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Wings of Change: A wartime airport changed an island

Wings of Change: A wartime airport changed an island

Settlement by Polynesians on Norfolk Island had been temporary and perhaps intermittent. During the penal era, the Island was more a place to escape from, and the separation from ‘home’ in Britain was felt by all.

From the first day of their arrival in 1856, the Pitcairners were determined that this was now a permanent home, although a handful succumbed to homesickness and returned to Pitcairn. Those who stayed worked hard at establishing a community operating under its own code of laws, and making the best of the resources available to sustain themselves. There was little sense of remoteness or being cut off from the rest of the world. They would however, still look for sails on the horizon, knowing that it would bring trading opportunities for their local produce, and the chance of obtaining various commodities and manufactured goods to make life a little easier. Over time, ships brought visitors representing colonial authorities, whaling crews, folk looking for an extended period of recreation, others bringing skills that would help build up the community.

If there was any sense of isolation, it was because of the frustrations of communication with New South Wales and New Zealand. This was largely solved when Norfolk Island was finally connected to the Pacific Cable in the early 1900s, putting the Island in closer touch with the outside world.

In 1931, the rural peace of the Island was sharply shattered by the noise of an aircraft engine overhead. Everyone hurried on foot, or by buggy or horseback, to Cascade Bay, to greet Francis Chichester (later Sir) who had called to refuel and attend to some repairs on his seaplane Madame Elijah during his historic flight between New Zealand and Australia. In some ways it was a reminder of the Island’s strategic connection with its distant neighbours.

For the next two decades, contact continued to be by sea, as increasing numbers of vessels called with visitors and supplies, and returned to Australia with a variety of Norfolk agricultural products including oranges, lemon products, bananas, bean-seed, tung oil and passion fruit pulp. Growing numbers of Islanders took the opportunity to travel for work, recreation or family reasons. Visitors would arrive on the ship and spend leisurely weeks discovering the Island’s charms, until the ship returned to take them back home.

These visitors would bring new stories of the rest of the world, but for the Norfolk Islanders, their ‘newspaper’ was the ‘Tree of Knowledge’, a large pine tree located at a central point of travel around the Island. The tree was a gathering point, and on its trunk would be posted local notices, and also, courtesy of the Cable Station, news of the rest of the world. From these notices, Norfolk Island came to learn of the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939. For a while it had little impact, although a number of local men travelled to New Zealand or Australia and enlisted to fight for King and Empire.

The situation changed as the seat of war moved to the Pacific. A local militia of about 60 men was formed, supplemented by an Australian contingent of similar size, mainly for the purpose of defending the Cable Station. Beyond that, Australia considered that Norfolk Island, lacking an air strip or a harbour, would attract little enemy attention.

The commanders of the Allied Forces, however, had decided that the Island was strategically significant, and would be the perfect staging post for military aircraft travelling between New Zealand and the islands to the north. It is said that General Macarthur himself was personally involved in this decision, and that some of his advisors paid a quiet visit to approve the site that had been chosen for the purpose.

The planned airfield, with two intersecting runways, meant the acquisition of 171 hectares of prime land in the southwest of the Island. Within this area were many homes and guest houses, a golf course, a community hall, and a large private area known as ‘Rossiters Paddock’ where sports, gymkhanas and other community events had traditionally been held for many decades.

Occupants of the homes were given little notice to find somewhere else to live. Islanders serving away in the forces were contacted so they could appoint an agent to move their possessions before the demolition began. Homes and public buildings elsewhere were also taken over for military purposes. It was well after the end of the War that compensation was made for resumed property, amounting to less than $80,000 for 136 portions of land and 36 homes.

The most distressing news was that the Island was to lose the Avenue of Pines. This was a magnificent thoroughfare flanked by over 350 pines planted over 100 years before. It linked roads leading to Kingston and the more central part of the Island, and the route leading north to Anson Bay. At its centre was the iconic Tree of Knowledge.

A 1500 strong ‘N’ force, a contingent of New Zealand troops, along with a number of U.S. personnel, had occupied the Island. These were now supplemented by around 300 men from the NSW Department of Main Roads, to carry out the massive construction task. An enormous range of heavy machinery and equipment was brought on to the Island. Roads needed to be widened and strengthened to carry it.

In very short time most of the giant pines were felled by sawing and blasting. The late Marie Bailey, who was a teenager at the time, said it took little more than 15 minutes for a tree to be brought down, stripped of its branches, and rolled to the side. When it came to the Tree of Knowledge, there were tears, prayers and even some cursing as Norfolkers witnessed the loss of something that had been at the heart of their community.

Valleys were filled in, the area was levelled, and a base of sand and clay was laid, along with crushed limestone from the Point Hunter quarry, supplemented by stone from the remnants of convict cottages that had stood along Slaughter Bay. Finally the main runway was overlaid with Marsden Matting, sheets of perforated metal imported from the U.S. The work proceeded day and night and was expected to be completed in less than 5 months.

On Christmas Day 1942, two Hudson Bombers flew over expecting to make parachute drops of mail, parcels and lamb and peas for Christmas dinner for the troops. The first drop went awry, and the second pilot made a decision to land on the nearly completed strip, thus pre-empting the American plans for an official opening a few days later. The Island was now accessible by air!

New patterns of travel and social engagement had to be learned. It was as if the Island had lost its centre of gravity. A few decided to take familiar short-cuts across the new airfield, but were greeted by electric fences and warnings that trespassers would be shot! Today it is hard to imagine the disorientation and feeling of loss.

The population of the Island had tripled, and all these people needed to be fed. In theory the NZ troops had been meant to grow their own food to supplement provisions sent from New Zealand. In fact, there was enormous pressure on local growers, and the Butter Factory was forced to close because milk and cream were in such short supply.

Timber resources were placed under enormous stress. 65,000 super feet were milled each month. The troops had re-started one disused mill and acquired another for their purposes. The timber reserves had already been depleted by the large scale production of boxes for fruit exports in the pre-war years. After the war, massive re-plantings were carried out, including a gum forest to provide poles.

To avoid putting a strain on water supplies, pipes were installed connecting a spring behind Governor’s Lodge with a holding tank right up where the Mini Golf stands, and from there water was gravity fed to various camps and outposts. It had been hoped this would form the basis of a reticulated water system for the Island, but it soon fell into disuse.

The presence of the extra troops made heavy demands on resources, but in many ways enhanced social activities. There were dances, card evenings, dinner invitations, sports days, and other entertainments. A valley beside Taylor’s Road proved to be a natural amphitheatre for concerts, and when two trucks were backed against each other, they provided a great stage. Performances were enjoyed by all.

As the months went by, many problems arose. The resident population of the Island had dropped severely, caused not only by the local enlistments, but by the loss of families who had moved to the city to have closer contact with loved ones, or better employment opportunities. Farms and gardens fell into a state of neglect with shortage of manpower. The opportunities for export had been diminished as shipping was directed to the War effort.

In those years of massive movements of goods, machinery and people, many insect pests and plant diseases had been introduced, including a rust that affected the once prolific passion fruit. Although hundreds of vines were re-planted at Hundred Acres just after the War, to help the Island get back on its feet, the fruit never recovered its former vigour. The ‘Halo Blight’ was also threatening the viability of the Bean Seed industry. In 1948, legislation was introduced to create strict quarantine restrictions on all imported plant matter. The Bean Seed industry continued for another two decades, and there were still opportunities for flower seed, palm seed and pine seed. For much other agricultural production however, the markets had now fallen away.

Nevertheless, new opportunities had arisen, as interest had grown in New Zealand and Australia for visiting the Island. Initially this was fuelled by the enthusiasm of Army and Air Force personnel who had enjoyed their wartime experiences on the Island. A handful had even married local girls.

Norfolk Island became an introduction to the increasingly popular overseas travel concept. Norfolk was seen as a somewhat exotic semi-tropical island, with a familiar language and currency. Norfolkers found that visitors were interested in the old colonial Georgian buildings and the remnants of the Penal settlement. They also discovered new possibilities for showcasing their Bounty/Pitcairn heritage. The Island was acquiring a fresh self-awareness of its role in the world and place in history.

The New Zealand Air force continued to control the airport right up to 1949, and had begun flying on a semi-commercial basis, especially catering for medical and educational needs of Islanders. In 1949, National Airways Corporations took over the air route, and control of the airport transferred to the Dept. of Civil Aviation. Qantas commenced flights from Australia.

Following the War, not only did the traveller take a greater interest in Norfolk Island, but the Australian Government took responsibility for providing some modest financial aid and technical assistance to assist the Island to move into a new era.

The ease of travel for various purposes was definitely to be welcomed. There were other positives too. The United States had built a new 20 bed Military hospital that was eventually handed over to the Island. A new Rawson Hall was constructed, a power station was erected alongside the airport, and the first houses to be connected to electricity were the new houses for the Department of Civil Aviation employees. Although much of the larger equipment and machinery used in constructing the airstrip was shipped away, smaller items and vehicles were sold locally, and several army huts were taken over as sheds and the basis of cottages. The Island’s roads had been improved and maintained. A new road, Douglas Drive, was built to connect the airport and Anson Bay Road after the loss of Pine Avenue. However, it was very hurriedly surveyed and constructed, and intersected some private properties, to the consternation of the owners.

As the fledgling tourist industry developed, homes, guest houses and shops sprang up close to the airfield. A Tourist Bureau was set up by some enterprising locals in the current Leagues Club building, providing basic meals and entertainment. As cars, taxis and tour buses became more common, a commercial centre began to move towards the Burnt Pine area.

There were fresh employment opportunities in retail and accommodation and service industries. The population gradually recovered and exceeded former numbers, as people came to start businesses or supply needed trade skills.

The island way of life was to change. There was still anticipation of a ship’s arrival, bringing commodities, consumer goods and ‘duty free’ items that would be sold to tourists. However, daily routines were now planned around plane timetables. Many mourned the fact that leisurely picnics, social occasions, working bees and other community activities suffered.

Ironically, the Norfolk Airport today is not nearly as busy as it back in those war years, when around 150 planes a month came in to land. Today, apart from occasional freighters or charters, and a few private planes, an aircraft comes from Sydney or Brisbane only 4-5 days a week. Currently there are no services from New Zealand, although a regular flight service is due to commence in September 2019 after nearly 3 years of intermittent services.

However, Norfolk Islanders today feel they live in the best of both worlds, enjoying the low key island way of life, but having easy access to the conveniences of the modern world.


Photo: Frank Gaelic in the World of Norfolk Exhibit in 2012

Frank Gaelic arrived on Norfolk Island in 1942 with the New Zealand armed forces to construct the Norfolk Island airstrip. He is the man pictured laying the Marsden Matting in the picture behind him and also on page 47. In 2012, in his nineties, Frank decided to return to Norfolk Island “one last time” having also visited in the 1970s. He was both shocked and delighted to enter the World of Norfolk Exhibit and encounter a large picture of himself on display. It is amazing to think he returned to Norfolk Island and landed on an airstrip that he helped to build 70 years earlier. The fond memories he had of building the airstrip on Norfolk Island stayed with him throughout his life.

The World of Norfolk Exhibit is located in the Norfolk Mall and is operated by Spacifica Travel. 


Image Credit: Robin Nisbet


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in Discover Norfolk, Volume 03 Issue 02, 2019. 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.



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