DARRA ORDNANCE AMMUNITION DEPOT
BASE SECTION THREE
BRISBANE, QLD
DURING WW2

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visits since 9 June 2003

 

The extensive road complex at the Darra Ordnance Ammunition Depot was built by the Thiess Brothers. Les Thiess, Cecil Thiess, Bert Thiess and Norm Matheson worked on the project at Darra. When they arrived with all their machinery, they found the Depot area enclosed and well guarded by  Negro soldiers. They were required to show their passes to the Negro guards each time they entered the Depot area. It took them quite a while to get used to the heavy security and the large quantity of bombs that were stored in the open countryside. All of them, except for Les Thiess, camped in an old shack at the depot site with the rest of the men working on the project. Funnily enough the shack was fitted out with double beds. Cecil Thiess would swing from the ceiling in the shack at night time to jump on to the double beds to entertain the rest of the group.

The Thiess Brothers had no trouble obtaining whatever equipment they needed for the project. If they asked the Americans for something one day, it was usually at the site by the next morning. Bert and Cecil Thiess did most of the mechanical work on the project. Clem Jones, later Lord Mayor of Brisbane, did the survey work for the Darra Ammunition Dump, as it was called by the locals.

The Americans welcomed the expertise of the Thiess Brothers who were building about a mile of road in a day. The Americans had their own equipment, but their operators were unskilled in using the equipment. Clem Jones remembers hearing a Yank yelling out one day from a hole. He had dug a deep hole to remove a large gum tree but ended up with his bull dozer in the bottom of the large hole. Clem helped the operator up out of the hole. His dozer was recovered the following day.

Mr. R. Hornibrook built an Emergency Landing Ground (ELG) at Gailes for the Americans in about May 1942 which was adjacent to the Darra Ordnance Ammunition Depot.

The Darra Ordnance Ammunition was manned by Negro (African-American) units of the US Army.

The Glenala State High School home page indicates that the 636 US Army Ordnance Department (636th Ammunition Ordnance Company) had built the Darra Ordnance Depot. The 636th commandeered the Dyne's home and rebuilt the original Archerfield homestead which had burnt down in the 1930's. The 636th was also responsible for sealing Archerfield Road.

The 636th Ammunition Ordnance Company arrived in Brisbane on about 10 June 1942 with 1st Lt. Leo Berti? as their Commanding Officer. After a while they moved their camp to a location about a quarter of a mile from the Depot. There were several permanent buildings at the Command Centre for the Ordnance Depot. There was also a very good mess hall on site.

Two detachments from the 636th Ammunition Ordnance Company established two other sub depots in the area. The Negroes of the 636th were well behaved. They were initially treated with suspicion by the locals. The men of the 636th were known for their neat appearance and low delinquency rate. The Motto for the 636th was "Get the work done and complain afterwards."

A singing quartet from the 636th Ammunition Ordnance Company known as "4 Majors and a Minor" was very popular at several local camps and hospitals in the Brisbane area. They also sang on radio station 4BK on several occasions.

The Negro soldiers and civilians working at the Ordnance Depot renovated defective or damaged ammunition and destroyed unserviceable items. On one record day they processed 1,500 tons. The average throughput was 600 tons per day.

There was always maintenance required on the vast network of roads around the depot. Bush fires were always a real threat to the Ordnance Depot, which was surrounded by a 21 miles long fire break. The Depot was "protected" by an ordinary barbed wire property fence. Civilian guards on horses would regularly ride around the perimeter fence to provide some level of security.

On one occasion there was an official report that some Japanese parachutists had landed inside the Ammunition Depot. The men were then ordered to wear a carbine slung across their backs while they worked at the Depot. After about a week it became evident that the report was probably false and the men slowly started to discontinue wearing their carbines.

The 577th Ordnance Ammunition Company arrived in Brisbane on 13 June 1943 and were taken by truck to the Darra Ordnance Ammunition Depot where they camped with the 636th Ammunition Ordnance Company. An outbreak of mumps hit the camp and several men of the 577th ended up in hospital. The 577th left the Darra Ammunition Dump and boarded a train for Townsville on 1 July 1943. They worked at the large Kangaroo Ordnance Depot just north of Townsville. The 577th left Townsville on 5 October 1943 and travelled to Brisbane by train, arriving there on 7 October 1943. They moved into Camp Oxley and resumed work at the Darra Ordnance Ammunition Depot.

The 28th Chemical Company, the 48th Quartermaster Truck Regiment and the  5203rd Quartermaster Truck Battalion may have been involved in working at the Darra Ordnance Depot, which was reportedly the largest depot in the South West Pacific area. Millions of tons of bombs, and ammunition, including mustard gas were stored at this large depot. 

By January 1943, the Americans had the following Chemical Weapon (CW) inventory at the Darra Ordnance Ammunition Depot:-

By 1 November 1943, the Americans had the following Chemical Weapon (CW) inventory at the Darra Ordnance Ammunition Depot:-

     

105mm Howitzer, HE, M413, Howitzer-fired anti-personnel
projectile which dispense grenades during flight.
The M413 (shown above) contains M35 grenades. 

By May 1944, Darra was also storing Chemical Weapons for the US Air Force and a small amount for the US Navy.

darraordnancedepot01.jpg (146201 bytes)

Chemical Weapons storage
facility at Darra in 1945

An American soldier was killed and two others were injured when a gas shell exploded at the Darra Ordnance Ammunition Depot in 1945. The gas shell was being prepared for dumping. 

The US Army dumped the following Chemical Weapons from the Darra Ordnance Ammunition Depot, at a location about 25 miles from Cape Moreton at 90 degrees between 2 October and 20 December 1945. It is believed they were dumped at the 100 Fathom line off the coast rather than at the 500 Fathom line as recommended by the US technical experts:-

The US Army carried out a second sea dumping of 7,996 tons of Chemical Weapon projectiles and small arms ammunition from Darra Ordnance Ammunition Depot at an undisclosed location on an unknown date

The December 1942 Brisbane Military Telephone Directory has an entry on page 45 for a Darra Dump, for the Ordnance Section of Base Section Three.

The October 1943 Brisbane Military Telephone Directory has an entry on page 97 as follows:-

BASE SECTION THREE 

    ORDNANCE:

        AMMUNITION DIVISION:
            Capt. Mosher C.A.

                Darra: Ordnance Depot
                    Capt. Windeland

The 578 Ordnance Ammunition Company are also shown in the 1943 directory as being located at the Darra Ordnance Ammunition Dump and working in the Renovation Plant.

The Chemical Office for Base Section Three was located in Perry House in the Brisbane city area. The 28th Chemical Company located at Blunder Road with Captain W.F. Blair as its Commanding Officer, was one of the many units attached to the Chemical Office.

BASE SECTION THREE    

COLUMBIA CAMP

578 ORDNANCE AMMUNITION CO.
    Commanding Officer:
        Capt. Wineland, F.R.
    Personnel Officer:
        Lt. Howarth, W.N.
    Depot Officer:
        Lt. Nelson, C.L.
    Renovation Plant:
        Capt. Fawler
    Chief Clerk

The May 1944 Brisbane Military Telephone Directory has an entry on page 101 as follows:-

BASE SECTION THREE    

    COLUMBIA CAMP

        DARRA ORDNANCE AMMUNITION DEPOT
           Commanding Officer:
                Lt. Caffery, R.J.
            Base Ammunition Officer:
                Capt. Mosher, C.A.
            Provisional Ordnance Ammunition Battalion:
                 Capt. Mosher, C.A.
            578th Ordnance:
               Lt. Caffery, R.J.
            Adjutant:
                Lt. Corcoran, J.S.
            Ammunition Section:
                Lt. Hock, R.L.
            Renovation Plant:
                Capt. Scott, J.

After the war, the Americans and the Australian units left behind much ammunition in the area. Some noxious substances were also dumped in the area which is now the Willawong dump. Lido Vincenzi, a local resident, told me that when the war was over, the Americans dug a large hole and used it to detonate ordnance in every few days. Lido helped to clear the Inala area after the war and they would often find quantities of small arms ammunition. On one occasion he found a case of flares complete with a parachute.

Lido remembers one occasion during the war, when some water leaked into one of the storage sheds in the ordnance depot causing some flares to ignite and explode. The resultant explosion apparently threw live mortar shells all over the place. On another occasion Lido managed to acquire a couple of cases of .303 ammunition from one of the storage sheds for a new rifle that they had purchased.

Lido Vincenzi said that after the war, engines, cars, trucks and Harley Davidson motor bikes in crates from the motor pool were buried in the Forest Lake area. This motor pool was part of the sub camp to Camp Freeman. This sub camp was located on Archerfield Road in the vicinity of McEwan Park. The Motor Pool was located across the other side of Azalea Street and continued through parallel to Archerfield Road to about Magnolia Street. 

Department of Army, Melbourne submitted the Final Report by the Inala Ammunition Area Sub-committee of the Operational Safety Committee titled, "Report on the search for ammunition etc in the Inala area Queensland" to the Secretary, Department of Defence on about 10 December 1956. This Sub-committee had been appointed to investigate the position at Inala. An inter-departmental conference was held at AHQ on 13 December 1956 to consider the recommendations of the Sub-committee and the best method of implementing them. Representatives of the Departments of Navy, Air, Supply and Defence Production attended the conference.

One section of the report indicated that "one area, which occupies 30 yards by 30 yards and which is situated on the proposed extension of the Inala housing settlement has been probed and is know to contain SAA and explosive material". Unexploded SAA and propellant were found by the Army (Northern Command), but they could not find any high explosives or high explosive shells or any evidence of their former presence. The Army agreed that this area should be cleared before the housing settlement could extend over it and that the risk to personnel carrying out this clearing would be small.

In a report the Army commented on the Sub-committee report as follows:-

"We agree with the decision not to disclose the presence of chemical warfare ammunition and equipment to the public until further examination has been made. Nothing has been seen or learned by us to establish the need for any such disclosure. At this stage there is certainly no need to issue a public warning referring specifically to chemical warfare agents and to consider that the interim measures taken to fence and sign-post known chemical warfare disposal sites should be adequate to meet the situation pending further action."

Section 12 Notification to the State Authorities, (a), page 4 of the Sub-committee report stated that "areas containing active chemical gases of a highly dangerous nature had been located." The Army commented that this was an overstatement of the position. The Army commented that the substances buried at the chemical warfare disposal sites that they had examined, presented no hazard to the Inala housing settlement and they present very little, if any, hazard to persons in the immediate vicinity of, or even on, the sites provided the ground is not disturbed."

The Army commented:-

"We had noted the effects of recent small bush fires in the area and conclude that the most effective way to clear the undergrowth would be to burn this off systematically using the existing roads and tracks as firebreaks and as the basis of a grid on which the burning off pattern could be based. The Queensland fire fighting authorities could advise on and assist in this control of these operations. It is likely that stores located on the surface of the land would be burned or exploded during the burning off operations and suitable precautions should be taken to reduce possible hazards arising from this source."

"As soon as practicable after burning off, each area in the grid should be surveyed with detection equipment and items located recovered by careful digging and suitably disposed of. During this survey a closer visual search of the surface could be carried out than is practicable with the present dense growth of vegetation."

"Non-metallic chemical warfare equipment and chemical warfare agents in non-metallic containers have been found and there is a possibility that disposal of such items by burial has taken place elsewhere on the area. It will be necessary therefore to open up areas where any evidence of such burial in the fare? of small mounds or depressions is found. It is a reasonable assumption that such items will be found near the disposal pit, in which metallic containers have been buried."

The Army noted that there were two main types of soil in the Inala area during their inspections on 14 and 15 November 1956. Some areas were contaminated with metallic fragments, mainly small wire. The Army indicated that the sandy soil in the area can be explored to a depth of up to 2 feet using the Service Mine detector No. 4. The metallic fragments mentioned earlier could cause minor interference.

To detect objects at greater depths the Army recommended the British Mine Locator No. 1, Mark II. Depending on the volume of the ferromagnetic object, it could locate objects to a depth of 20 feet. An object equivalent to a 100 lb bomb could be detected to a depth of 7 feet. 

The Army recommended the use of the latter Mine Locator to search the area where Mr Honch? stated that the large chemical warfare agent containers were buried and other similar suspect areas.

The second main soil type is in the southern part of the proposed extension of the Inala Housing Settlement and contains large numbers of ferruginous nodules which appear to concentrate in the surface layers of the soil. The Army indicated that the British Mine Detector No. 4 could detect metallic objects comparable in size to a 75 mm shell or larger, whether ferrous or non-ferrous down to a depth of 9 feet in the presence of ferromagnetic nodules on or near the surface of the ground. If the layer of ferromagnetic nodules is too thick the Mine Detector will be ineffective.

The Army inspected 3 Chemical Warfare disposal sites. The Army had also reported other suspected C.W. disposal areas.

The Sub-committee had inspected 2 of the 3 sites. They did not have sufficient time to inspect the 3rd site which they believed was less seriously contaminated.

The Army inspected Site No. 1 on Wed 14 Nov 1956 and the 5 holes previously located by mine detection were again opened and extended in area and in depth. 

"The main hole in this area contained bombs M47 or M70 with central burster tubes. A smell suggestive of phosgene was evident in this hole. The bombs were corroded and appeared to have been "holed", more likely by pick-axe than by bullet. One bombe was further holed by pick-axe showed some evidence of release of vapour which was thought to have a phosgene smell but no positive test could be obtained with phosgene test papers. On standing for approximately one hour and then re-examining, a small indicative of mustard vapour could be obtained by using a Pocket Vapour Detector (P.V.D.). Charred wood was found in this hole and was suggestive of a box having been burned. The charred material had a strong smell indicative of mustard; no vapour could be detected with the P.V.D. but a piece of the char when tested by direct contact with impregnated Gongo-red test paper gave a faint positive test for mustard gas. Later the presence of sulphur but no chlorine was determined in a sample."

"In the region of this hole, a vessel similar to a teapot with a long spout was found but this could not be identified as any special item of chemical warfare equipment. This item, as well as pipes, etc, found in this area, could have been used for the sampling, or storage of chemical warfare agents. No attempt was made to open this vessel."

"The squat cylinder complete with valve, previously reported was confirmed as a USA Cylinder, Chemical portable M1A2. No marks were found on the cylinder but the "underside" could have been originally painted a blue-green-grey colour. The standard filling for this weapon was phosgene, and on shaking, it was evident that it still contained liquid. No attempt was made to open this cylinder."

"In one small hole the corroded end of a small drum was removed, and in excavating further, a considerable quantity of a light green powder which showed no evidence of having been wet, was found. This material could have been encased in a hemispherical metal container. On examination, the nature of the compound was quickly revealed by its physiological effects. It had been proved to be an arsanical starnutator?, di-phenylamine-chloraraine (D.E.). It is estimated that approximately 5 lbs of material was buried but no attempt was made to delineate the extent.

The following files are available in the National Archives of Australia:-

US ARMY ORDNANCE AMMUNITION DEPOT AT DARRA

Title- Darra - Locality Plan of Darra Area USA Project
Series number
J1018
Control symbol
LS233
Contents date range
1942 - 1942
Access status
Open
Location
Brisbane
Barcode no
904108

 

Title - Report on the search for ammunition etc in the Inala area, Queensland
Series number
A816
Control symbol
3/301/655
Contents date range
1956 - 1956
 
Access status
Open
Location
Canberra
Barcode no
3284308

 

Title - Cabinet Minute - Inala dump - Without Submission
Series number
A4910
Control symbol
544
Contents date range
30 Oct 1956 - 30 Oct 1956
 
Access status
Open
Location
Canberra
Barcode no
4753147
 

 

Title - United States Ammunition Dump at Inala, Queensland
Series number
A4940
Control symbol
C1688
Contents date range
1956 - 1956
 
Access status
Open
Location
Canberra
Barcode no
1340533

 

Title - US Army magazine area at Darra, Queensland
Series number
MP1049/5
Control symbol
1824/2/212
Contents date range
1944 - 1945
Access status
Open
Location
Melbourne
Barcode no
464608

 

Title - Darra - United States Army ordnance depot
Series number
J1018
Control symbol
LS354
Contents date range
1942 - 1942
Access status
Open
Location
Brisbane
Barcode no
1700529

 

Title - DWB [Director of Works and Buildings] - Property - Darra Qld - US Explosives Depot - Hiring of property
Series number
A705
Control symbol
171/93/2105 PART 1
Contents date range
1945 - 1949
Access status
Open
Location
Canberra
Barcode no
1189990

 

Title - Darra, Queensland: additional magazine storage [item includes blueprints]
Series number
MP150/1
Control symbol
525/201/852
Contents date range
1943 - 1945
Access status
Not yet examined
Location
Melbourne
Barcode no
5819963

 

Title - Darra - small arms renovation plant
Series number
J1018
Control symbol
LS922
Contents date range
circa 1944 - circa 1944
Access status
Open
Location
Brisbane
Barcode no
1693659

 

RAN AMMO DUMP AT DARRA

Title - Darra Naval Ammo Dump
Series number
BP679/1
Control symbol
SB262
Contents date range
1942 - 1942
Access status
Open
Location
Brisbane
Barcode no
890206

 

Title - Darra - Sketch Showing Track from Naval Block to Ipswich Road
Series number
J1018
Control symbol
LS234
Contents date range
1942 - 1942
Access status
Open
Location
Brisbane
Barcode no
904109

 

Title - Darra - naval block
Series number
J1018
Control symbol
LS1393
Contents date range
1945 - 1945
Access status
Open
Location
Brisbane
Barcode no
1694904

 

Title - Darra - naval block, ammo dump
Series number
J1018
Control symbol
LS262
Contents date range
1942 - 1942
Access status
Open
Location
Brisbane
Barcode no
1699079

 

Title - Darra - Royal Australian Navy ammunition dump
Series number
J1018
Control symbol
LS1514
Contents date range
1946 - 1946
Access status
Open
Location
Brisbane
Barcode no
1695135

 

Crash of Wirraway, A20-155,
at Darra, Brisbane
on 31 January 1941

 

Honour Stone at Homestead Park, Forest Lake
To commemorate the presence of US troops at Camp Columbia,
Camp Freeman and the Darra Ordnance Ammunition Depot

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I'd like to thank Chris Jameson for the above photograph of the Chemical Weapons storage facility at Darra in 1945.

I'd like to thank Noel Wallis for his assistance with this home page.

 

REFERENCES

Australia: Chemical Weapons

"The Thiess Story"
by Joan Priest

"Wacol & Darra - The War Years"
by the Military Museums of the Pacific

 

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 Peter Dunn 2003

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This page first produced 9 June 2003

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