WAS THERE A JAPANESE AIRFIELD AT BLUE MUD BAY
IN ARNHEM LAND, NT DURING WW2?

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visits since 22 July 2001

 

Was there a rough Japanese airfield in the Arnhem Land area of the Northern Territory near Blue Mud Bay? This bay is located on the west side of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The Nackeroos (North Australian Observer Unit) operated out of Roper River during 1942/43 with Aboriginal Guides and Helpers. One of their patrols found some Japanese Oil drums near Blue Mud Bay on the Arnhem Land Gulf Coast. Were these associated with this airfield or some other Japanese activities either during or before the war? 

A possible Japanese camp was found in the bush beside a "level and graded" clay pan with the remains of an old wind sock evident. Photographs were taken and a report written.

In June 1959, Jack McKay (now deceased - died 1966) the owner of Mainoru Station in Arnhem Land mentioned that the Japanese aircraft that had bombed Katherine on 22 March 1942, had flown in from approximately due east, passing a few miles north of Mainoru Station. McKay claimed that they were land based aircraft and were not carrying fuel drop tanks. He indicated this had been confirmed by the RAAF authorities.

One of the Japanese aircraft bound for Katherine crashed, and its bomb load exploded, scattering aircraft wreckage over a wide area. There are still a few unidentified pieces of metal near Bulman Water hole north Mainoru Station Homestead. 

McKay and his brother-in-law, Mr. Jim Dodds indicated that natives coming into Mainoru Station from the Gulf Coast had reported "plenty China men and big silver birds". These natives were familiar with the Japanese pearling and fishing fleets from pre war days and the Caledon Bay massacre. McKay interpreted these reports as indicating the presence of a Japanese airstrip on the west coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria, approximately  due east of Mainoru Station. 

Army Cessna pilot, S/Sgt Charles Miller AA AVM Corps reported seeing some strange stilted huts inland from Blue Mud Bay. A "village" of stilted huts was subsequently located on a meander of the Coolatong River approximately eight miles inland adjacent to what appeared to be a level and graded claypan area which could have served as a rudimentary airfield.

The Village consisted of approximately 12 huts, built on stilts with floor level about feet six inches six above ground level reached by ladder from ground. The rungs of the ladders were all made from bush vines and timber had been lashed in position with diagonal lashings, started and finished with a clove hitch. There were two large shelters at ground level approx 12 feet by 12 feet which although structurally identical with other huts were at ground level. A screw headed aircraft type spark plug was found on the floor of one of these huts. The remains of two old fires were found. A pole approximately 15' high with a wire loop at its head was located nearby. This was probably a disused wind sock.

Lance Douglas told me that the Nackeroos (North Australian Observer Unit) did not operate above the Roper River. This area was covered by Sqn/Ldr Donald Thomson and his Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit.

Lance Douglas told me that a Harold Shepherdson, a local missionary, had lived at Elcho Island off the North of Arnhem Land through the 1930's through to the 1970's. Harold Sheperdson was ordained at Galiwin'ku, Elcho Island, on 19th October 1954. 

He bought a Heath Parasol kit aeroplane, made it in 1932 and then taught himself to fly it. Using this and later aircraft, he established several airstrips throughout East Arnhem Land, including one established at the Koolatong in the 1950's, in the area of the airfield discussed above. 

Rev. Harold Shepherdson beside his Heath Parasol kit aircraft

It is believed that Harold Shepherdson is still alive and living in Adelaide in early 2002.

Lance Douglas offered the following comments on the above report:-

* Says fastened with diagonal lashings. Do not think rope lashings would last 15 odd years, especially if exposed to the elements

* Covering on huts is paperbark and paperbark unless folded over ridges and held by pole or equivalent would not last 15 odd years. Would not last first wet season blow and storm.

* Paperbark covering would not last 15 odd years anyway. 

* By above, lashings must surely have been exposed to weather.

* Clove hitch top and bottom does not sound like aboriginal work.

* It could have been crocodile hunter's camp but If so, why so many structures?

* Aborigines may have used shelter and may have re-sheeted. Certainly looks like typical not too much effort sheeting (smallish pieces pulled from paperbark, not bigger pieces cut and squared like a bushman would make). Obviously is close to paperbarks. 

* Structure certainly looks square and to have been done with a bit of knowledge. Certainly not originally aboriginal.

* Any connection with Donald Thomson? Again, lashings of natural fibre would not last when exposed.

* I think it is a fact that Nackeroos only operated south of the Roper River.

* I also think Donald Thomson would have been in charge of Koolatong area during war

* If so why would Nackeroos be despatched to recco Area?

* I think Donald Thomson himself would have as much knowledge as any Japs of this area.

* When did Shepherdson establish airstrip at Koolatong? 

* With the regularity of bushfires, there would not be much likelihood of those structures lasting very long

Lance Douglas is of the opinion that the structures would have been constructed much closer to the time they were discovered and inspected. Almost certainly well after the war. 

The following is an excerpt from the book "Half a century in Arnhem Land" by Ella Shepherdson:-

"Baykurrtji a place on the Koolatong River Was commenced in 1959. This was an ideal place for a garden because it had good soil and plenty of water. Our Fijian agriculturalist, Penuia Sari, went down there and stayed a fortnight to fence a garden and help the people plant sweet potato runners they reaped the first crop but did not continue to plant, evidently preferring their own way of hunting in the bush. On one occasion at Baykurritji, two women went washing clothes by the river when a crocodile caught one of them. She was never seen again. This upset the people of course, and they immediately moved camp to another place called Gangan. This place is still open and is contacted by the Yirrkala people." 

Lance Douglas believes this was an outstation established after the construction of an airfield.

 

I am interested in making contact with any Japanese researchers
interested in WW2 activities in the South West Pacific area
or any Japanese WW2 veterans

 

BOOK REFERENCES

"Half a century in Arnhem Land"
by Ella Shepherdson

National Archives:-

Negatives of photographs of NT by Jack McKAY - owner of Mainoru Station, Arnhem Land
Series number M119
Control symbol 76
Location National Office
Barcode No  758504 

Photographs of the Northern Territory, 1930's - 1941 - Jack McKay, L., or Mainoru Station & Charles "Tiny" Swanson-
Maranboy, 1941.
Series number M438
Control symbol 65
Location National Office
Barcode no  919610 

Various photographs relating to aerodromes and authorised landing areas - Mainoru
Series number E1315
Control symbol  MAINORU
Location Northern Territory
Barcode no  5383991 

Report on inspection of Mainoru Station - Northern Territory [23 pages]
Series number A452
Control Symbol 1961/378
Location National Office
Barcode no 3494824 

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

I'd like to thank Daniel Hultgren of the The Australian Bunker Project for his assistance with this home page.

I'd also like to thank Lance Douglas from Gove, NT, for his assistance with this home page.

 

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 Peter Dunn 2003

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This page first produced 22 July 2000

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