NO. 2 US AIR COMMAND
OPERATIONS & SIGNALS BUILDING
OR "MESSAGE CENTER"
(THE GARBUTT BUNKER)
AT 3 RAMSAY STREET
PROJECT NO. 2, BUILDING NO. 25

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visits since 5 July 2000

 

General Brett, Commander of the Allied Air Forces in Australia, established two US Air Commands on 4 May 1942 to enable flexibility of control of offensive operations. No. 1 U.S. Air Command  was established in Darwin under the command of Colonel (later Brigadier-General) Albert L. Sneed. No. 2 U.S. Air Command, under the command of Brigadier General Martin F. Scanlon, established itself in the Operations and Signals Building at 3 Ramsay Street in Garbutt in Townsville

Brigadier-General Martin Scanlon with the General's
Air Staff Officer, Captain Marburgh in the background
on 22 May 1942. This photograph may have been taken
at Garbutt airfield in Townsville, Queensland.

The concept of the U.S. Air Commands was to place a mobile command with the combat units. The mobile command would move forward with the combat units in a leap frog fashion to assume command at the next forward base acquired in an offensive campaign. The concept quickly proved impractical and after only a few months, the U.S. Air Commands were dissolved.

The Operation and Signals building (120 ft x 60 ft) at Ramsay Street was built like a fortress, with enormous thick walls and roof.  It was designed to be the nerve centre for the US 5th Air Force. The building had been built by the Townsville Harbour Board for the Department of Interior. It had the nickname "The Igloo". This may have had something to do with the fact that it was one of the very few air-conditioned buildings in north Queensland during the war. The term "Igloo" was used by locals after the war, to describe the many aircraft hangars in the Townsville region.

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Aerial photo of Ramsay Street Bunker
and surrounding military camps

 

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Another view of the Ramsay Street bunker
looking from the opposite direction

Across the other side of Ingham Road from this bunker was the RAAF's No. 2 Stores Depot Detachment "F" Collection Centre (Det "F"). It was nestled in between today's Dalrymple Road and Ingham Road.

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Operations & Signals Building,
3 Ramsay Street, Garbutt
Castle Hill can be seen in the background

Photo from Garbutt RAAF Museum

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Tent camp at Ramsay Street Bunker

Photo from Garbutt RAAF Museum

nh05.jpg (76062 bytes) Other buildings at the Ramsay Street Bunker site

Is that a track up the side of Castle Hill just above the roof of one building?

Photo from Garbutt RAAF Museum

In his book "The History of Townsville Harbour 1864 - 1979", Hubert J. Taylor indicates, on page 152, that this building was "designed to be the nerve centre for the United States Army Operations. 

Robert Bolton of the 911th Signal Company, told me that his unit operated a "Message Center" in a large concrete bunker at Ramsay Street, Garbutt. The 911th was assigned to the Army Air Corps, which was part of the US Army at that time. The Air Force was not established as a separate branch of the armed forces until later.

A two-position switchboard of the 911th Signal Company in the Message Center
Left to right:- PFO Ralph Wendt from Keystone, Nebraska
and Fred Chapman from Annisten, Alabama on 14 May 1943.

They were also responsible for the repair of all Signal Corps equipment used by the Air Corps, including radar. Their job was to provide ground and air communications. 

Robert Bolton does not remember seeing any underground construction at the Ramsay Street bunker while he was there. He believes that it may have been possible that a sunken floor had existed at some stage, but he does not remember it. He thought, that if it did exist, it may have been in the area occupied by the "bomb site" unit.

Almost all of the 911th Signal Company's communication was by code, because of the distances involved. They did however have teletype connections to nearby units, such as Base Section 2 in town and RAAF Signals at Garbutt. The keys they used for code transmission were special high speed ones, which they referred to as "bugs", and some of their men were very good at them. But according to Robert, the same could not always be said about the guys at the other end. After a while the operators could actually recognize who was transmitting by their style, and occasionally you would hear an expletive, followed by "What a fist!", which is the worst thing you can say about another operator.

The 911th Signal Company handled all radio traffic between Air Force Headquarters in Brisbane and their advanced echelon, which was in Port Moresby at that time. Robert Bolton especially remember the air conditioning in the Ramsay Street bunker, as there had to be an officer with "Secret" security clearance on duty at all times due to the nature of some of the communications, so all the company officers, including himself, took turns sleeping there as duty officer, and they used to look forward to that nice cool place.

The signals equipment was mostly standard Signal Corps stuff, identified by "SCR-" followed by some numerals, and it was purchased from suppliers in the States and shipped. They did get some commercial equipment by manufactures such as Hallicrafter, as well as local manufacture, such as Phillips, which was very good, especially those made for the tropics, which were about the only ones that survived very long up north.

They also had special code machines, known as SIGABA, which were ultra secret, and came equipped with a dynamite charge for destruction in case of possible capture. They would have properly qualified officer on duty at all times to handle SIGABA traffic.

During the late hours, when signals traffic was light, the operators would engage in teletype conversations with the WAAAFs, who handled RAAF communications. Several romances, even marriages, resulted. 

Robert Bolton well remembers the antennae on the roof. When they had a new recruit, and the reception was poor, they would send him up up on the roof to dust off the antennae. Of course, they would always tell him that things had improved when he came down!

There was no tent city adjacent to the bunker when the 911th took it over. 

The "bomb sight" people in the "Message Center" carried out maintenance. Once a bomb sight has been in use for a while, the parts mesh with one another, and will not work properly if a new factory-made part is installed, so the units were taken apart one at a time, cleaned up, and whatever else had to be done, and reassembled. The officer in charge once told Robert Bolton that "We ought to give a Bomb Sight" to the Japs. It would take them two years to figure out how to use it, and by that time the war would be over." Apparently the work was so sensitive that the air conditioning was a necessity for the repair work, and not just for comfort.

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Ground Floor Plan
(Click on picture to enlarge)

This bunker has often been referred to in error as MacArthur's bunker, or General Douglas MacArthur's Headquarters. While it is true that General Douglas MacArthur may have possibly visited the bunker, it was not his Headquarters. MacArthur's headquarters were located in the AMP building in Queens Street in Brisbane. MacArthur may have spent some time in the bunker at the time of the Battle of the Coral Sea (4 - 8 May 1942).

 

General Douglas MacArthur in Townsville
The Facts and the Myths

 

As a young child in Townsville, I used to sneak into this, then derelict building with my mates and play war games. I can remember that one end of the building, the city end, was full of water. This was the sunken operations room where large maps may have hung on the very high walls.

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Nadic House, 3 Ramsay Street, Garbutt

The "Bunker" as it was known, was purchased in 1965 by McIntyre & Associates, a group of consulting engineers, and turned into an office building called Nadic House. Structural changes were very difficult due to the thickness and strength of the concrete walls.  It was surrounded by a buttress blast wall to withstand a close-in bomb blast. An upper floor has been added to create the office building. The buttress blast wall is now only partially evident. The company has since been taken over and is now called Maunsell McIntyre Pty. Ltd.

A building of identical design, but missing the external buttress bomb blast wall, was built at Green Street, West End at the base of Castle Hill, for use by the RAAF Operations and Signals group.  It was camouflaged and had subsidiary buildings on its roof to give it the appearance of some domestic residences from above.  This building is now used by the State Emergency Services.

There have been some stories reported that the Ramsay Street bunker had a secret room below the floor which contained a tunnel entrance. This was reportedly to allow an escape route in the event of major bombing activities by the Japanese. War veterans who were in Townsville for the 50 years celebrations of Victory in the Pacific visited the bunker. Those veterans who had previously worked in the bunker mentioned a set of stairs leading to the "downstairs" area. An employee of Maunsell McIntyre's has tried to determine whether such a tunnel ever existed. This included querying the above veterans and the reuse of his water divining skills to see if he could find any old tunnels now filled with water. He was unable to find any nearby underground water courses.

Other sources have told me about various tunnels in Townsville connecting Garbutt airfield, this bunker at Ramsay Street, #2 Depot at Mount Louisa, the Sturt Street Quarry in Castle Hill, Ross River near Mount Stuart, 3 Fighter Sector HQ at Stuart, Herveys Range, HMAS Magnetic, etc, etc. Another source has carried out his own water divining activities around Townsville in mid 2000 and has evidence that may support the existence of such tunnels

Another ex RAAF source told me in April 2001 told me he was part of a group inspecting RAAF assets in 1958. His work mate, who was inspecting the Ramsay Street Bunker indicated to him that he had seen a concrete lined underground tunnel at the Ramsay Street bunker heading towards Castle Hill. I have heard other unsubstantiated "stories" of a tunnel connecting the Green Street bunker and the Ramsay Street Bunker.

Stephen Ellis, an investor based on the Gold Coast, completed a $650,000 refurbishment of the former bunker in February 2012. Mr Ellis purchased the bunker through one of his companies for $1.5 million in 2007.

Approximately $100,000 was spent to cut concrete from the main structure, and install windows on the outer bomb-blast walls. The inner 30.48 cm thick secondary bomb blast wall was also removed.

The building has also been renamed to become known as "MacArthur's Chambers". Mr Ellis commented to the Townsville Bulletin that he had been told by the MacArthur Memorial in Virginia, USA that MacArthur had visited the bunker when he stayed overnight in Townsville. "He stayed in Castle Hill in whatever accommodation they had there," Mr Ellis said. My records indicate that the only night that MacArthur appears to have stayed in Townsville was the 17 October 1942. The fact that he stayed "in Castle Hill" is a very interesting comment. Wonder if it is true.

 

WW2 Bunkers & Fortifications in the Townsville area

 

REFERENCES

"The North Queensland Line - The Defence of Townsville in 1942"
by Ray Holyoak, 1998

"The History of Townsville Harbour 1864 - 1979"
By H.J. Taylor

War-time bunker now refurbished offices
Townsville Bulletin 11 February 2012

 

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This page first produced 17 July 1998

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