This is a fascinating essay written by Bob Brown from the Museum, and contains a lot of extra info
BRIEF HISTORY OF TOCUMWAL AERODROME.
19th February 1942 - Australia was under attack, with Japan launching the first of 64 air raids on Darwin. Invasion appeared imminent and before the arrival of the American Forces, we were virtually defenceless. It seemed that N-W Australia would have to be sacrificed. In an effort to concentrate our defences in the S-E of the continent, the Brisbane Line strategy was considered, a final defence line drawn between Brisbane and Melbourne. Tocumwal, being right on the Brisbane Line, was selected for a heavy bomber base for the United States Army Air Corps. So great was the emergency, there was no time to give land owners notice. Tocumwal property owners such as the Hawkins, Keough, Hearn, Batters and Thorburn were shocked to be given just 24 hours to vacate
and then see their properties immediately bulldozed. 2700 construction workers of the Allied Works Council began creating the huge airbase and working day and night, had a runway ready for first landings in 5 weeks. They commandeered farm tractors, trucks, horses, anything to frantically complete the task. Over an area of 5,200 acres, they built
4 runways up to 1,850 metres in length, 112 kms of roadways and taxiways, 6.4 kms of branch railway line to a new rail platform on the field, 7 giant hangars to house the big Liberator bombers, 600 other buildings for hangars, workshops, mess halls, sleeping quarters, administration and a 200 bed hospital. In just 16 weeks, after expenditure of A$6 million, they built, in Tocumwal, the largest aerodrome in the southern hemisphere.
On completion of the aerodrome at the end of April 1942, the Americans poured in with all their aircraft and equipment. They named it “McIntyre Field” and established a huge supply and services base ready to back-up combat bases in the north of Australia, preparing for the then expected invasion of the mainland. The air was filled with their B17 Flying Fortresses, Kittyhawks, Airacobras, Vultee Vengeances, Dakotas and on the ground the streets were alive with convoys of military trucks, jeeps, motor-cycle despatch riders and squads of American personnel. Many of those personnel were welcomed into the homes of local residents where they were treated with a taste of home and family life and happily partnered the young ladies of the district to cinemas & dances. But then, on the 8th May 1942, virtually eight days after completion of the aerodrome, everything changed. The battle of the Coral Sea, for the first time, stopped Japan’s southward advance, and with further successes at Midway, Milne Bay and Kokoda, the threat of invasion steadily receded. The American General George C. Kenney commanding Allied Air Forces in the S-W Pacific Area looked at Tocumwal Aerodrome and said – “Mighty fine air base - just shift it 2,000 miles north closer to the enemy” ! Which is exactly what the Americans did, transferring to Queensland and building Garbutt Air Base at Townsville for the next stage of their advance towards Japan. For the remainder of the war, American units rotated through Tocumwal on special training courses in signals, navigation, bombing and gunnery, engine repair and maintenance, a total
of 7,000 American personnel, a major presence in Tocumwal.
AUSTRALIAN OCCUPATION 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 taking it over as a giant multi-function depot for aircraft repair and maintenance and training base for recruits, bomber aircrews and paratroopers.
All types of aircraft came in - battered planes from combat zones for urgent repair, new planes ferried in from overseas to be serviced, modified, armed and made fully operational.
54 of the big Liberator bombers were stationed at Tocumwal and they turned out new eleven man crews every eight weeks. Local residents watched the Liberators in mock battles with Kittyhawk fighters, or in gunnery practice with Vultee Vengeances towing drogue targets, and paratroopers jumping from Dakota aircraft. Accidents were inevitable and the Tocumwal Services Cemetery marks the graves of many young men and women who died in training. At its peak in 1944/45, there were 5,000 RAAF personnel on the base, including 400 WAAAF’s, these young girls fulfilling a vital role in the running of the air force. The impact upon the small township of Tocumwal was enormous - the shops and cafes and pubs were inundated. Church congregations swelled to capacity, romances led to weddings. There was entertainment in homes, cinemas and dance halls and cricket, football, tennis and swimming at our famous beaches were all popular forms of recreation. Touring entertainers gave concerts in the giant hangars, even Gracie Fields came to Tocumwal for a sell out performance.
The RAAF stayed at Tocumwal for 18 years, gradually reducing and closing down operations until the final lowering of the RAAF Ensign in October 1960, their departure, for a time,
leaving a huge void in Tocumwal.
RECOLLECTIONS OF THE WAR YEARS.
Standing quietly in the Tocumwal Services Cemetery is a headstone inscribed :-
“ NX49635 private e. f. johnson 56 infantry battalion 18th march 1943”
This peaceful grave is the ending of a wartime incident which was observed in all its horror by many Tocumwal residents who, even today, vividly recall seeing it unfold so many years ago. Paratrooper training was tough and unforgiving. Parachute jumps were made from Dakota aircraft over open country just n-e of the aerodrome. One day, local residents watched the string of paratroopers tumbling out of the open door of the aircraft, their parachutes blossoming in a long line of descent. But one trooper was caught - his parachute lines became entangled in the tail-plane of the aircraft – he was trapped in the buffeting slipstream of the propellers. The plane tried every manoeuvre to free him. Another plane, a Wirraway, went up to try and nudge him loose or drop him into the rear cockpit, but all without success. As the minutes ticked away, local people watched the drama, horrified to see the trooper tumbling and spinning as the plane kept circling. Then the pilot headed for Lake Mulwala to see if they could drop him safely into the water. The Dakota descended to about forty feet over the lake, slowed to almost stalling speed and the trooper released his harness. He was dead when they picked him up out of the water and he lies buried in the Tocumwal Services Cemetery,
Trooper Eric Johnson, 20 years of age.
The Services section is on the right-hand side at the cemetery entrance. Perhaps if you visit Tocumwal, you may pause for a minute, before the rows of graves and headstones of the young service men and women who came to Tocumwal in wartime, but never left.
The aerodrome’s stage four was, in hindsight, a crime and a tragedy. After the war, hundreds
of aircraft came to Australia’s major aircraft depot in Tocumwal for disposal. The rows of aircraft, packed wingtip to wingtip, stretched as far as the eye could see, from one perimeter fence to the other. It seemed that no-one wanted these faithful machines that had served Australia so well. Tragically overlooking the historical significance of wartime aircraft,
the likes of which will never be seen again, over 700 of them were 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 also for the new Holden motor car coming into production. Liberators, Flying Fortresses, Kittyhawks, Vultee Vengeances, Beauforts, Beaufighters, Mustangs, Mosquitoes, Wirraways all went to the furnaces. Today, any one 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 just a
few of these Australian treasures. Similarly, nearly all the 608 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 whatsoever to any historical value. One of the biggest hangars, a giant
igloo type, can be seen today in use by Cornish Fruit Growers at Cottons Road, Cobram,
and many of the 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.
Tocumwal Aerodrome today, a testament to a tragedy of destruction.
TOCUMWAL HISTORIC AERODROME MUSEUM
Just a few years ago the Tocumwal Aerodrome did not have any recorded history.
This omission was identified by two Tocumwal young ladies who established the
TOCUMWAL HISTORIC AERODROME MUSEUM group and wrote to scores of ex RAAF personnel asking for any wartime material that they might still have. As a result, in came hundreds of old Box-Brownie snaps, faded and cracked and notes of memories of time spent at Tocumwal. These have been enlarged, reprinted and assembled into a remarkable photographic display now to be seen in the Museum section of the Tocumwal Information Centre.
A large scale Liberator bomber integrated with a giant Liberator mural, wartime model
aircraft, RAAF and WAAAF uniformed models and the memories captured in books and CDs,
all enhance the rich history of the aerodrome .
Several RAAF and WAAAF reunions have been held at the aerodrome and the heartfelt appreciation of the veterans makes the museum work all worthwhile. It seems appropriate
that we should acknowledge the determination and sacrifices of a remarkable generation of young people who saved our country for us. We would do well to preserve what little history Australia has and so ensure that the ideals & achievements of those earlier times are recorded
and displayed. The museum also benefits the district, because in today’s terms, the aerodrome is an asset, attracting some 3,000 visitors a year. A major attraction is the ¼ scale
Liberator bomber gate guardian at the entrance to the Tocumwal Golf Club, commemorating
the presence of this once mighty aircraft in the small country town of Tocumwal.
DOES TRAGEDY LOOM ONCE AGAIN?
Sportavia Gliding has left Tocumwal. Brought here some 40 years ago by Mr. Bill Riley, breathing new life into a small country town, the Sportavia Hangar no longer hums with the activity of aircraft, gliders, workshops, flying instructors, Australian and international visitors enjoying the social atmosphere of the accommodation, the bar, dining room and swimming pool. The section previously occupied by the Historic Aerodrome Museum is now silent, no longer providing a welcoming greeting to the stream of visitors who come to the hangar seeking its history. Is this historic building, which has been such a major asset to Tocumwal, to follow
its three predecessors into decay and destruction? With an absent and non-occupying owner,
the level of maintenance will inevitably decline, putting the wartime structure at serious risk.
The large Tocumwal hangars, 100mx50m, are significant historical buildings, being the largest clear-span timber buildings in Australia. They introduced a unique structural technology, employing shear connectors and steel plate joints , enabling the innovative use of green Australian hardwoods in their urgent wartime construction in 1942.
The bitterly regretted tragedy of destruction which was enacted in the post-war years and saw
the loss of hundreds of aircraft and aerodrome buildings, should not and cannot be allowed to happen again. Since then, the people of Australia have come to value their history, to recognise and acknowledge the sacrifices of our service men and women and to try to not repeat the mistakes of the past. If the older generation is to pass on the realities of the past to the younger generations, then it must preserve the important icons of the conflicts which our
country faced and overcame. The remaining Tocumwal Hangars are just such icons.
A MYSTERY SOLVED !
During the 1942 occupation of Tocumwal Aerodrome by the US Army Air Corps,
the Americans named it “McIntyre Field”.
Over the years since the Museum opened, scores of enquiries have been made as to
why the Americans so named it.
The generally accepted theory was that it was named after Flight Lieutenant Ivor McIntyre, Royal Australian Air Force, who in 1924 with Wing Commander S. J. Goble, first circumnavigated Australia in a flight which took 43 days to complete.
Whilst this was certainly a most historic flight for Australians, it seemed unlikely that
the Americans would recognise it for one of their own airfields. Despite extensive searching of records, no link could be found between the RAAF Flt.Lt. Ivor McIntyre
and the American “McIntyre Field” at Tocumwal.
Then, from a contact with the American Air Force Historical Research Agency, at Maxwell
Air Force Base, Alabama, U.S.A., the following official document was discovered:-
UNITED STATES ARMY AIR SERVICES
SOUTHWEST PACIFIC AREA
OFFICE OF THE COMMANDING GENERAL
APO 501 - MELBOURNE
General Orders: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . No. 19 . . . . 25 July 1942
Designation of McIntyre Field . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Section I
I. DESIGNATION OF McINTYRE FIELD. –
Announcement is hereby made that the flying field at Tocumwal, N.S.W.,
is named “McINTYRE FIELD” in honor of Captain Patrick W. McIntyre,
Air Corps, U.S. Army, who was killed on June 5, 1942, while testing
a bombardment airplane near Archerfield, Brisbane, Qld.
By command of: Major General LINCOLN:
OFFICIAL: MILLARD C. YOUNG, Colonel Air Corps Executive.
OFFICIAL: GUY W. SAUNDERS, Lt-Colonel Air Corps, Acting Adjutant General.
Signed a True Copy: JOHN C. DAVIS, 1st Lt. Air Corps.