WARTIME MEMORIES OF BULIMBA
As recalled by Dennis Burchill - April 2004
The war in Europe started when I was nine years old.
Back in those days, nothing much seemed to change at first in Bulimba. However, as all the boys that grew up locally in this river suburb were known as “water rats”, it was only natural that the first volunteers to go to the war joined the navy.
A couple of the “big boys” that I can remember were Lance Longland who lived in Harrison Street and Huey Sweeney who lived in Brisbane Street. The papers reported the progress of the war on the other side of the world but on Bulimba life went on as usual. (We always said we lived “on Bulimba”, the traditional reference to Bulimba’s island-like characteristics). In December 1941 however, things began to change!
The first sign of war was the setting up of an anti-aircraft battery on the river bank opposite the Hamilton Cold Stores. There were three large sheds next to the Apollo Ferry which were the remnants of the old candle works. They were owned by the Vacuum Oil Company and the Australian Army took them over for the gun crews. There were two Bofors Anti-aircraft guns fitted with “predictors” which tracked the aircraft. They sent aircraft over at times towing a target so that the gun crews could have some practice. The noise the guns made shook the whole district. At that time an air raid siren was installed on top of a large telegraph pole in the police station yard next to the Methodist church. The siren could be heard all over the district.
In February 1942, Bulimba changed forever. I remember playing in the back yard at 33 Cowper Street when the word went out get down to the river. There we saw the biggest ship that had ever come up the river about to berth at Brett’s Wharf . She had two funnels, was painted grey, and had about 6000 troops on board. I believe it was the Mariposa which had cruised from the U.S.A. to Honolulu pre-war. We rushed over to Hamilton via the ferry and spent quite some time diving for coins that the yanks were throwing from the ship, as well as collecting fruit that they were tossing in the water. The troops were marched ashore and lined up on the footpath outside the wharf. I remember going up close to them and listening to see what language they spoke. One section were marched up Racecourse Road to Ascot Racecourse and the rest took up residence at Doomben Racecourse. It seems that the troop convoy was on its way to the Philippines but was diverted to Brisbane when the Japs moved in. They were confined to camp for some time and we would ride our bikes up to the entry gates to Ascot Racecoursewhere the yanks would give us their American money to take to the local shopkeepers to exchange for Australian money. The official rate of exchange was six shillings and one penny for one U.S. Dollar which one shop keeper was giving them but the wog bloke down the road was only giving them four shillings and twopence! But every time that we went to him to exchange he gave us an ice block, so he got all the business! By the time the yanks had given us a tip for changing the money, they didn't have much left!
After this initial arrival things started to move fast. The Japs had reached New Guinea and were expected to invade Australia within the next six months. All the boys going to Bulimba State School were set to work digging slit trenches to protect the pupils in the event of an air raid. The trenches started behind the infants’ school and zigzagged down the hill to where the kindy is today. They were about three feet deep and as the ground was rocky it was hard work. I can only remember two genuine air raid alerts when we were ordered to the trenches. When I arrived I found that the bottom of the trenches were covered in mud and they were also infested with fleas. I decided to stay on top and take my chances with the Japs!
At this time the school was divided into two parts. One half of the school went to classes in the morning and the other half in the afternoon. I think this was bought about by the fact that there were not enough air raid shelters for the whole school. I reckoned that they could not teach me enough in half a day so I did not go at all! Instead I took a rowing dingy along the river bank collecting timber, which I sold to the locals for one shilling a bag, as everyone had a wood stove in those days. This flourishing business came to an abrupt halt when my father found out what was going on!
About this time the government set up a Civil Defence Corps with a reliable resident from each street selected to become an Air Raid Warden. They were under the control of a local commander who for our area, was a chap called Harvey who was a big wig in the State Government. He lived at 20 Wordsworth Street where all the wardens were trained under his house. The warden for Cowper Street was my uncle Bill Lawrence. They were taught how to handle incendiary bombs and were supposed to patrol at night to make sure that no lights were showing during the blackouts. In this regard it certainly wasn't a roaring success.
About this time, every man, woman and child were issued with a ration card. Ration coupons were needed for sugar, meat, butter and clothing, as well as petrol. My uncle Bill Lawrence was a company manager and used a Ford V8 utility as his means of transport. He had to tow a “gas producer” behind his ute to provide his fuel. The gas producer was a large steel cylinder mounted on a trailer, and connected to the engine by means of pipes. First thing every morning he would empty the ash from the previous day's travel. After filling the tank with coke from the gas works, the engine would then be started with petrol and after it was running properly, it would then be switched to the gas producer. A lighted torch would then be inserted into the suction inlet which would ignite the coke The engine would then run on the gas produced by the coke. There were many variations of this method of propulsion and you would always attract a crowd around the gas producer on a cold winter's day.
The yanks certainly didn't muck around. Within weeks the whole of Brisbane started to change. We rode our push bikes over to Eagle Farm, to keep up with events. In 1940 we used to spend all day Sunday at Eagle Farm, which at the time was a large cow paddock with an occasional tiger moth turning up from Archerfield to land on the grass strip. Now there were large hangars being built and planes of all descriptions landing and taking off.
Big changes were happening on Bulimba also. The yanks were in the process of establishing a barge-making facility alongside Apollo Road. The area that they picked had a large tea tree swamp in the middle of the land. They solved this problem by sending all their heavy earth moving equipment to the area we knew as “first gully” (now occupied by the Exclusive Brethren’s church) and taking enough of soil from the hill to fill the swamp in. Another problem they had was the fact that there were about twenty houses along the waterfront that were in the way. They loaded all the houses onto low loaders and put them wherever they could find a vacant block of land close by. In a two week period in 1942 Cowper Street received six of them. As soon as the land was cleared they set about putting in place their barge facility. The workforce comprised about 800 Chinese labourers who were housed in barracks built along Baldwin Street and terraced down the hill. The barges that they were building were about sixty feet long by about 25feet wide. They had a chisel bow at each end. The barges had one refrigeration cold room at each end with a self-contained plant room in the middle. One cold room was for frozen goods while the other was for perishables. The barges were designed to be taken as deck cargo to New Guinea and then towed by tugs to where they were needed. As soon as an island was secured by the yanks around the corner would come the barge loaded with coca-cola and ice cream. As the barges were steel, the Chinese were taught to weld and they worked three eight hour shifts. At six o'clock every morning, (which was the change of shift) the whole district would be awakened by loud Chinese music blasting over the speakers.
The Chinese workers caused quite a lot of friction with the local workers. The yanks paid them well and they always had plenty of money. As beer in those days was rationed and was only served in sessions, the Chinese who had worked all night would have a sleep and then stroll down to the Balmoral Pub when the session started. When the meatworkers and the stockmen arrived after work they found that the Chinese had downed most of the beer on tap. This led to several nasty brawls with the stockmen chasing them down Oxford Street on their horses and hitting them with palings that they had ripped off fences.
The U.S. navy established several depots on Bulimba. On Bulimba Point at the end of McConnell St. they built a large warehouse and living quarters. (the warehouse was taken over by telecom after the war and became their workshop) When the yanks vacated the living quarters at the end of the war several families of squatters moved in and managed to live there, rent free, for several years. Dicky Crouch was one of the locals that I can remember who took up residence. In Banya Street the navy built a large warehouse which is still there today although it has been reclad. They also installed their own sewerage plant, remains of which can still be seen today at the end of an easement, next door to Ham's residence. On the other side of the street was another large warehouse running though to Bulimba Street. The open paddocks adjacent to the store houses were used for all their heavy equipment such as anchors, chains etc. The officers for the navy store section were housed in barracks built on the hill, where the Balmoral Heights estate now stands. On Bulimba Point at the end of Quay Street, the U.S. Army set up an anti- aircraft battery to protect the Newstead Wharf. There were two gun pits linked by a trench. The guns were a heavy type of machine gun and were water-cooled. The gun crew took over the downstairs section of Harry Kay’s house while he lived upstairs. The guns were where the sailing club stands today. Harry Kay's house is still there, next door to the skiff club.
I remember a couple of incidents involving aircraft during the war. The first occurred in late 1942. We were in our back yard in Cowper Street when a single engined aircraft passed over our house at a height of about 100 feet. The next minute there was a loud explosion with thick black smoke. We rushed down to the Apollo Ferry and raced across to Hamilton just in time to see the rescue crew place the bodies of the two crew onto the footpath. Their clothes were still smouldering. It turns out that the aircraft was a Vultee Vengeance dive bomber from the R.A.A.F and the crew were practising an attack on a Dutch ship moored at the Hamilton Cold Stores. This ship had two very tall masts and the plane clipped one of them and crashed into swampland behind the cold stores.
Another incident that comes to mind occurred some time in 1943 at about 11am. I was in the grade six class-room at Bulimba State School when there was a very loud noise, Looking out the windows facing the west there was a large twin wing seaplane with the pilot clearly visible. He went round the back of the school and reappeared on the eastern side not much higher than the school roof. We rushed to the windows in time to see him hit the river about 100 yards from the shore where Patrick's Wharf is today. He bounced back into the air and crashed into the river bank without catching fire. It turns out that it was the seaplane off an American cruiser tied up at Hamilton. They carried a float plane between their two funnels and could launch it by means of a catapult at sea. The plane would then land and be recovered by a crane. This plane was lowered into the river by the crane so that they could test the engine. The plane took off normally, up the river but when it came to landing the pilot was going to show us how good he was by landing across the river. Unfortunately he ran out of water. I believe the pilot escaped with a broken jaw.
The licensee of the Balmoral Hotel was Mrs McFadden. Her son Kevin was a pilot with the R.A.A.F. He must have been pretty good as he was selected by General McArthur to carry all his secret orders and directions from Brisbane to Port Moresby on a daily basis. When he returned from the north he would do a run the full length of Oxford Street, starting at the School of Arts to let his mother know that he was home. Having a D.C.3 flying down Oxford Street at 100 feet is not a sight that you would see every day. Kev went on to become one of the top pilots with A.N.A after the war.
Another affiliation that Bulimba had with aircraft was the Aeroplane Dump. This was in Banya St on the southern side of the warehouse that still stands today, where Yamaha has it's showroom. This dump received all aircraft that crashed with in 100 miles of Brisbane and were still transportable. They were dumped one on top of another until they were about six high. I would estimate that there were about fifty wrecks at the dump. We would go down to the dump every afternoon after school to see if any new planes had arrived. The day after the seaplane crashed at Hamilton, it occupied pride of place on top of the heap at Bulimba. I climbed up through all the wrecks below it to sit in the cockpit and pretend to fly it. As none of the planes were secure the yanks put a guard on the dump to keep the kids out as some one could be hurt if the planes moved. Across the road from the dump was the navy stores and one of the local kids was playing on a large anchor when it rolled and killed him. The yanks operated a foundry at the dump and they had a team of men recovering what they could from the crashed planes. One day we were down at the Apollo Ferry, which was our favourite hang-out, when a fuel lighter returning from the seaplane base at Colmslie exploded in flames opposite the pontoon. The two negro crew gave a new meaning to the term hasty departure and were soon trying to break the 100 yard freestyle record heading for shore The barge, still underway and on fire, drifted alongside the Ardath moored out side Bob Dath jetty. The Australian Navy had taken over Bob's shed for their small ship repairs, and a crew of sailors lived in the sail loft. As the Ardath was Bob Dath's home he was allowed to stay on the premises. The fire brigade arrived to put out the fire but in the meantime a small steam driven tender called the Minor, which shifted the anchor lines for the bucket dredges, came alongside and towed the fuel lighter into the middle of the river where she burnt her self out. The Ardath suffered a large hole in the side which the yanks repaired. She can still be seen today cruising around Moreton Bay.
As well as the barge-making facility, the yanks built a series of warehouses along Apollo Road and three large buildings down to the river. These buildings contained dozens of lathes and other engineering equipment and were the base for their engineers. All these buildings still stand today although they have been re-roofed and re-clad. Along the waterfront next to the Apollo Ferry the yanks had their small ship section. We would sit on the ferry pontoon watching the yanks trying to shoot the water rats on the river bank with their pistols. Around about 1944 the yanks moved out of the Apollo Road area and the Australian Army took over the facility with a large civilian workforce operating the machinery.
One incident that brings back a smile occurred in late 1944. The Australian Water Transport had taken over the small ship section from the yanks and had about six 40-foot Workboats tied up to the wharf alongside the Apollo Ferry. We had broken into a lifeboat stored on Brett’s Wharf and among the items that we had souvenired was a daytime distress canister. It was a metal container with a pull-ring in the top. When activated it sent off clouds of orange smoke so that search aircraft could locate the lifeboat. We decided to try it out about 9pm at the Apollo Ferry pontoon. We waited until the ferry was over the other side of the river, pulled the pin, and kicked the canister in the river. As the tide was ebbing it drifted downstream and got caught amongst the Army Work boats. It was pouring forth large amounts of orange smoke so we took off down Byron Street at a fast rate of knots. We doubled back down Cowper St. and ran back to the ferry as if we were innocent bystanders. By this time the fire brigade had arrived but the army were already fighting the "fire". All the fire fighters were wearing white mess jackets which seemed strange. It turns out that the annual regimental ball was in full swing when the alarm went off. The main entrance to the camp was along side the ferry in those days and we rushed up to the guard on the gate who was a private and asked, “What's going on mister”. “What's going on!” he said, “I saw what you little bastard's did and if wasn't so busy laughing I'd kick you all up the arse!”
It didn’t matter what time of the day or night it was there was always something going on on the river. We were only 100 yards from the river in Cowper Street so you could lie in bed at night and listen to the submarines making their way up to the mother ship moored at New Farm. We rode our bikes to Hawthorne Park and it was quite interesting counting the number of subs and watching them being loaded with torpedo's. Another interesting sight was watching the Assault Ships berthing. They would stop in the middle of the river and unload all the barges from the side that was going alongside the wharf. There were about 20 of them and they would form a circle and go round and round one behind the other until the ship berthed. They would then put booms out from the side of the ship for the barges to tie up to. When the ship sailed the reverse happened. The river was a mass of foam whenever the barges played “Indians”.
In front of our property was a large area of land with a house right on the river bank shaped like a railway carriage with a curved iron roof. The Wakefield family lived there. Outside their property, in the river, were two lovely motor boats. One was for General Macarthur’s use and the other for some other top brass. They had a permanent Filipino crew on each boat. As the front yard of the property was vacant land the yanks set up a sawmill there.
Every day a troop of American prisoners both black and white, would be marched under the control of an armed guard from the stockade at Eagle Farm down to the Apollo Ferry, across the ferry and down to Byron Street. They all wore overalls with a big "P" on the back. Their job was to reduce large Oregon logs down to a size that was manageable. The smell from the Oregon timber drifted all over the district. The American Sea-Bees established a large camp at Meeandah which ran from Kingsford Smith drive down to the Royal Queensland Golf Club. The Sea-Bees were the troops that followed up each landing to build the airfields and infrastructure necessary to secure the island. They lived in a tent city, as their stay was only for a short time. We would turn up after the troops were sent north, and rummage through each tent looking for anything that might be of value, mainly sweets. We stuffed all our loot down our shirts to carry it back to our bikes. We came out of one tent and were confronted by the biggest guard I had ever seen. He pulled out his pistol and said "Hands up!" We quickly obeyed his command. At the same time all the goodies that we had collected fell from our shirts to the ground. He then marched us at gun point and with our arms held as high as they would go, to the guard house. The guard told his sergeant “I have captured some dangerous prisoners”. The sergeant picked up the phone and said “Is that the jail? I am sending down some dangerous prisoners. You know what to do with them!” We were then marched, still with our arms in the air, and desperately in need of a toilet, down to the cook house. They said that they would let us go if we could eat three plates of ice cream. They then loaded us into a jeep and drove us back to our bikes, asking us very nicely not to come back boys. The yanks were always soft touches when kids were concerned.
At Colmslie where the boat ramp is today the yanks established a seaplane base. There were moorings in the river and a concrete ramp for the seaplanes to be towed onto dry land for repairs. There was a large workshop building and I think there was also some sort of radio transmitter as there was a large steel mast alongside the workshop. They also established a gun range and they would fire at targets in front of a large earth wall with their pistols. When they were finished we would dig in the earth bank to recover the bullets.
Probably the largest project that took place on Bulimba or possibly Australia was the building of the Cairncross Dry Dock. In early 1943 we watched workmen digging test holes to establish the type of material that they had to remove. This was done with a workman at the bottom of the hole with a pick and shovel, and a team at the top with a bucket and windlass to recover the spoil. When the project received the go-ahead, workmen came from everywhere. On the corner of Thynne and Lytton Roads, the Civil Construction Corps had a large camp where George Pickers had his showroom. The C.C.C. were men who were rejected for the service's or were too old to enlist. They were conscripted into the workforce and were sent to construct defence projects anywhere in Australia. The work force required for the construction of the dry dock totalled nearly one thousand men. They built about twenty dormitory blocks in Coutts Street, Bulimba for the main work force. After the war these buildings became known as the Bulimba Hostel and provided cheap accommodation for low wage earners. The hostel has been replaced by the Clem Jones Centre and all the original buildings being demolished.
The material required to build the dock was staggering. All concrete was mixed by hand-operated machines and at one stage there was a stock pile of gravel six foot high which stretched from Lytton Road, down Thynne Road to the river. The dock was finally commissioned in late 1944 and the first ship to enter the dock was the Australian heavy cruiser “Australia” which suffered severe damage from a Kamikaze attack in the Philippines. When she arrived in Brisbane the aircraft was still embedded between the funnels . The body of the Jap pilot was removed in the dry dock. The Cairncross Dry Dock was then and still is the largest graving dock in the southern hemisphere. (NOTE:- Captain Cook Graving Dock opened on 24 March 1945 in Sydney is actually larger than Cairncross Dock. The official Royal Australian Navy "Report of Proceedings for Period 30th October - 30th November, 1944" for HMAS Australia show that HMAS Australia left Manus Island at 0800/1 on 30 October 1944 for Espiritu Santo via Vitiaz Straits for Battle Damage repairs. HMAS Australia arrived at Espiritu Santo on Friday 3 November 1944. With battle damage repairs completed, HMAS Australia sailed for Manus Island at 0800/I on Thursday 30 November 1944. Perhaps Dennis saw a different RAN ship in Cairncross Dock - Regards Peter Dunn).
In early 1945 the British Navy started to arrive with aircraft carriers but they did not generate the excitement that the yanks created.
One story that should be recalled relates to the brothels on Bulimba. These were set up by a couple of local "Girls" and their minders to cater for the young Chinese barge builders. They had plenty of money and were willing to pay for their pleasure. The largest establishment was set up in “first gully” which ran up the school hill from Lytton Rd. about where the western boundary fence is now for the Exclusive Brethren’s Church. It operated at night with the girl standing at the head of a queue of about thirty Chinese. Next to the girl was a “Minder” who took the money and timed each customer. All the business was carried out standing up. We would sneak into the bushes and watch the action. We thought that we would liven things by collecting a bag of ball bearings from the aeroplane dump and firing them with our shanghais at the Chinese men waiting their turn in the queue. When we scored a direct hit all hell broke loose and we only just beat the posses that were chasing us to Bolan Street. Another madam operated out of a large 1938 Buick which would pull up at the water trough which was on the corner of Lytton Road and Apollo Road. A couple of the Chinese would hop in and about 10 minutes later they would be back and another set of customers jumped in. We never ever found out where they went, but after our near death experience with the ball bearings we decided that there were much safer hobbies than playing "Spot the Chow!"
The entrance to the Chinese camp was at the end of Hood Street. Just outside the front gate the yanks put in a recreation hut which was about forty foot long and about two feet off the ground. The Chinese filled it up with all types of gambling tables and games. The building had a hardwood floor with large gaps between each plank. We would set ourselves up at about 7pm under the hut and wait for the coins to start dropping through the floor boards. Once a coin dropped through the cracks the Chinese wrote it off. It helped to supplement the pocket money.
Towards the end of the war I attended the Industrial High School which was situated at the bottom of George Street where the Q.U.T. stands today. Some of the things that I remember from those daily trips to school were the number of Air Raid shelters that were built. They were about 30ft. long by about 12ft wide with a protected entrance at each end and were made of reinforced concrete. There was a large number installed down Ann Street and at the fig trees at the bottom of Creek Street. Also installed along the full length of Ann St. was a large cast iron water pipe about 3ft. in diameter. It started at North Quay and ran along the eastern side of Ann Street until it reached Queen Street. It was installed above ground except where it reached an intersection where it went under ground. It was installed to provide water to fight fires caused by Air Raids and delivered salt water from the river via pumps installed near the O'Connor Boathouse. The Brisbane City Council converted several of the air raid shelters for peacetime use by removing all the walls and leaving the roof. There is one still standing today at the corner of Thynne Road and Wynnum Road near the Morningside School of Arts.
When the end of the war came all the ships in port sounded their sirens one after another. I remember catching a tram to town on V.J. day. The streets were crowded with many thousands of troop and civilians all celebrating the end of hostilities. One chap I felt sorry for was the driver of a brewery truck that was trying to make a delivery to the Daniel Hotel. As he hopped out to open the gate to the courtyard in Adelaide Street, a group of Aussie diggers grabbed a ten gallon keg from the back of his truck and took off down past the City Hall.
Growing up in Bulimba during the war was certainly an exciting time for a young boy. I hope that some of the memories that I have recalled here will enable those of my generation to recall their own experiences during this time of danger and stress, and to give to those now living on Bulimba, and too young to know what it was like, an insight into the day to day experiences of a “Bulimba Water Rat”.
Bulimba @ War
Reports of Proceedings, HMAS Australia August 1939 - November 1944 (see pages 6 - 8)
I'd like to thank Dennis Burchill for his assistance with this web page.
Can anyone help me with more information?
"Australia @ War" WWII Research Products
© Peter Dunn 2015
This page first produced 17 September 2004
This page last updated 25 January 2020