It is really quite easy to get to Norfolk Island. After a few short hours on a plane that arrives several times a week, you land on a runway that fits snugly on the only suitable flat land. This little island, 8km long and 5 km wide, rises out of the ocean almost equidistant between Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia. It is almost impossible to imagine coming here any other way than by air, yet access by ship was the only option until 1942.
However landing by ship can be tricky. The difficulties of sea travel to Norfolk were memorably captured in 1788 by the French explorer Comte de La Pérouse. Frustrated by being unable to land because of the rugged coastline and heavy swells La Pérouse described the island as being “fit only for angels and eagles.”
Today, our ease of travel is only possible because of the ‘eagles’ of World War II. No enemy invasion occurred on Norfolk during the war. However the impact to the island was possibly far greater than any previous event, leaving profound changes that are still with us today. There is none greater than the building of the airstrip that opened up the island to the outside world like never before.
Local men made a huge commitment to the war effort, with eighty volunteers from Norfolk Island accepted for overseas service with either the Australian or New Zealand armed forces. This represented approximately 10% of the population. Nine servicemen died on active service. In addition, sixty-six men made up the Norfolk Island Infantry Detachment that remained on the island.
While the early stages of the war occurred in Europe, there was little effect on the daily lives of Norfolk Islanders, apart from the tragic loss of their men to the war itself. However after Japan’s entry into the war in 1941, that dramatically changed. To begin, a small Australian detachment of fifty-seven men was dispatched to Norfolk to reinforce the local detachment and prevent sabotage of the cable station at Anson Bay. This was where the cable from New Zealand joined the Pacific Cable, linking Australia and Canada via Fiji.
However it was Norfolk’s unique and strategic position in the South Pacific that brought her fully into the war. Vice-Admiral RL Ghormley of the US Navy, Commander of the South Pacific Force, decided that an airstrip would be ideally located here. It would be a staging depot for land-based aircraft moving over the waters between New Zealand, Australia, New Caledonia and the Solomons; a base for anti-submarine patrols, and refuge for aircraft in distress. With an airstrip, Norfolk would have a role as a centre for maritime reconnaissance and surveillance. Ghormley’s decision was also made with a recommendation from General MacArthur himself. MacArthur had a secret assessment of Norfolk Island’s suitability carried out in April 1942 by US Army Captain Ronald W. Husk. Husk spent four days on the island secretly investigating the conditions for his report.
The site for the aerodrome was chosen on the south western side of the island. In total 171ha of land was compulsorily acquired, representing one eighth of the island’s total area – a vast amount of land to be given by Islanders for the furtherance of the war effort. Aside from the removal of many family homes, the ‘Tree of Knowledge’, a large tree where local notices were historically posted was also removed, along with one mile of historic 30 metre high convict planted pines known as ‘The Pine Avenue’. Rawson Hall, the town hall, was demolished and a new hall built in the area now called Burnt Pine. With the enormous impact to so many families, it is hard to imagine the land being able to be acquired in any other circumstances than the darkest days of the war.
Work began in August 1942. Building the airstrip required construction, plant and equipment being shipped in, together with 200 workmen from the Australian Department of Main Roads. When the work to build the airstrip was completed, Mr. Geoffrey E. McHugh, Chairman of the Works Committee, wrote the following letter:
To the Kindly People of Norfolk Island As our work draws to a conclusion and the time for our departure rapidly approaches, I feel it is my bounden duty to express, on behalf of all men engaged on the job, our public appreciation of the unstinted hospitality extended to us during our stay.
Some months ago we arrived strangers to you all; yet almost immediately the innate friendliness and camaraderie of the inhabitants admitted us to the intimacy of their homes. To some of us it has been a great separation from our loved ones but the privation has been very much lessened thanks to the generous nature of our hosts.
This generosity is remarkable when it is realised that our coming meant the obliteration of many documents of the past – monuments clad in the doubly sacred memories of life, i.e. Joy and tribulation.
One dear old lady was observed quietly weeping at the site of the Tree of Knowledge whose knots were deeply embedded in the lives of all. To her and those whose tears have flowed – some because of hallowed homes torn down – we offer our deep sympathy. They may take comfort in the knowledge that that is their sacrifice towards ultimate victory. Norfolk Island now becomes a citadel, an important link in an impregnable chain that will eventually strangle the Jap. And so dear folk, “time marches on”, history is being written anew, and your lovely isle takes her rightful place in affairs of to-day, worthy indeed of the descendants of that spirited and defiant band whose inspiration was Fletcher Christian.
Again we thank you for your tolerance of our failings and your kindly reception.
On behalf of the Works Committee,
Geoffrey E. McHugh (Chairman)
The first ‘unofficial’ landing of a RNZAF plane on Christmas Day 1942 delivered food and Christmas parcels to the Kiwi forces. This landing together with the official first landing of two Hudson bombers on the 28th December, and three more the following day, would have been an amazing sight for the Islanders. The drama, and excitement, of war was well and truly upon them. Throughout the duration of the war, an average of 200 planes a month staged through Norfolk, bringing sixteen different types of aircraft.
A New Zealand company, the 36th Battalion designated as ‘N Force’, made up of 1,488 personnel was dispatched to protect the airfield. N Force also comprised the 215 Composite Anti-aircraft Battery, 152nd Heavy Battery and a mobile field troop. They were stationed here between 1942 and 1944 and as a result, Norfolk’s war history is closely tied to New Zealand.
The overall effect on Norfolk was enormous The local population at times was outnumbered by 3:1 from military personnel, with a peak of 2,000 servicemen in the first half of 1943. This brought the island population to its highest ever, impacting on the availability of fresh food. Roads were widened and re-built. A 20 bed hospital was constructed. Islanders’ homes and the Old Military Barracks at Kingston were converted for war-time use. A disused sawmill was put back into operation producing 65,000 superficial feet (153.4 cubic metres) of timber per month (ultimately leading to a significant loss of timber reserves). A radar station was built at Mount Bates by the RNZAF in May 1943 serving to save both lives and aircraft.
Today, Norfolk is once again welcoming visitors who arrive by sea – however this time via visits from cruise ships. But it is by air that nearly all our visitors arrive. Norfolk’s economy is tightly linked to tourism and the ability to fly visitors in and out of the island on an almost daily basis. Of course the airstrip is also of great importance to the community – many of our goods and trade, all our relatives and friends arrive by air. When a medical emergency arises a Medivac flight quickly takes us to specialist care on the mainland.
The lasting legacy of the ‘eagles’ of war are the benefits brought to us by the ‘angels’ of peace.’
Image Credit: WWII images from NSW Department of Roads and Transport (2010) – Image supplied and approved for use by Norfolk Island Museum. Published in 2899 Magazine Volume 2 Issue 2, 2010.
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in 2899 Magazine V2 Iss2, 2010. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.