Sunday History Photo / Qld

Submitted: Sunday, Jul 17, 2011 at 02:28
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In late May 1942 RAAF and USAAF personnel conducted a ground survey of Iron Range, guided by the local miner Jack Gordon. A flat area of dense coastal rainforest was chosen just east of the Claudie River, as this was the nearest suitable airfield site to existing harbour facilities at Portland Roads- where a jetty had been built about 1938 to service goldfields in the area. The only alternative route to Iron Range for truck convoys was overland from Townsville via Chillagoe, the Mitchell River, and Coen a trip which took 10 days.
Iron Range Advanced Operational Base (AOB) was initially referred to by the Americans as 'Portland Roads', although Portland Roads was in fact located 35 km north of the airfield. A radar unit (RAAF 43 Radar Station) and a coastal gun battery (east of the jetty site) were located at Portland Roads during the war.
An advance party of the US 46th Engineers General Service Regiment left Townsville by sea for Portland Roads in early June 1942, accompanied by a Queensland Main Roads Commission (MRC) team. In addition, an advance party of RAAF No.26 Operational Base Unit (OBU) arrived at Portland Roads on 10 June to establish wireless communication with Townsville.
The US Engineer companies began operations by improving the road and clearing a short landing strip (northwest of the later Gordon Strip, located south of the intersection of Lockhart River Road and Portland Road) for use by a DH-89 Dragon Rapide aircraft. On 12 July more units of the US 46th Engineers arrived equipped with bulldozers, graders and large trucks. After completing the clearing of the 120 degree runway 'Gordon Strip' the engineers turned to clearing aircraft taxiways and dispersal bays, and clearing of the 160 degree runway 'Claudie Strip'. Work was rushed to make Gordon Strip ready for use by USAAF medium bombers, and it was completed as an unsurfaced and unsealed runway by 18 August 1942.

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Top 2 photo's courtesy Peter Dunn's Oz@War website.

On 9 September ten B-26 Martin Marauder medium bombers of the 19th Bombardment Squadron (BS) of the 22nd Bombardment Group (BG), USAAF, arrived and two days later proceeded on the first operational bombing mission from Iron Range. A second squadron of B-26 Marauder bombers (33rd BS, 22nd BG) landed at Iron Range two weeks later. In late 1942 B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers of the 43rd BG also commenced operations from Gordon Strip and three squadrons of this Group (64th, 65th, and 403rd BS) flew from Iron Range until the last squadron of the Group left in late November 1942.
The airfield was initially protected by light anti-aircraft units, but a defence against high-flying Japanese aircraft arrived in October 1942 when eight 3.7-inch Quick Firing (QF) A.A MkII guns of the 36th Australian Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery (Static) were unloaded at Portland Roads. The guns were transported to Iron Range where two gun stations were established almost 5 km apart, one north of Gordon Strip and one west of Claudie Strip.
Both gun stations consisted of four 3.7-inch anti-aircraft guns on static mounts within in-ground concrete gun emplacements of octagonal shape. The interior walls of each gun emplacement contained recesses where ready ammunition for each gun was stored on wooden racks (some racks still survive). The guns were arranged in an arc, and were co-ordinated from a reinforced concrete semi-underground Command Post (CP) in the centre of the arc. Within the CP were a roofed plotting room, plus open pits for a height finder and predictor, the latter being a mechanical computing machine that predicted the future position of a target. Nearby were four semi-underground magazines of reinforced concrete. Gun crews were housed in tents near the guns and a nearby camp with kitchen, mess and ablution block was attached to each gun station. Construction of the gun stations by the MRC was delayed due to shortages of labour and the difficulty of obtaining transport for men and materials. However, construction was almost completed by early April 1943 when funds were allocated for camouflage of the gun stations.
Australian Civil Constructional Corps (CCC) workers were employed at Iron Range to assist the US Engineers with the construction and maintenance of the airfield. By early November 1942 a total of 48 gravel-surfaced dispersal bays had been formed; three camp sites between the strips had been built for 400 men each and an earth dam had been constructed on the river near the north end of Claudie Strip. Early November saw the commencement of bitumen sealing of Claudie Strip by the 46th Engineers, and the taxiways and dispersal bays were also sealed. Gordon Strip, still only a gravel surface which required constant watering to control dust, became the only useable runway for several weeks while sealing of Claudie was underway.
The first squadron of B-24 Liberator heavy bombers of the 90th BG (with four squadrons) arrived at Iron Range in early November 1942, and by this time Iron Range had become congested. With Claudie Strip still being sealed the Marauder medium bombers of 22nd BG were sharing Gordon Strip with the Liberators of 90th BG, while one squadron of Marauders continued to use Claudie. Aircraft were parked nose to runway both sides of Gordon strip, where the rainforest was retained close to the edge of the strip for camouflage. The decision to operate heavy bombers, rather than just medium bombers, meant that wing-tip clearance was further reduced. The narrow strip, parked aircraft and dust led to an accident during a takeoff of the 90th BG during the night of 16-17 November 1942. One B-24 collided with parked aircraft and exploded, killing 11 men.
Note: This could be same accident mentioned in the book called "Savage Wilderness" which is about B-24 Little Eva that crashed West of Burketown.

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In May 1943, due to concerns over the lack of construction progress, the Headquarters of USAFFE (United States Army Forces in the Far East) took over responsibility for construction. The US Fifth Air Force had decided to build up Iron Range as a heavy bomber base and the United States Army Services of Supply (USASOS) requested that the AWC organise the sealing of Gordon strip, and construction of 24 blast pens. A third airstrip (New Claudie) was also requested, to replace the flood prone Claudie Strip, along with a further 10 blast pens. An AWC Works Requisition for the above projects was issued on 2 July 1943, and in August the USASOS also requested reconstruction of the road to Portland Roads and two new camp sites at Iron Range airfield- one north of the east end Gordon Strip, and one south of the west end of Gordon Strip. These were each constructed with 6 buildings plus latrines and bath houses.
Although Gordon strip was sealed, the road was reconstructed and the two new camps were completed, the blast pens were cancelled, as was the sealing of New Claudie Strip. All work was cancelled on development of Iron Range as a heavy bomber base on 15 May 1944, and AWC plant and personnel were withdrawn during August 1944. The 3.7-inch HAA defences were withdrawn from Iron Range during June 1944.
From 30 June 1944 onwards, the RAAF assumed total command of the base. The Australian Air Board subsequently decided that the airfield was no longer required as an operational base, although it would be available for use by aircraft flying the coastal route to and from New Guinea. This decision necessitated the maintenance of only one runway and Gordon Strip was chosen. With the lessening of activities at Iron Range, RAAF No.26 OBU was disbanded in December 1944 and a small operational base detachment of No.27 OBU became responsible for the maintenance of the airfield which functioned as an emergency landing ground for the remainder of the war. No.27 OBU was disbanded in April 1946.
After the war the RAAF leased Gordon Strip from the State of Queensland, the airfield being held in the category 'retained but not maintained', with the Commonwealth Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) in permissive occupancy. In March 1954 the lease was transferred from the RAAF to the DCA. In recent years Gordon Strip has been upgraded as Lockhart River Airport.

If anyone has some photo’s of old remains around Iron Range and would like to share you can email them to me

The text below is from Linda Phillips of Byron, Minesotta, USA, her Dad , Harry Boller was stationed there for a while until they all moved to Nadzab Airfields near Lae, PNG.

There's a guy somewhere in Queensland, I think, who wrote a book about Iron Range. He contacted me when he was writing the book because he saw some of my photos and thought they could have been taken at Iron Range. I haven't read the book, but I believe he used some of my photos in that book. (I gave him permission to use them).

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From what I understand, Iron Range was the hell-hole of the world back in 1942 when the 90th Bomb Group was first deployed there. Here are a couple of photos he figured might have been taken at Iron Range.
I'm sure they used those jeeps for many things. When first sent to Iron Range, there was absolutely nothing there to support a military contingent. They had to start from the very beginning. There was no drinkable water or any kind of structure. I remember Dad telling me that the war wasn't going well at that point (August, 1942) either. Life was difficult and bombing missions were hit or miss, planes crashed, men died, living conditions were ghastly. I think eventually, things got a little better there, but the 90th was eventually moved to New Guinea. I think Dad's squadron (319th) was one of the last ones to move.
Thank you Linda for the photo's and the Info.

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Reply By: gbc - Sunday, Jul 17, 2011 at 07:31

Sunday, Jul 17, 2011 at 07:31
Excellent as usual Doug.
I flew in an out of Iron Range a few times during the 80's in a Brazilia during the wet.
SOP was to back the plane into the scrub, full power and brakes on, send a cruiser ute screaming off through the rain to hopefully clear out the local widlife (roos and pigs mainly), then give her everything to clear the scrub at the other end.
Don't think much has changed to rid it of the 'hellhole' tag either....
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Reply By: Member - Geoff the chef (NSW)M - Sunday, Jul 17, 2011 at 08:43

Sunday, Jul 17, 2011 at 08:43
thanks Doug, an excellent sunday read as usual.
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Reply By: Member - Tezza Qld - Sunday, Jul 17, 2011 at 14:00

Sunday, Jul 17, 2011 at 14:00
Thanks Doug

Another terrific and informative read.

Cheers Teza
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Reply By: Member - Vince M (NSW) - Monday, Jul 18, 2011 at 09:56

Monday, Jul 18, 2011 at 09:56
Doug excellent as usual
I remember old Ross Pope (ex light house keeper) who lived at Portland Roads for many years (died 2009? on chilli beach) back in the seventy,s telling me that originally the strip was built to test a Experimental bomb in the area, I,m sure there,s a plague at the strip now that goes into it. Ross used to have allot of photos of the area he had collected over the years, he,s wife or sons would likely have them. I no longer have there addresses but the house at Portland roads is still there & owned by the boys Ph40607193 they maybe able to help. The guy at the cafe has a few as well he was interested in a few copies of mine with the old wharf & how there was little vegetation about
regards Vince
AnswerID: 460276

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