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Wartime history reduced to dust

By John Mikkelsen - posted Friday, 22 April 2022


There was a loud rumble and the ground shook for a few seconds. Not far from our house, the concrete walls of Stuart Jail suddenly developed a few visible cracks and just a few miles away, some national history was obliterated in the blink of an eye.

Tropical thunderstorm? No, the skies over the bush village were clear. Earthquake? No, but a cloud of dust like a mini A- Bomb rose above the gum trees over to the southeast.

It was just the latest development in a massive land clearing project underway in 1957 to pave the way for construction of Glencore's Copper Refinery on the outskirts of the small settlement near Townsville.

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This was an area I often visited with my best mate Rover and a couple of school pals, because it contained an amazing structure we liked to explore. But we had no idea of its historical significance or why it should have been preserved as a museum piece for the vital role it had played in defeating advancing Japanese forces in the Pacific.

Torches were a necessity to venture inside the old World War II bunker with its three feet thick reinforced concrete walls and roof. Back then, the pitch-dark rooms provided all-weather protection for herds of foraging goats, probably the occasional snake or goanna, and the odd adventurous boy. Another roofless underground structure nearby was filled with stagnant green water and dozens of breeding cane toads.

After I heard the explosion that day I decided to go and see for myself what the work crews and bulldozers had accomplished in the open bushland we knew so well. We waited until the workers had parked their heavy equipment and gone home or more likely to the Stuart Pub to quench their thirst after a hard day's toil under a hot sun.

I hopped on my bike and rode out a few miles with my best mate Rover, the Kelpie-cross, trotting alongside on the dirt road through acres of felled eucalypts and thorny China apple bushes, pushed into piles waiting to be burnt. There was one silver lining in all this destruction, but it carried a sting in its tail. My mates and I had found that some of the felled trees contained bee hives. The native bees provided risk-free honey for the taking, but their larger cousins still protected their hives fiercely, even though they had no chance of survival. Needless to say, we copped our share of stings trying to smoke them out with handfuls of burning grass just to get at the delicious honeycombs.

But I could hardly believe my eyes when I reached the old bunker; or what used to be the bunker and the big underground water tank. Just large chunks of concrete rubble and twisted steel rods waiting to be loaded on trucks and carted off to God-knows-where.

Sadness gripped me at this latest evidence of the price of progress on our once peaceful boyhood playground. A cement plant had also opened recently, close to the pristine Stewart Creek, and waste slurry was allowed to run off into a gully which flowed into the creek, polluting it for miles downstream with thick, grey deposits. The annual wet seasons and floods removed that and probably distributed it over Townsville Harbour, but in the dry season it would recur.

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Maybe the Stuart I knew and loved then was about to change in ways I could only imagine, but as I looked at the piles of jagged concrete and tangled steel reinforcement, I had no comprehension of the significance of what had just been destroyed. The place had a fascinating clandestine war-time history, which I have just learned for the first time more than six decades later.

Quite possibly, it had helped us win the war and if things were different back then, it would probably have been restored to its former glory and preserved as a lasting memorial within the boundaries of the copper refinery. The refinery owners, Glencore, have also recognised its significance and belatedly erected a plaque in its place.

Back in March 1942, three years into World War II, the secret bomb-proof bunker was constructed where the Townsville Copper Refinery now stands. It sheltered skilled Katakana (Kana) wireless operators providing essential intelligence which certainly contributed to Victory in the Pacific. Kana was a radio code based on Japanese writing.

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John Mikkelsen's book Don't Call Me Nev can be purchased by clicking here.



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About the Author

John Mikkelsen is a long term journalist, former regional newspaper editor, now freelance writer formerly of Gladstone in CQ, but now in Noosa.

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