Coen RAAF Advanced Operational Base (AOB)
- North and Cape York
Peninsula Development Road, Coen 4871
The RAAF began aerials surveys over north Queensland during 1938 as part of a plan to establish a network of advanced operational air bases (AOB) in the likelihood of war with Japan. In June 1939 the search started for an AOB site on Cape York Peninsula and a suitable location was selected near the old Coen goldfields about 20 kilometres north of the town and telegraph station.
The old landing ground at Coen was at the southern end of the settlement near the early cemetery. It was here that a USAAF B-17 bomber of 19 Bombardment Group made an emergency landing with practically no fuel left on 1 June 1942. This was Dean Hoevet’s ship which some weeks later was lost with all crew off Cairns.
Queensland Main Roads Commission teams commenced construction of the runways during the dry season of 1941and US bombers began staging through Coen in July 1942. The airfield ceased to be used as an operational base from October 1942, but was used for the transport of stores and ordnance until February 1945. After World War II the Department of Civil Aviation took over the airfield, which is still in use as Coen Airport. Several huts from the wartime days remain, and one has been upgraded for use as the airport caretaker’s residence.
By 1941 planning was underway for development of RAAF advanced operational bases (AOB) at Townsville, Cloncurry, Cooktown, Coen and Horn Island. The RAAF started searching for a far northern AOB site on Cape York Peninsula in mid-1939 and a suitable location was identified near the old Coen goldfields about 20 kilometres north of the town. Construction of an airfield at Coen became an urgent priority during early 1941. The job was undertaken under the supervision of the Queensland Main Roads Commission.
Three runways were initially laid down, but only two were developed. Other works included an operations room and signals hut, and a store shed (all of which still remain), as well as a radio mast. Earth-mound aircraft inserts and a large concrete slab, which may have been a hard stand or workshop, can still be found on the southern side of the main runway.
Because there was no suitable road to Coen, the construction plant was sent from Brisbane by sea to Port Stewart on Princess Charlotte Bay. From there it was unloaded and transported along rough bush tracks to the airfield site. Coen AOB was occupied by the RAAF on 6 July 1941. The airfield was first used by USAAF B-25 Mitchells of 3 BG and B-26 Marauder aircraft of 22 BG operating out of Charters Towers, during raids on New Guinea in April 1942.
Aerial navigation to and from Coen was by visual observation of the ground-radio aids being decades away. The main criticism of the AOB site was the difficulty of finding it in bad weather-which included smoke from bush fires to fog, rain and tropical storm conditions. Further expansion of Coen AOB was discarded in June 1942 with the move to Iron Range. Coen was closed down as an operational base in October 1942, but remained active with an operational base unit detachment to February 1945.
Pearce, Howard (contributing author).
Main Roads Commission, The History of the Queensland Main Roads Commission during World War II 1939–1945, Government Printer, Brisbane, 1949.
Roger Marks, Queensland Airfields WW2: 50 years on, Brisbane, 1994.
Howard Pearce (Ed.). Heritage Trails of the Tropical North: A heritage tour guide to far north Queensland, Environmental Protection Agency, Brisbane, 2001.
Howard Pearce. WWII: NQ: A cultural heritage overview of significant places in the defence of north Queensland during World War II. Environmental Protection Agency, Brisbane, 2009.