PALM ISLAND NAVAL AIR STATION
PALM ISLAND, QLD NEAR TOWNSVILLE
DURING WW2

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visits since 22 May 2004

 

The US Navy decided in early 1943 to build a US Naval Air Station at Palm Island, which is located off the Queensland coast north of Townsville. It was to have facilities to allow it to operate and overhaul seaplanes and patrol boats.

Palm Island is the largest of a number of small islands. The island covers approximately 23 square miles. With the exception of a few small areas, the terrain is very rugged from the water's edge. The US Naval Air Station overlooked a large stretch of sheltered water in Challenger Bay, which was ideal for flying boat operations.

Two officers and 122 enlisted men of Company "C" of the 55th Seabee Construction Battalion left Brisbane on 6 July 1943 to start construction of the Palm Island Naval Air Station. They learnt how to play baseball while they were on Palm Island. A short time later a similar detachment left Brisbane with 1,500 tons of construction material.

The Seabees constructed a 1,000 man camp at Wallaby Point on the Island. Concrete flying boat ramps to the ocean were constructed along with a large tarmac parking area for up to 12 flying boats. Moorings for 18 flying boats were provided in Challenger Bay and work was commenced on 3 nose hangers. The Seabees obtained coral aggregate from coral reefs at low tide to manufacture concrete. 

A Tank Farm was constructed which could hold 60,000 barrels of aviation fuel. They installed steel rail lines which used to launch the PBY Catalinas back into the water. These steel rails have now almost totally disappeared, either rusted away or covered with sand.

By 23 September 1943, large numbers of operational and maintenance personnel began to arrive to commission the US Naval Air Station. The majority of the facilities were finished by this time.

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Rough sketch of Palm Island showing the Flying
Boat landing area in Challenger Bay and
the airfield on the mainland of the island.

 

US Naval Air Station at Wallaby Point, Palm Island

 

Barracks area and a few tents at Palm Island

 

Water Distillation Plant on Palm Island

 

Tent accommodation on Palm Island. Is that
the water distillation tank in the background?

 

Barge unloading supplies on Palm Island

Crane unloading supplies
on Palm Island

Unloading supplies from a large ship in Challenger Bay

Crane unloading timber from a barge straight onto a truck on the beach

 

Preparing the Seaplane parking area in readiness to lay concrete

 

Bulldozers in action on Palm Island

 

Many tons of crushed rock was used to construct the Seaplane ramp

 

Construction activity on Palm Island

 

Galley building

 

Junior Officer's BOQ

 

Administration building

 

Senior Officer's BOQ

 

The Parachute Loft on Palm Island

The last personnel of the 55th Seabee Construction Battalion left Palm Island on 8 November 1943. The Palm Island US Naval Air Station was fully operational from 25 October 1943 and was able to repair an average of 4 flying boats per day.

USN Patrol Squadron 101, Patrol Wing 10, under the command of Lieutenant Lauren E. Johnson arrived at Palm Island Naval Air Station with 8 PBY Catalinas in early December 1943. They relocated to Perth at the end of December 1943.

US Navy Patrol Squadron VP-11, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Clifford M. Campbell left Port Moresby on 28 December 1943 and moved to Palm Island Naval Air Station where they were taken off combat duties. The Squadron comprised 13 PBY-5 Catalinas, 46 officers and 99 enlisted men. They carried out training and routine administrative and passenger flights between Port Moresby, Samari and Brisbane. They were assigned to Fleet Air Wing 17 (FAW-17) while at Palm Island.

On 10 February 1944, VP-11 left Palm Island Naval Air Station for Perth in Western Australia, where they carried out convoy patrols. They were again reassigned to Fleet Air Wing 10 (FAW-10) while they were in Perth. LCDR Thomas S. White took over as the Commanding Officer of VP-11 on 24 May 1944.

In 1944 "Section 22", GHQ,SWPA in Brisbane directed the formation of a dedicated US Navy unit, whose personnel, equipment and aircraft would be responsible solely for the electronic reconnaissance role to locate and collect information on Japanese radar installations. Lt Lawrence Heron was selected to form and command this new dedicated airborne electronic reconnaissance unit which was temporarily based at the Palm Island Naval Air Station. The unit was equipped with two PBY-5A Black Cat (Catalinas) to be modified for electronic reconnaissance.

ARC-l receivers were installed in the Catalinas and a locally manufactured direction-finding antenna system was used. The new DF antenna pointed downward from the rear fuselage gun hatch, which meant that the antennae could not remain in place prior to take off. It was manually reattached after takeoff which initially proved quite a challenge for the members of this special unit.

After these modifications and some training the Black Cats eventually left NAS Palm Island for New Guinea to begin flying electronic reconnaissance missions from the seaplane bases at Port Moresby and Samari Islands.

The Naval Air Station on Palm Island closed on 1 May 1944. In June 1944, "B" Company of the 91st Seabee Construction Battalion moved to Palm Island, to dismantle the Naval Air Station. "B" Company loaded 5,000 tons of materials and equipment onto ships for movement to a forward operational area. "B" Company left Palm Island for Brisbane on 31 August 1944. 

Apparently some of the accommodation and workshop buildings were demolished after the war and buried with ammunition and other equipment in the flat area behind the beach. Live ammunition is occasionally found by locals.

There are remains of a number of Catalinas still evident on or near Palm Island. There are some on the beach. Apparently one of these crashed in the channel and was dragged up onto the beach. There is also a Catalina in the water between Casement Bay and Wallaby Point. 


Photo via Bill Cooper

Remains of a Catalina at Wallaby Point, Palm Island

 


Photo via Bill Cooper

Remains of a Catalina at Wallaby Point, Palm Island

 


Photo via Bill Cooper

Remains of a Catalina on Palm Island

 


Photo via Bill Cooper

Remains of a Catalina on Palm Island

 


Photo via Bill Cooper

 


Photo via Bill Cooper

 


Photo via Bill Cooper

 


Photo via Bill Cooper

 


Photo via Bill Cooper

Many of the huts used for the US Naval Air Station 
were re-erected on the island for its inhabitants

American ship AO-46 "Victoria" left Sydney on 18 November 1942 with a cargo of Navy special fuel, she joined a convoy of merchantmen, and a brief visit to Brisbane on the 21st November she got underway in convoy for Townsville on 22 November 1942. She reached Cleveland Bay, where she commenced fuelling Allied warships and moved to Challenger Bay, Palm Island, on 3 December 1942 to continue her refuelling operations. She subsequently alternated her operations between Challenger Bay and Dunk Island Harbour before returning to Brisbane on Christmas Eve 1942.

"Victoria" returned to Townsville between 4 and 8 January 1943. She remained in Townsville for three days and moved back to Challenger Bay, Palm Island. For the next eight months, "Victoria" operated along the eastern coast of Australia before heading to New Guinea on 28 August 1943.

 

Was there a Radio Shack or Wireless Hut on Palm Island?

 

AIRCRAFT CRASHES NEAR PALM ISLAND DURING WW2

Date Location Service Aircraft Type Serial No./Comments
Unknown Calliope Channel, Palm Island USN Catalina ?
Unknown Palm Island USN Catalina ?
Unknown 30kms NE of Palm Island RAAF Beaufighter ?
21 Apr 42 Off Palm Island USAAF B-26 Marauder #40-1419, 7 killed
10 May 42 Great Palm Island RAAF Wirraway A20-457
20 Jul 42 near Palm Island RAAF Catalina A24-27
abt Nov 42 Palm Island RAAF Wirraway A20-?
10 Dec 42 15 miles east of Palm Island RAAF Beaufort A9-161

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I'd like to thank Kathy Dawson, Bill Cooper, Rod Burgess and John Cotter for their assistance with this home page. 

 

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 Peter Dunn 2004

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This page first produced 22 May 2004

This page last updated 23 May 2009