Roger M Marks, a renowned Australian World War II Airfields historian, has graciously made available his catalogue of photos and information he has collected over many years regarding Portland Roads and Iron Range. Through Roger’s diligent work, we have a lasting pictorial record of this crucial but very significant time in our area’s history. Lest We Forget. In early 1942, the allied strategic defence planning called for an airbase on the Australian mainland to take some load off Port Moresby, but also fearing it to may fall to the enemy. On a ‘great circle’ from the enemy stronghold of Rabaul through Port Moresby and on to the Far North Queensland coast, lay Iron Range with the nearby port of Portland Roads.
The Portland Roads Jetty previously constructed for the 1930’s gold Rush was a crucial factor in the choice of where to locate this airbase. The need to construct the airfields was extremely urgent, and while the jetty provided only a limited depth of water at high tide, its sheer existence pre-war was a key factor in the decision to construct this major airfield at Iron Range. The jetty was the staging point to bring ashore the materials and supplies to construct and maintain the three major airstrips to be constructed at Iron Range.
Picture at Back: July 1943 aerial photo of Portland Roads. The road from Iron Range is seen
approaching from the south west.
Picture at Left: March 1943 photo shows the Liberty Ship ‘Payne Wingate’ tied up at Portland Roads wharf awaiting the embarkation of US Army units.
Picture at Right: Closer to the jetty, the men see an un-named smaller draught vessel which will serve to ferry the heavy equipment to the wharf.
Surveying and upgrading the old goldmining track from ‘Port’ through the inhospitable coastal rainforest to the airfields proved another of the major challenges to be overcome by the allies. An all-weather road capable of carrying heavy equipment and fuel had to be constructed and maintained through difficult terrain and regardless of the torrential rains in the Monsoon season.
Picture at Back: Bridge Construction. View from west. Progress on this – one of a dozen or more bridges on this road – from Portland Roads to Iron Range.
Picture at Left: Dozer cutting drainage channel in roadwork probably associated with bridge construction.
Picture at Right: At the peak of activity, it seems likely some 7,000 odd servicemen were camped along the 34 km long road between Portland Roads and the Iron Range Airfield.
The US Army’s 46th EGSR (Engineer General Service Regiment) disembarked in mid-June 1942 to start the first of several airstrips. That first strip was near the present-day National Park Ranger’s H.Q. Urgent work on the virgin site of ‘Gordon’ strip followed, being named for Jack Gordon of local mining fame.
Picture at Back: A B-26 Bomber parked up in a dispersal bay in the dense rainforest. It’s believed about 50 of these bays were carved out. The larger B-24s often parked on the air strip itself.
Picture at Left: Dozer cut slot beside Claudie strip with B-26s in background! Truck drove down slot and was loaded with screenings by dozer push over ‘chinaman’. Whatever would workplace health & safety say, today?
Picture at Right: US CA AA 40mm Bofors probably set up on NW side of Claudie Strip.
Iron Range Airport is the place that the first heavy bomber missions were mounted direct from the Australian mainland to targets like Rabaul, rendezvousing with fighters from forward fighter bases such as Horn Island and Port Moresby for protection as they got closer to their targets. Previously aircraft flew to and stayed overnight through Port Moresby.
Numerous American and Australian units were present here at various times. As the Allied forces moved northward, Iron Range and Portland Roads settled into a role of servicing transient air and naval movements. Proximity of the runways to the Claudie River meant risk of flooding and the Claudie strip was eventually abandoned due to this. The Gordon strip was on higher ground and it was the runway most upgraded, retained to this day. At the peak of activity, it seems likely some 7,000 odd servicemen were camped along the 34 km long road between Portland Roads and the Iron Range Airfield. Very little evidence remains today of this urgent period in Australian history.
You can take away a little reminder of this local history by purchasing a copy of the ‘Iron Range and Portland Roads 1942 – 1943, Photo Memoir of World War 2’ which was compiled by renowned Australian World War II Airfields historian, Roger M Marks. This is available for sale at Portland Roads Out of the Blue Café and the Lockhart River Airport.
© Portland Roads 2021 / This website was funded in part by the Cook Shire Council’s Economic Resiliency Investment Initiative.