Portland Roads 1943

World War II

1942- 1943

During World War II in early 1942, the Allied Strategic Defence Planning called for an airbase on the Australian Mainland to take some pressure off Port Moresby fearing it may fall to the enemy. On a ‘great circle’ from the enemy stronghold of Rabaul through Port Moresby and onto to the FNQ coast, lay Iron Range with the nearby port of Portland Roads.

So, in 1942 allied forces deployed to Iron Range. They used the recently completed jetty at Portland Roads to unload vital equipment, supplies and fuel for transfer by truck to three airfields hastily constructed inland at Iron Range (near the Lockhart River Community today).

To protect this naval port, fortifications, armaments, and a radar site were installed on the hill overlooking the Portland Roads harbour. Although Japanese submarines operated up and down the channel inside the reef and sank many of the supply vessels. This port and sea rescue base was never attacked. The “Roads” played a key role in keeping supplies up to the medium and heavy bomber groups that operated out of Iron Range, delivering strikes on Japanese installations at Rabaul. This was a turning point in World War II. It was a busy time in Portland Roads’ history with thousands of American and Australian troops passing through the port.

Allied personal loading equipment onto the Liberty Ship “Payne Wingate” as US Army units move north in 1943

Allied personal loading equipment onto the Liberty Ship “Payne Wingate” as US Army units move north in 1943

Eventually, in 1943 as the front line pushed further north, the Allied Air Force moved into New Guinea, with Iron Range and Portland Roads – then used as transit bases. One of the bomber strips in the Iron Range complex, the Gordon Strip, continues as an airport for the Lockhart River community and Iron Range after the war.

 

The War Time Port at 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.

June 1942. Getting closer to the jetty, the men see an un-named smaller draught vessel which will serve to ferry the heavy equipment to the wharf.

March 1943 photo shows the Liberty Ship ‘Payne Wingate’ tied up at Portland Roads wharf awaiting the embarkation of US Army units.

July 1943 aerial photo of Portland Roads. The road from Iron Range is seen approaching from the south west.

One of the earliest Radar sites in Australia at Aylen Hills, Portland Roads (note machine gun emplacement to right of image)
The Jetty at Portland Roads
View from a Liberty ship tied up at the Portland Roads Jetty
Vehicles lined up with equipment to be loaded onto ships at Portland Roads as the war advances northwards

Construction of the Connecting Road

Surveying and upgrading the old gold mining 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.

Bridge Construction. View from west. Progress on this – one of a dozen or more bridges on this road – from Portland Roads to Iron Range.

Dozer cutting drainage channel in roadwork probably associated with bridge construction.

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.

Hospital ward at the 18th Station Hospital, Iron Range
Lt WB Allen and Capt H Broyles, officers of US 46th EGSR at Iron Range
Bridge construction in the Rainforest between Portland Roads and the airfields
Scraper rolled while back-filling a log culvert
USA RAAF Aust’ Bakery located where the Greenhoose is today

Fly as you Build – 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.

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.

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?

US CA AA 40mm Bofors probably set up on NW side of Claudie Strip.

Hospital ward at the 18th Station Hospital, Iron Range
Lt WB Allen and Capt H Broyles, officers of US 46th EGSR at Iron Range
Bridge construction in the Rainforest between Portland Roads and the airfields
Scraper rolled while back-filling a log culvert
USA RAAF Aust’ Bakery located where the Greenhoose is today

Roger R Marks

Roger is a renowned Australian World War II airfield’s historian, has graciously made available his catalogue of photos and information depicting Portland Roads and Iron Range during WWII.  Through Roger’s diligent work there is a lasting pictorial record of this crucial and very significant time in our area’s history.

Lest we forget

Purchase the ‘Iron Range and Portland Roads 1942 – 1943’ Booklet

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.

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 R Marks. This is available for sale at Portland Roads Out of the Blue Café and the Lockhart River Airport.