for the war effort.
It’s only through plaques and the words of tour guides that one comes to fully comprehend the scale of the centre from the skeletal remains left behind.
Among the treasures are the remains of bitumen baths, a weekly treat to remove ticks, fleas and lice; and a dance hall where American officers tried to impress Charleville’s young ladies, much to the disgust of the local men.
The Royal Flying Doctor Service uses the only remaining hangar left on site.
The full historic experience can be taken in via a tagalong tour operated by the Murweh Shire Council.