Second World War · Uncategorized

The Yanks at Camden Airfield in 1942

What is little known in Camden is the interest the US Air Force took in Camden Airfield in November 1942 and again in February 1944. On both occasions the 5th US Air Force completed secret reports, now declassified and held by the National Archives of Australia, on the readiness of Camden Airfield to accommodate US aircraft and personnel.

The US 5th Air Force, part of the US Army Air Force, provided the aerial spearhead for General Douglas MacArthur’s island hopping campaign in 1942 and 1943. It provided an air umbrella for MacArthur and was an integral part of the successful campaign to retake New Guinea, the Philippines and eventually Okinawa. The US 5th Air Force, was originally part of the Far East Air Force which was largely destroyed in the December 1941 when Japanese forces attacked the Philippines, hours after attacking Pearl Harbour. The unit retreated to Australia’s Top End in December 1941 (Darwin), re-designated as the US 5th Air Force and headquarter in Brisbane for a time (September 1942).

The initial Camden Airfield report was conducted by the US Army Services of Supply and the 5th Air Force in 1942 when the unit was based in Brisbane. The reports summarised the readiness of the airfield to accommodate aircraft and personnel.

In 1942 the Camden airfield was only considered a minor installation, with a limited capacity and a number of aircraft hazards. The airfield’s main runway was 5,400 feet long and 150 wide while the remainder of the field was grass, had natural drainage and became boggy in the wet.

The airfield was located in a basin surrounded by hills up to one mile away, with the hills ranging in height from 100 feet to 200 feet in height. The field was equipped to only handle occasional night landings with ‘obstruction’ warning lighting on the hangars, camp buildings and the St John’s church spire, which was 450 feet high.

There was 7 Bellman hangars and one smaller hangar, and the only maintenance provisions were for Lockheed Hudson aircraft. There were two underground fuel tanks of 10,000 gallons, one of 18,000 gallons and one of 13,000 gallons.

Communications at the airfield were limited to one telephone line and a telegraph line linked to headquarters in Sydney. The airfield was manned from 0600 hours to 2000 hours with no prior notice needed to call up the airfield. The airfield contact was by telegraph with a call sign of VNCD. The field had no weather station and had to rely on information from Richmond. The climatic conditions noted that the field was subject to daily fogs in July, up to 10 days per year.

Airfield access by an all weather road to Camden and a bridge over the Nepean River, at Macquarie Grove, at the entrance to the airfield ‘capable of carrying heavy loads’.

The 1942 report concluded that there were provisions for eleven dispersal bays in the northern part of the field and five bays at southern end. The field was considered suitable for fighters, and with upgrade suitable for heavier aircraft. At the time of the 1942 assessment the field was occupied by one General Reconnaissance Flying Boat Squadron.

The 1942 report concluded that there was sufficient accommodation for 1000 service personnel in the Camden area with 800 men garrisoned at the airfield, with another 200 men to be accommodated in Camden’s ‘modern hotels’.

If the US Air Force had decided to occupy Camden airfield under National Security Regulations the Americans had the right to do anything they felt was ‘necessary in relation to the airfield for military purposes’.

Over the next two years wartime conditions prompted activity at Camden airfield. By 1944 the field had undergone major improvements and after a re-assessment by the American authorities it was classified as a major airfield.

Improvements included extensions to the E-W runway beyond the airfield boundary, although it was noted that were still deficient with no anti-aircraft defensive installations.

The airfield had an improved ability to service a variety of aircraft, while doing only minor repairs, and there has been flood lighting of the St John’s spire. The field have become equipped with a sick quarters with 15 beds, the runways had become all weather with gravel taxiways and the base had a 24 hour weather service. The improvements amounted to $184,000.

After having completed the two reports, the 5th US Air Force was never based at Camden Airfield. Given the impact of American forces elsewhere in Australia Camden probably had a lucky escape not hosting ‘the Yanks’.

The presence of over 1000 American servicemen at the airfield would have changed Camden from a sleepy little rural village into a garrison town. While many Camden locals would have welcomed the American presence, particularly local businesses, there would have been significant negative effects, given what happened in other localities such as Brisbane and Townsville.

As the war played out the Camden community had very cordial relations with RAAF and RAF personnel stationed at the airfield between 1940 and 1946, mainly because the town was not overwhelmed by large number of troops. There were dances, afternoon tea parties, invitations to local homes, dates with local girls and lots of other interactions with the defence personnel including a number of marriages to local girls.

If the Yanks had come to town it would have been an unforgettable experience.

Camden

Do or Die! Heritage and urban planning in the burbs

Yamba Cottage, KIrkham c. 1913 (Camden Images)
Yamba Cottage, KIrkham c. 1913 (Camden Images)

‘You are the problem’ railed Michael Pascoe in a recent op-ed about the current imposition of heritage listings by local government authorities.

It prompted me to think about a piece I wrote in 2010 about the loss of Edwardian farming heritage on the urban-rural interface on Sydney’s edge. In that I expressed dismay at the loss of early 20th craftsmanship that was seen by decision makers as redundant and out of date. To be replaced by ubiquitous uninteresting modern boxes.

It is interesting that those who think outside the box can take a simple Edwardian cottage, with flair and patience, turn it into a modern family without devaluing the original craftsmanship that built it.

There is a distinct lack appreciation amongst many contemporaries of simple robust country farm cottages that, with imagination and patience, can be up-dated with contemporary fit-outs that suit the needs of the current homeowner.

Despite Pascoe’s outcries others have a different take on the story.

In 2010 Jonathon Chancellor noted (‘Fight to save Tilba underlines heritage neglect’, SMH 22/3/10) that many councils had ‘neglectful heritage lists’.

Even more damming, ‘heritage listing at the local level does not provide much protection at all’, wrote Graeme Aplin, from Macquarie University, in Australian Quarterly (May-June 2009).

‘What we have witnessed over the last five years is the systematic dismantling of heritage protection’, stated Sylvia Hale, Greens spokesperson on planning (‘Heritage at risk’, National Trust Magazine, Feb-Apr 2010).

In 2010 Camden Council approved the demolition (Camden Council, 23/3/10) of a simple 1890 Federation farm cottage known as Carinya at Harrington Park. The owner, Nepean Pastoral Company, sought to develop a 97 residential lot subdivision on the farm site.

Carinya Cottage c1890 (Camden Historical Society)
Carinya Cottage c1890 (Camden Historical Society)

The Harrington Park housing estate is now fully occupied by newly arrived families from the burbs who are probably completely unaware of the history of Carinya. They come with the own hopes, just as the Cross and Paxton families, who lived in Carinya cottage, did in an earlier generation.

The story of Carinya cottage fits within the Australian Historic Themes identified by the Australian Government (Australian Heritage Commission 2001). These are common national standards for identification and conservation of heritage places. Yet this did not save it from the demolisher’s hammer.

Australian’s have a genuine interest in their past and the story of their ‘historic’ homes. Witness ABCTV’s ‘Who’s Been Sleeping in My House’ and the efforts of what Adam Ford calls housetorians. He is able to ‘unlock the mysteries of the past’ and tell a good yarn about houses across Australia.

One homeowner Dorothy felt that Ford’s investigations increased her sense of attachment to place and her home. She stated

‘I feel like it has been a place that has nurtured and cared for a lot of people over the years. It’s cosseted us and cared for us’.

Dorothy’s husband Mark felt a sense of responsibility to the future occupants of the house. He stated

‘The house will be here long after I’ve gone and I’m just privileged enough to be living here for a period of time.’

These homeowners have a creative appreciation of the worth of the story embedded in their homes. They understand that they are participants in an unfolding history, by providing a new layer in the story.

For Pascoe this is part of the ‘creeping heritage disease [that] is making its way up through the decades’.  This is an unfortunate view of the world, but not uncommon is a world driven by post-modernist individualism. A world where communities have lost their soul and inclusiveness. The dollar reigns supreme and does little to nurture the landscape.

In 2010 the developers of the Carinya sub-division were selling a dream. For some the dream is realised for others the new estates create a bland homogenised suburban streetscape with little charm or character.

Carinya Cottage c.1890 (Camden Historical Society)
Carinya Cottage c.1890 (Camden Historical Society)

The Carinya sub-division was part Sydney’s urbanization that, like an octopus, devours all in its path. Including ethical standards, community identity, sense of place and apparently local heritage and history.

The destruction of a simple charming 19th century farming cottages was unnecessary. Old and new can blend and add to the vibrancy and interest of emerging urban landscapes.

This is clearly illustrated in current fuss over the Camden Town Centre Strategy where there have been noisy disagreements between the Camden Community Alliance, Camden Chamber of Commerce and Camden Council. The complete lack of imagination and creativity in the council’s plans for the historic town centre have created a loud back-lash from resident and business owners alike.

The council seems to be blind to the possibilities that a creative use of history and heritage has in the urban landscape for tourism, business and the wider community. The pleadings of the Chamber of Commerce for a ‘prosperous’ business sector have fallen on deaf ears at council. Likewise the pleadings of the community for positive and deep engagement in the urban planning process in one of Sydney’s most sensitive and historic town centres.

Heritage values and good urban planning are not mutually exclusive as some commentators obviously think. But they do require patience, creativity, flair and community engagement from all stakeholders.

For the story of Yamba Cottage at Kirkham read the Kirkham article at the Dictionary of Sydney

Read more about the Town Centre Strategy decked car park proposal.

Read more about new subdivisions on the rural-urban fringe.

Read more about Camden’s Edwardian Cottages