Cooktown Mission Strip and Eight Mile Mission Site
- North and Cape York
Endeavour Valley Road, Marton, Cooktown 4895
Development of the Cooktown Mission Strip, as it became known, began in June 1942 with about 250 Civil Construction Corps (CCC) workers.
The new and larger Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) airfield was intended to replace the older and smaller Cooktown Civil 'Drome, nearer town, which was flood-prone and had reached its operational capacity with the increasing number of aircraft staging through Cooktown and requiring refuelling.
After Japan entered the war, concerns regarding the loyalties of Aboriginal people led to claims by white Australians that Aborigines in north Australia would assist the Japanese. Cape Bedford mission near Cooktown was run by George Schwarz, a German-born Lutheran pastor who had arrived at the mission in 1887. By the early 1940s the mission station was located at Spring Hill on the Endeavour River. Schwarz and his wife owned a farm nearby at a place known as the Eight Mile. There he produced food for the mission population assisted by the Aboriginal men.
As Schwarz was of German descent, Army Intelligence regarded the mission with suspicion. When local whites claimed the mission Aborigines were disloyal, the army moved in. At dawn on the morning of 17 May 1942 the army and local police arrived with a convoy of trucks to intern Pastor Schwarz and remove the Aboriginal people. They removed 254 Aborigines, mainly Guugu Yimidhirr people from the Eight Mile and Spring Hill, taking them to Cooktown, then onward to Cairns. The elderly were sent to Palm Island, while 200 or more were dispatched to Woorabinda near Rockhampton. Within weeks of their removal, construction of a RAAF airfield was underway at Schwarz’s Eight Mile farm on the Endeavour River, west of Cooktown.
Cooktown Mission Strip was operational by September 1942 as a 7000 foot (2133 metres) gravelled runway with taxiways and dispersal bays. Camp facilities were limited to showers and latrines for two squadrons, with all accommodation being under canvas tents. By November RAAF 27 Operational Base Unit had transferred from the civil 'drome to the completed mission strip. It was joined there by American units from the civil 'drome including the US 104 Coastal Artillery (Anti-Aircraft) Battery. The battery set up its main camp under the mission mango trees near the missionary’s house. This also became the site of the CCC camp. Workers at the mission strip were prevented from entering Cooktown by military police after a series of brawls with US servicemen.
The mission strip became a base for RAAF squadrons engaged in anti-submarine patrols and convoy escort duties along the eastern coast of Cape York. It also became a major refuelling base and stopover for large numbers of aircraft travelling back and forward to New Guinea. A detachment of RAAF 7 Squadron, equipped with Beaufort bombers operated from the mission strip on marine patrol duties until transferred to Horn Island in November 1943. In July 1943 they were joined on escort duties by RAAF 12 Squadron, equipped with single-engine Vultee Vengeance dive-bombers.
American units at the mission strip began transferring to forward locations in New Guinea from mid-1943 and by early 1944 plans were made for RAAF 13 Squadron to take over the camp areas vacated by the Americans. The squadron, equipped with Lockheed Ventura bombers, arrived in force at Cooktown in May 1944 to undertake missions against Japanese forces in the Merauke region of Dutch New Guinea and anti-submarine patrols. A future Australian Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, joined the squadron as a navigator during 1943. The squadron subsequently transferred to Gove in the Northern Territory.
The RAAF ceased operations in Cooktown in April 1946. Having decided to no longer maintain the mission strip, the airfield was handed over to the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA). It was decided to continue using the civil 'drome as Cooktown’s civilian airfield because it was located closer to the town and was equipped with an established aeradio station. However, after the civil drome was inundated during the 1949 cyclone, domestic operations were transferred to the Cooktown Mission Strip. DCA maintained responsibility for the airfield until 1992 when it was transferred to Cook Shire Council.
Cooktown Mission Strip now serves as Cooktown Airport.
Pearce, Howard (contributing author).
Vera Bradley. I Didn’t Know That: Cairns and districts Tully to Cape York, 1939–1946, Service personnel and civilians, Boolarong Press, Brisbane, 1995.
Peter Nielsen. Diary of WWII North Queensland, Nielsen Publishing, Gordonvale, 1993.
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.
Roger Marks, Queensland Airfields WW2: 50 years on, Brisbane, 1994.
Don Sinclair, Cooktown at War: A record of activities in Cooktown during World War Two, Cooktown and District Historical Society, 1997.