Reid River Airfield
US 46th Engineer General Service Unit (EGS) camp
Flinders Highway, Reid River 4816
The Reid River Airfield consisted of three graded and hard surfaced runways and was located a few kilometres south of Woodstock, towards Charters Towers. Reid River was little used by the RAAF but remained throughout the war years as an American base. The complex was another built by the US 46th EGS (Engineer General Service Unit).
Understandably the south bank of the Reid River was favoured as camp areas and relics of various mess buildings remain. In contrast to Townsville where city dwellers were encouraged if not forcibly removed during the period of most danger from invasion, properties on the fringe of outlying airfields were little disturbed. During research, Roger Marks had contact with one such person Lux Foote, who lived near this site during the war.
A National Archives progress report to RAAF Headquarters by Pilot Officer, John Keays’ on the 14 April 1942, stated:
…Reid River: This site has been constructed by the US Corps of Engineers, in preference to the selected site at Cardington. Runways have been located clear of hills and site has been approved by operational personnel. Grading will be necessary and site will have to be gravelled before use…
The report went on to quote:
Karl C Dod referred to the 46 EGS unit’s initiative, quoting it’s CO, Albert G Matthews’ post-war correspondence—
…Matthews described the construction of these airstrips as “field improvisation at its… best” The Officers of the 46th were largely on their own and “did what seemed good to them and in most cases their engineering common sense was the primary and single qualification for the work". Construction was held to the simplest standards. Because equipment was short, dispersal taxiways, hard stands and revetments were omitted. As the long dry season was just beginning, drainage was dispensed with. Since the engineers had no asphalt or tar, they surfaced the runways with rotted granite, semi-decomposed shale or sometimes merely with gravel and clay. The fields were rough and crude, but planes could land on them.
Keays’ lengthy 14 April 1942 review shows he was a party to constructive evolution of design standards—
…Width of clearing and pavement: strips are being cleared for width of 300 feet only and it has been suggested width of pavement for fighter strip should be decreased from 150 feet. A direction in this regard is required. I consider 300? will be insufficient for bombers and suggest 400 or 450 feet of clearing with the full 150 feet of pavement (for bombers).
At the time of Keay’s reporting, the first P-39s arrived at Woodstock Airfield. Rod Voller, then the Dept of Home Security’s man in charge of camouflage at Townsville, could not find specific reference to the first aircraft to land at Reid River. His diary notes blanketed the matter and he simply said—
…these outlying strips were used as soon as they were formed without any bitumen surfacing. They were very dusty and visible! (from the air)…
The thirteen page history from the files of 46 EGS veteran John A McFee tells of early aircraft arrival and of a diversion&8212;
…During the latter part of April, the 18 BS (redesignated 408 BS on 22 April 1942) of the 22 BG (B-26) arrived at Reid River and began operation from strip No 1. These bombers would fly to Port Moresby to refuel and load up and strike at Lae and Rabaul. Within weeks a second squadron arrived using strip No 1. On 3 May 1942, operations were temporarily stopped when the regiment was put on the alert for a supposed enemy invasion of Northern Australia, possibly in the vicinity of Townsville. Company F returned from their outpost overlooking the town of Giru during the alert and resumed work on strip No 1. Company’s D E and H & S moved to Reid River (from Woodstock over the period 5-9 May 1942) and commenced work on dispersal roads and parking bays. Lt-Col W H Mills assumed command of the regiment on 9 May 1942 relieving Col. A G Matthews.'
In June of 1942 Anti Aircraft Troops and equipment were deployed to the various airfields and other points in Townsville area.
In respect of REID RIVER these troops appear to have been from the HQs US 3 Battalion with batteries D, H, L and M and one platoon each from batteries A and E of the 94 CA (A-A), which defended the airstrips at Reid River and Woodstock…
The disposition of these batteries is not known and it appears their weapons were nothing heavier than 0.5" calibre machine guns.
While the US 22 Bombardment Group squadrons stayed for many months, the 46th Engineer elements had all departed Reid River by 7 July 1942. The plan then for the airfield was advancement to bitumen surfacing on all three strips and the erection of two squadron camps. Both were located between the 87 degrees runway and the river. A large CCC camp developed west of the railway siding.
During August, renewed concern for the adequacy of several of these North Queensland airstrips in the next wet season arose. By then most of the work was being undertaken by the Allied Works Council through the Main Roads Commission and the forces of the Civil Construction Corps, because the US Engineer organisations had moved either to Port Moresby or into Cape York area. It is also a fact that significant work was then progressing on airfields west of Brisbane and it became a matter of deciding priority. The outcome was curtailment in the south so that renewed effort could be applied in the north.
The RAAF 'Aerodrome Works File' for Charters Towers records the dissatisfaction of DWB with work underway by Main Roads Commission (MRC) at Charters Towers and Reid River, in mid November 1942. Agreement reached at a recent conference between AWC/MRC and DWB officers, meant '1' and '2' (operational) runways were to be opened up, in turn, to allow culvert installation.
Apparently the MRC workers on the job diverted from this plan incurring—
…the construction of 4,500 foot of drain which will be about 5 feet deep… (involving) an entirely unwarranted expenditure of funds and also tie up plant, (which) cannot be agreed to…
No resolution appears 'on file', but drawings of Reid River show miles of open drains and no culverts under the runways!
Both the US 2nd and 408th Bombardment Squadrons converted to B-25 Mitchells during 1943. For a few weeks in May and June they shared the airfield with two squadrons of the 345 Bombardment Group (M), a fresh unit en-route to New Guinea.
Roger Marks (Contributing Author)
National Archives of Australia
AUSLIG - Aerial Imagery