Bombers in the Desert is the untold story of the courageous efforts of Australian and US airmen to fight off the Japanese.
In the blazing heat of the Pilbara, some 36km south of Marble Bar in WA, in desolate semi-desert spinifex country, there can still be seen a few scarce remains of one of the best-kept secrets of Australian involvement in World War II.
The heavily camouflaged and carefully hidden No. 73 Operational Base Unit was known as Corunna Downs. It’s the name of the still-active cattle station on which the base was located.
Runways built for heavy bombers
The long runways built to handle the heaviest four-engined bombers of the day remain – partly overgrown. It seems slowly but surely they are being reclaimed by the desert.
The main runways, 1650m and 2300m long and each 50m wide constructed with bitumen surfaces, are now cracked and parched. The relentless sun has taken a toll, and they are pretty well covered with sand. In addition there were some 6km of taxiways now almost indistinguishable. A third 2000m runway was apparently planned but never built.
The harshest of environments
This is harsh, unforgiving country. Nearby Marble Bar is recognised as Australia’s hottest town. This is certainly not a great place to be working in the pressure conditions of a WWII airbase. In addition it is reported that servicemen out here were tormented by flies, scorpions and snakes.
A visit to this lonely centre today in our modern air-conditioned vehicles is much more enjoyable but somewhat eerie. The piercing call of an occasional crow the only noise that disturbs the vast silence.
Of course, in this remote area, things were not always so deathly quiet. The regular roar of the engines of the B-24 Liberator bombers wheeled at the end of the runway and paused before commencing their take-off run. They were heavily laden with bombs to pound Japanese bases on Java, Borneo, Celebes, Singapore.
In its time it was quite a noisy, bustling place to be. Today, in its peaceful serenity, visitors can only imagine the activity all those years ago.
Bombers in the desert – once a major airbase
In this remote country, where the many buildings required for the administration and operation of this little-known but major airbase once stood, only a few crumbling concrete foundations can now be seen. What remains of an old windsock pole still stand defiantly near the degraded runways. The earth-formed aircraft bunkers, once covered with camouflage netting and spinifex to hide the planes, can still be seen.
Each of the 20 or so horseshoe-shaped bunkers housed one of the giant bombers, which were tucked away in them after each flight. This was also where maintenance, refuelling and re-arming were carried out.
It is interesting to see how the bunkers (or revetments) were spread far enough apart. This was to minimise damage to the aircraft if the base was ever bombed.
Elsewhere there are small piles of rusting fuel drums, ammunition containers, bomb holders and many other wartime scraps. It is believed all old live ammunition was cleared away, but visitors should be careful they don’t stumble over any that may have been missed. After all this time such live rounds would be very unstable and dangerous.
There is a lonely grave at the foot of an ironstone hillside. It contains a small plaque identifying it as the final resting place of RAAF Sgt Ernest Newton Cook (46603). He tragically died out here in a motor vehicle accident on December 5, 1944.
Bombing mission activity from Corunna hit its peak between 1943 and 1945.
A major threat to Australia
On this almost forgotten spinifex and ironstone countryside, Australian and American air force units blasted the Japanese bases. They threatened Australia as well as harassing the enemy shipping which was so vital to Japanese supplies and troop movements.
At any one time 300 men were based here, living around the airfield in tents in temperatures which sometimes soared to about 50C.
Bombers could reach Japanese targets from other northern bases around Darwin. But such flying took aircraft over a number of islands which had been taken over by the Japanese. The base at Corunna Downs gave aircraft the advantage of surprise, approaching their targets from over the sea.
It was always feared the returning bombers may be followed and the location of the base discovered. Fortunately this was apparently never attempted.
No mention was ever made during the war of these highly secret operations in press or radio reports. Every effort was made to keep from the Japanese any knowledge that Corunna Downs airfield existed.
Japanese reconnaissance aircraft searched extensively for a base they knew must be somewhere but their searching always ended in failure.
The Corunna base was officially closed on January 14, 1946.
Today the importance of the base and the part it played in the latter phases of the war has received little publicity. It is largely unknown, even to the many tourists who pass through the nearby centre of Marble Bar each year.
Facts about Corunna Downs Base
The working life of airmen on the base in the 1940s was harsh and trying. They had minimal facilities, including no air- conditioning or refrigeration. Rations mainly consisted of tinned vegetables and cans of bully beef.
The water supply (from a brackish bore) was so hot showers were impossible until the pipes cooled down about 9pm. Their four-man tents were basic and living here was uncomfortable in the heavy rains of the annual wet season. The only real respite from the conditions was an occasional leave visit to the amenities in nearby Marble Bar. The introduction in 1944 of an open-air picture show at the base was welcomed. However, morale remained high as the airmen realised the important contribution they were making to the war effort. Their proudly secret but successfully operated airbase was invaluable.
The Australian Army was much in evidence at the Corunna Downs base during the war. It provided most of the supply transport as well as its involvement with light and heavy anti-aircraft guns.
Driving to Corunna Downs
The signposted access road (Corunna Downs Station Road/Salgash Road) to the old Corunna Downs Air Base (36km from Marble Bar) is all gravel, usually in quite good condition (except after rain) and can be travelled with care in conventional two-wheel-drive vehicles. Along the way (through old gold and copper mining areas and undulating, spinifex covered hillsides) there are a number of small creek crossings and parts of the road can be a little eroded. The trip is generally OK for off-road caravans or camper trailers but, as there are no facilities and the old base is on the privately-owned Corunna Downs cattle station, permission to camp must be obtained beforehand. Preferably use Marble Bar as a base and make a day trip out to the airbase.
To get your bearings before you actually go, is to check on the internet – Google Earth – where all the main features can be seen.
Check with the Marble Bar visitor information centre (in the local shire office) for road conditions and any access restrictions. Or ring Corunna Downs on 9176 1051 before heading out to the old base. Allow approximately one-hour travelling each way from Marble Bar.
The population of Marble Bar is today just under 100. Marble Bar visitor information centre is located at the Shire of East Pilbara office. 9176 1008.
Additional information on Corunna Downs Air Base (photos and airbase memorabilia) is available at the Comet Gold Mine and Tourist Centre, a few kilometres out of Marble Bar township. Phone 9176 1015. Open from 9am-5pm daily.