Tocumwal Historic Aerodrome Museum
(work in progress)
A story of the war years at Tocumwal Aerodrome by Bob Brown.
Tocumwal Historic Aerodrome Museum THAM.
On film, radio and television, in newspapers, magazines and books, we lived again those desperate years and Australians everywhere were surprised how the memory had faded and how old, how very old, the veterans had become. So it was out of this that THAM was formed. THAM being the acronym of the "Tocumwal Historic Aerodrome Museum."
So, why Tocumwal, the back of beyond, for the largest aerodrome at the time in the Southern Hemisphere? To answer that question we have to go back to those fearful years, to the beginning of 1942, when Japan's military might was in full flight towards us. England's invincibility had just been shattered with the sinking of the capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse, off Singapore which had fallen almost without fight, Papua New Guinea was being occupied and Australia itself was under attack, with the first of 64 air raids on Darwin and surrounding areas. For the first time, bombs were falling on Australian soil and Australian people for the first terrible time were experiencing the terror of air attack, the crash and concussion of bombing, the roar of machine gunning, the stench of smoke and fire and death, and above all, the awful realisation that we were virtually defenceless against an enemy in full cry towards us. Our few obsolete Wirraway fighters were brushed aside, an immediate total loss - a squadron of Kittyhawks newly arrived with inexperienced pilots and our few anti - aircraft batteries had no hope of stemming the tide.
Although there were many superb acts of deformation and bravery, both civilian and military, unfortunately panic set in before proper organisation and control could be set up. Hundreds of civilians and servicemen escaped southwards, knowing full well that if air raids were followed by troop landings, they would suffer the same ominous fate as the conquered peoples to the north. To prevent the spread of panic to the entire Australian population, the Government immediately imposed a blanket censorship on the extent of the disaster in Darwin and Broome. newspapers reported the occurrence of the main raids, the dropping of some bombs, limited damage, a few casualties, and the Australian people slumbered on.
But the Government knew what we were up against and well knew the pitiable state of our defences, the hopelessness of defending our endless shoreline and vast empty interior. Withdrawals began - one totally unreported but significant event was the biggest droving operation in Australia's history - the movement of 80,000 head of cattle to the south, out of all northern areas to deny this food to the invader.
Everything was concentrated behind the Brisbane Line, the little known, but horribly realistic defence line between Brisbane and Melbourne. All to the north and west of it surrendered to the Japanese and the corner south and east of it hopefully within our defence capability. Think of it - not a line between Cairns and Broome, or between Brisbane and Perth, or even between Brisbane and Adelaide, but just a corner between Brisabane, Sydney, Canberra, Albury and Melbourne. All the rest in the hands of the enemy. So, along this front line they needed large airfields from which they could attack the Japanese advance across Australia.
Tocumwal was selected because of its flat, open terrain, considerable distance from the coast, readily available power and water, road and rail links and within reasonable reach of Melbourne headquarters. It was decided that a heavy bomber base be built for the US Army Air Force.
One day, several farmers noticed strangers on their properties cutting telephone wires and removing poles and fences. When approached, the visitors simply told the farmers to vacate their homes, pack their belongings and get off their properties. It was as sudden and brutal as that. Their homes, sheds and fences were immediately bulldozed and construction work began at once, such was the urgency of February 1942. Some 2,700 construction workers of the newly formed Allied Works Council descended on Tocumwal and in a frantic effort had the runways ready for the first landings in five weeks.
It was a prodigious feat - around the clock, thousands of workers excavated earth, carted granite base from the local quarry, rolled foundations, poured concrete and tar and dug miles of drains. At night, the Tocumwal plain was lurid with glare and smoke from hundreds of flares. Machinery was commandeered instantly - two huge drag lines dredges each weighing 120 tons, crawled 70 miles from Deniliquin at a third of a mile per hour - they came straight across country, building their own pathway, filling, crossing and clearing creeks, drains and channels as they came. On the field they were followed by old Bedford and Ford trucks, all the farmers tractors, horses and drays and the huge labour force wielding pick and shovel.
Despite the crisis, Australians will be Australians - two anecdotes are revealing. One story is of a truckie who went to the main gate with his load, got his payment chit signed by the foreman, then sneaked out a side track with his load still aboard, then came round to the main gate again and again. And there was the Ford truckie who kept going down the runways at a snail's pace. When asked by the American construction captain why so slow, he said "I'm running - in my engine after a rebore." The Yank yelled back at him saying "Get that Ford truck going flat out, we've got plenty of motors and we'll keep putting in new ones until the job's finished - now get going," or words to that effect.
McIntyre Field, as the Americans named it was a huge undertaking. The four runways each a mile in length, and the 70 miles of taxiways and roads, absorbed three months output of BHP's tar production. There were 450 buildings, including the giant hangars capable of housing the 110 foot by 70 foot Liberator bombers, and a huge 200 bed RAAF hospital complex of buildings secreted in a forest of Murray Pines, well away from the field.
Overall it was spread over 8 square miles to ensure defensive dispersal of aircraft, fuel and personnel. It was disguised as much as possible by designing the accommodation buildings in the shape of normal houses and by aligning them on continuations of the streets of the town. In 16 weeks it was largely complete - the Americans poured in - over 7,000 of them were to spend time at Tocumwal.
The rail - head disgorged endless amounts of men and material. Over 400 interned aliens under control of the army, provided the huge amount of labour required to handle the rail cargo at the break of gauge on the Victorian / NSW border. The Americans shook their heads in disbelief at the inefficiencies caused by the different rail gauges in each state.
By the end of 1942, after expenditure of some three million pounds, the aerodrome was ready to meet the onslaught which daily seemed inevitable. Then on the 8th. of May, the Battle of the Coral Sea halted Japan's advance, reinforced by the successful repulse at Midway, Milne Bay and Kokoda. It now looked as though Australia was safe - a huge selective sigh of relief!
The Americans took off from Tocumwal. One morning the local residents woke to find the tent cities gone, the vast aerodrome silent and empty. General George C. Kenney commanding Allied Air Forces in the South West Pacific Area, just looked at it and said -
Which is exactly what the Americans did - they did it all again at Garbutt Air Base at Townsville in Queensland.
The Tocumwal Aerodrome had gone through a frantic construction stage one, a brief American occupation stage two, and in November 1942 it entered its main stage three, with the RAAF operating it as a giant multi - function aircraft depot and training base for bomber air crews and paratroops.
As all types of aircraft were ferried in, they were serviced, modified, armed and made fully operational. The types of aircraft made a formidable list - you may remember some of their names:-
Aircraft were in the air night and day, seven days a week, practising take-offs and landings, flying formations, fighting tactics, bombing and gunnery. Spent cartridges littered the ground, even into the gardens of the local houses, houses which at night cowered in the white glare of landing lights or vibrated to the roar of engines being run flat out in the engine test cells. Vultee Vengeances were used to tow drogue targets for the gunners, not a popular duty, and Kittyhawks attacked formations of Liberators in mock aerial battles.
Long flights of over 3,000 miles to learn navigation, and the featureless terrain of western New South Wales was ideal for this purpose as it was similar to flying over the ocean. Fifty four of the big Liberators were stationed at Tocumwal and they turned out eleven man crews every two months. Young boys of 18 or 19 had to become men in that all too short two months, responsible for the operation of a big aircraft and all its complex systems. A clerk had to become a competent pilot, a factory worker a flight engineer, a teacher a bomb aimer, an accountant a navigator, a telephone linesman a wireless operator, a baker a gunner - imagine you and I meeting a giant bomber tomorrow and having to take it to war in 8 weeks time.
What this desperate pressure meant of course was that there were plenty of accidents and many young men died during training. It was a deadly mix of untried aircrews, new aircraft that malfunctioned or were sabotaged, inexperienced ground staff and not least the often appalling weather conditions - extreme heat and cold, gale force winds, drought conditions and unbelievable dust storms, which blocked out the sun and reduced visibility to zero.
The dust was an ever present menace to all things mechanical - in the hangar after a dust storm, they swept 600 kilograms of dust from the wings and fuselage of a Liberator.
Apart from the adventures of the bombers, the fighter pilots were always looking for trouble. By the very nature of their training they took a lot of chances. They flew on the edge and were encouraged to do so in order to develop the skills and reflexes required for combat flying.
The Beaufighter was used with outstanding success as a ground attack weapon. "Two Beaufighters hurtling at ground level across the open plains of the Riverna, one above the other. They come over a rise and are confronted by a stand of Murray Pines. The lower one cannot rise being covered by the upper plane. It streaks between the tree trunks shearing off the wings and engines. The fuselage ploughs on to an eventual gentle stop - the crew steps out to try again another day. One of the propellors still stands in a cairn on the property."
Low flying was also hazardous for the local people. The Beaufighter was known as Whispering Death, because it flew ahead of its sound and you could not hear it coming.
And Lake Mulwala played its part in tragedy too. Paratrooper training was tough and unforgiving. Parachute jumps were made from Dakotas over open country just north east of the Tocumwal Aerodrome.
There are many stories to be told about the Tocumwal Aerodrome and the way people lived and played. With 5,000 RAAF personnel, including 400 WAAAF's descending upon a township of then 500 people and staying nearly 20 years, there are stories there worth saving. The impact upon the town must have been considerable - the shops and cafes inundated. The church congregations swelled to capacity, romances led to weddings, entertainment in homes, cinemas and dance halls were packed out, cricket, football, tennis, and swimming at the famous Tocumwal beaches were popular forms of recreation. Touring entertainers gave concerts in the giant hangars - when Gracie Fields sang Ave Maria and The Lord's Prayer to a hushed audience, 5,000 young faces crumpled into wistful longing for home and loved ones.
The aerodrome's stage four was, in hindsight, a crime and a tragedy. At the war's end, Tocumwal as Australia's major aircraft depot, received hundreds upon hundreds of all types of aircraft for mothballing and storage. The rows of aircraft, packed wing tip to wing tip stretched as far as the eye could see, from one perimeter fence to the other. Nobody wanted these faithful machines that served Australia so well. Everyone wanted to forget the war and
After languishing in the elements for ten years or more, they were all, every last one of them, chopped up and smelted down into ingots of aluminium. Post-war, with everything in short supply, aluminium was a much needed commodity. It was needed for pots and pans and for the new Holden motorcar coming into production. Scrap metal merchants set up smelters on the aerodrome and bought the planes by the hundreds - 157 Pounds 12 Shillings and 6 pence each for complete Beaufighters, 20 Pounds for Beaufords, 15 Pounds for Kittyhawks, 8 Pounds for Vultee Vengeances - Liberators, Flying Fortresses, Mustangs, Mosquitoes, Wirraways, all went to the furnaces.
Today, anyone of these aircraft would be priceless. It's easy to be wise after the event, but it's beyond understanding that someone, somewhere did not have the foresight to save a few of these Australian treasures. Similarly, nearly all the 450 aerodrome buildings and all the hospital buildings were sold and removed. After the war when building materials were virtually unobtainable, the hangars, huts and workshops were snapped up by builders, giving no thought to any historical value. One of the biggest hangars, a giant igloo type, can be seen today in use at Cornish Fruit Growers at Cottons Road, Cobram, and many huts, built in the shape of houses form a section of the suburb of O'Connor in Canberra where they are now Heritage Listed by the National Trust.
Three hangars remain at the aerodrome, two for storage, but one still lives in active use by the Sportavia Soaring Centre. Within its cavernous interior, particularly at night, there is an atmosphere of the past. We frequently see elderly ladies and gentlemen standing quietly inside it, lost in thought and memory. It is for these people and their children and grandchildren, that the Tocumwal Historic Aerodrome Museum is collecting history in stories and photographs, had a book of record published, acquired a WW11 aircraft and is planning to display it all in an appropriate museum setting.
Today, there are several restoration groups in Australia, which are moving heaven and earth to reconstruct some of the aircraft that we have lost. The aerodrome is associated with the Liberator reconstruction group, which regularly visits our area to search for missing parts. They use metal detectors and proper archaeological dig techniques - they have unearthed many valuable parts to add to a wing from New Guinea and a fuselage from Gippsland in Victoria. It is a ten year project and they work with voluntary labour, freely give.
Why do they do it? Why does Tocumwal wish to have an Historic Aerodrome Museum? It does so in order to pay tribute to the men and machines of World War 11. It is not to glorify war, which is the most terrible of man's follies, but to acknowledge the determination of young people who saved our country for us. We would do well to preserve what little history we do have and to ensure that the ideals and achievements of those earlier times are recorded and displayed, so that today's young people can look, read, and wonder and dwell upon the thought -
And secondly, we wish to have an Historic Aerodrome Museum, because in today's terms the aerodrome is an asset. Country towns struggle for existence. All along the Murray River, the border towns are reidentifying themselves. No longer just a poker machine destination, the area is now marketing its real benefits to the tourism industry. The Murray development initiatives are encouraging each of the districts to analyse, develop and promote all their natural advantages and then, most importantly, to link all the districts into a cohesive package for tourism.
We see the Tocumwal Historic Aerodrome as having the potential to be a major component of that package. So, many people are now recognising the worth of a Tocumwal Historic Aerodrome Museum, not only for the past, but also for the present and the future of Tocumwal. Annual membership of the group is available for $10.00 per person, for participation in monthly meetings and in projects such as the current effort to map and sign post significant aerodrome sites. And if you feel that you can assist with a story, a photograph, any memorabilia, a contact, or even a donation, then you will be helping to breathe life into a sleeping giant, the Tocumwal Historic Aerodrome.
Address for correspondence:-