Sunday History Photo / WA

Submitted: Sunday, May 10, 2015 at 08:38
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In the blazing heat of the Pilbara, some 36km south of Marble Bar in WA, in desolate semi-desert spinifex country, there can still be seen a few scarce remains of one of the best-kept secrets of Australian involvement in World War II.
The heavily camouflaged and carefully hidden No. 73 Operational Base Unit was known as Corunna Downs - the name of the still-active cattle station on which the base was located.
The long runways built to handle the heaviest four-engined bombers of the day remain - partly overgrown. It seems slowly but surely they are being reclaimed by the desert.

The main runways, measuring 1650m and 2300m long and each 50m wide constructed with bitumen surfaces, are now cracked and parched from exposure to the relentless sun out here and are pretty well covered with sand. In addition there were some 6km of taxiways now almost indistinguishable. A third 2000m runway was apparently planned but never built.
This is harsh, unforgiving country with nearby Marble Bar recognised as Australia's hottest town - certainly not a great place to be working in the pressure conditions of a WWII air base. In addition it is reported that servicemen out here were tormented by flies, scorpions and snakes.
A visit to this lonely centre today in our modern air- conditioned vehicles is much more enjoyable but somewhat eerie, with the piercing call of an occasional crow the only noise that disturbs the vast silence.

Of course, in this remote area, things were not always so deathly quiet, particularly as the regular roar of the four 1200hp Pratt and Whitney engines of the long-range B-24 Liberator bombers wheeled at the end of the runway and paused before commencing their take-off run, heavily laden with bombs to pound Japanese bases on Java, Borneo, Celebes, Singapore and other island targets to the north of the Australia.
In its time it was quite a noisy, bustling place to be. Today, in its peaceful serenity, visitors can only imagine the activity all those years ago.
In this remote country, where the many buildings required for the administration and operation of this little-known but major air base once stood, only a few crumbling concrete foundations can now be seen. What remains of an old windsock pole still stand defiantly near the degraded runways and the earth-formed aircraft bunkers, once covered with camouflage netting and spinifex to hide the planes, can still be seen scattered across the base.

Each of the 20 or so horseshoe- shaped bunkers housed one of the giant bombers, which were tucked away in them after each flight and where maintenance, refuelling and re-arming were carried out.
It is interesting to see how the bunkers (or revetments) were spread far enough apart to minimise damage to the aircraft if the base was ever bombed.
Elsewhere there are small piles of rusting fuel drums, ammunition containers, bomb holders and many other wartime scraps. It is believed all old live ammunition has been cleared away but visitors should be careful they don't stumble over any that may have been missed. After all this time such live rounds would be very unstable and dangerous.
There is a lonely grave at the foot of an ironstone hillside with a small plaque identifying it as the final resting place of RAAF Sgt Ernest Newton Cook (46603) who died out there in a motor vehicle accident on December 5, 1944.

NEWTON COOK Ernest Newton - 46603 RAAF; Year of death - 1944; Cemetery - Geraldton War Cemetery, WA
Bombing mission activity from Corunna hit its peak between 1943 and 1945.
On this almost forgotten spinifex and ironstone countryside, Australian and American air force units (the 30th bomber group of the US Air Force and No. 25 Squadron of the RAAF) blasted the Japanese bases that threatened Australia as well as harassing the enemy shipping which was so vital to Japanese supplies and troop movements.
At any one time some 300 men were based here, living around the airfield in tents in temperatures which sometimes soared to about 50C - harsh conditions indeed.
Although bombers could reach Japanese targets from other northern bases around Darwin, such flying took aircraft over a number of islands which had been taken over by the Japanese. The base at Corunna Downs gave aircraft the advantage of surprise, approaching their targets from over the sea.
It had always been feared the returning bombers may be followed and the location of the base discovered but this was apparently never attempted.
No mention was ever made during the war of these highly secret operations in press or radio reports and every effort was made to keep from the Japanese any knowledge that Corunna Downs airfield existed.

Japanese reconnaissance aircraft however, searched extensively for a base which they knew must be somewhere but their continual scouring always ended in failure.
The Corunna base was officially closed on January 14, 1946.
Even today the importance of the base and the part it played in the latter phases of the war has received little publicity and is largely unknown, even to the many tourists who pass through the nearby centre of Marble Bar each year.
The working life of airmen on the base in the 1940s was harsh and trying. They had minimal facilities, including no air- conditioning or refrigeration. Rations mainly consisted of tinned vegetables and cans of bully beef.
Their water supply (from a brackish bore) was so hot showers were impossible until the pipes cooled down about 9pm. Their four- man tents were basic and living here was particularly uncomfortable in the heavy rains of the annual wet season. Their only real respite from the conditions was an occasional leave visit to the amenities in nearby Marble Bar and the introduction in 1944 of an open- air picture show at the base. However, morale remained high as the airmen realised the important contribution they were making to the war effort from their proudly secret but successfully operated air base.

The Australian Army was much in evidence at the Corunna Downs base during the war providing most of the supply transport as well as its involvement with light and heavy anti-aircraft guns strategically located around the airfield.
The signposted access road (Corunna Downs Station Road/Salgash Road) to the old Corunna Downs Air Base (36km from Marble Bar) is all gravel, usually in quite good condition (except after rain) and can be travelled with care in conventional two- wheel-drive vehicles. Along the way (through old gold and copper mining areas and undulating, spinifex covered hillsides) there are a number of small creek crossings and parts of the road can be a little eroded. The trip is generally OK for off-road caravans or camper trailers but, as there are no facilities and the old base is on the privately-owned Corunna Downs cattle station, permission to camp must be obtained beforehand. Preferably use Marble Bar as a base and make a daytrip out to the air base.
An interesting exercise to help get your bearings before you actually go, is to check on the internet - Google Earth - at 21C125'53.79"S, 119C146'56.73"E - where all the main features can be seen.
Check with the Marble Bar visitor information centre (located in the local shire office) for road conditions and any access restrictions at the time (or ring Corunna Downs on 9176 1051) before heading out to the old base. Allow approximately one-hour travelling each way from Marble Bar.
Additional information on Corunna Downs Air Base (plenty of photos and air base memorabilia) is available at the Comet Gold Mine and Tourist Centre, a few kilometres out of Marble Bar township.

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Reply By: Bob Y. - Qld - Sunday, May 10, 2015 at 09:04

Sunday, May 10, 2015 at 09:04
Thanks Doug,

Where the hell do you dig all this stuff up from? :-) Had never heard of Corunna Downs, though my knowledge of WA is decidedly lacking.

Been a good week for the bucket list........Kennedy Ranges earlier in the week, and now this gem. Think I'm going to need a 2nd bucket!


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Reply By: Member - John Q (QLD) - Sunday, May 10, 2015 at 09:06

Sunday, May 10, 2015 at 09:06
Well done Doug, another place to add to the "bucket list". Thanks for your posts, I always look forward to the Sunday read of your interesting articles.

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Reply By: Member Bushy 04(VIC) - Sunday, May 10, 2015 at 09:18

Sunday, May 10, 2015 at 09:18
Brilliant Dough, you make it interesting .
Would love to visit that site ,it must have been a real sight when it was operational.
Thanks again I look forward to your Sunday stories.

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Reply By: Member - Ian F (WA) - Sunday, May 10, 2015 at 10:46

Sunday, May 10, 2015 at 10:46
Thanks Doug,
When I was in Newman/Karijini a couple of years ago I bought the book, very interesting reading.
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Reply By: Nomadic Navara - Sunday, May 10, 2015 at 13:23

Sunday, May 10, 2015 at 13:23
The Google Earth co-ords that Doug gave would not work for me in either Bing or Google maps. I fiddles and found that - 21°25'53.8"S 119°46'56.7"E - would work.

Thanks Doug. apart from the co-ords it was an excellent article.
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Reply By: sub - Sunday, May 10, 2015 at 19:12

Sunday, May 10, 2015 at 19:12
thanks Doug.we were there about 4 years ago.very interesting place and with this write up adds a lot more info.Had worked east of Marble Bar in the early 80s and had heard of Corunna Downs and was great to finally be able to get to see it.
Cheers Dean
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Reply By: Member - Howard (ACT) - Sunday, May 10, 2015 at 19:20

Sunday, May 10, 2015 at 19:20
Thanks Doug,
must say our visit out to this old base was one of the highlights of our 100 nights in WA in 2012.
did it as a day trip from Marble Bar but could have spent lots longer looking around.

must admit I didnt realise the strips had been tarred .ran up and down both runways and apart from the obvious cattle tracks in a few places would consider them still serviceable although a few trees along the edges now.
while the area was repatriated after the closure there is a lot of stuff still about especially near the area where the australians were housed in their tents.
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Reply By: Gerard B2 - Sunday, May 10, 2015 at 21:24

Sunday, May 10, 2015 at 21:24
What a great read,my father talked about the time he spent here when he was in the war , fantastic , can't wait to get there someday .
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Reply By: Member - bungarra (WA) - Monday, May 11, 2015 at 12:35

Monday, May 11, 2015 at 12:35
Well done Doug..

I have had the privilege of visiting there some 10 years ago and it was a very exciting and yet sobering experience.

Not sure how old your photos are of the site as it stands now...but it doesn't look a lot different in state to when we were there

When standing there on site it becomes immediately obvious how the site is sort of "sunk down" from the surrounding landscape and when standing on an observation hill ( the little observation shelter was still there ) it certainly well chosen. As you said by careful scouting around you can see where the aircraft shelters were strategically spread around to minimise damaged if one was bombed.....all in all well worth the effort to go and look

I would thoroughly recommend that members make the effort to visit the site if they are in the vicinity



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Reply By: ian.g - Monday, May 11, 2015 at 15:46

Monday, May 11, 2015 at 15:46
Extremely well researched and written, a real credit to you. Thanks
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Reply By: Member - Alan H (QLD) - Monday, May 11, 2015 at 21:43

Monday, May 11, 2015 at 21:43
Thanks Doug.

Another place to go on my to do list

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