United States 7th Fleet Radio Unit Station
James Cook Historical Museum (former St Mary’s Convent)
- Radar/signal station
- North and Cape York
cnr Helen Street and Furneaux Street, Cooktown 4895
For many years Cooktown’s largest and most substantial building wasSt Mary’s Convent School, which was completed in 1889 to a design by the government architect, FDG Stanley. This two-storey brick building with a large attic area in the roof, housed a boarding school for girls conducted by the Sisters of Mercy. It was the first girl’s high school in far north Queensland and became noted for its music curriculum.
Wartime musical comedy star Gladys Moncrieff was a former student.
The boarding section closed in 1930, and in 1943 during the Pacific war the building was occupied by a radio unit detachment of the United States Navy.
The Sisters of Mercy did not return after the war and successive cyclones reduced the building to a partial ruin. Public protest prevented its demolition in the 1960s and after a restoration program, Queen Elizabeth II reopened the former school in 1970, as the James Cook Historical Museum.
By early 1942, after the Americans had broken the Japanese military code, they began establishing units specifically to listen to Japanese radio transmissions. One such unit was the Fleet Radio Unit detachment of the 7th Fleet (FRUDET).
By July 1943 a 7th Fleet Radio Unit detachment stationed at Adelaide River near Darwin, had proven so valuable it was decided to establish a similar station in the North Eastern Area to cover the Solomon and Gilbert Islands intermediate frequency traffic. The Australian Naval Board had established a station at Townsville, but it was decided a small United States Navy intercept station, located further north at Cooktown or Cairns, would give better coverage. Cooktown was selected as it was a more suitable location for receiving transmissions, even though it lacked a telephone line to the south, or direct road access.
The building chosen for the radio unit was the abandoned convent that belonged to the Sisters of Mercy. However, the buildings were in a bad state of repair and it was December 1943 before most of the alterations were completed and it was ready for occupancy. The large attic was selected as the radio room, the top floor became the living quarters, and the ground floor was used to store the contents of the former convent. A building at the rear provided kitchen facilities, mess hall and wash house. It took until April 1944 before the power generating equipment was operational, the antenna system completed, phone lines and teletypes installed, and the first 16 men posted in.
Lieutenant RS Katzenberger of the 7th Fleet arrived to take command in July 1944 and inform his superiors that the Cooktown FRUDET station was finally operational. However, by that time the war situation in the Pacific had changed in favour of the Allied forces and in September it was decided to close the station down. The equipment was dismantled and dispersed between the Adelaide River FRUDET and the Melbourne station.
Pearce, Howard (contributing author).
Peter Nielsen. Diary of WWII North Queensland, Nielsen Publishing, Gordonvale, 1993.
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.
Don Sinclair, Cooktown at War: A record of activities in Cooktown during World War Two, Cooktown and District Historical Society, 1997.