63rd United States Station Hospital
Gordonvale Hotel, Doctor’s surgery, shop and Commercial Hotel
- Medical facility
Norman Street, Gordonvale 4865
Before the Pacific war Gordonvale had been a small quiet country town south of Cairns surrounded by sugar cane farms. Most of the men worked at the Mulgrave Central Mill and community life revolved around the mill, the railway and the pubs.
By the end of 1942, the townspeople had experienced troops coming and going, but nothing prepared them for the unexpected arrival of about 3,500 United States (US) Army paratroopers in December of that year, more than doubling the local population. It has been said that their troopship had been bound for another base to the north of Australia, but the strategic situation in the region as Japanese forces continued to hold out, caused a last-minute decision by the US Army to disembark the troops at Cairns.
On 28 November 1942, a week before the paratroopers reached Gordonvale, a detachment of the US Army 2 Station Hospital from Mareeba arrived and set up a 150 bed hospital, taking over the Gordonvale and Commercial Hotels in the town’s business centre. The first patients were admitted on the same day.
The Gordonvale Hotel on the corner of Norman and Cannon Streets was originally named the Nelson Hotel. It had been built before 1900 although the exact date is unknown. Alongside was the Nelson Theatre, a pharmacy and shops including a newsagency, and the Commercial Hotel. The previous buildings on the hotel site, including a boarding house, had been destroyed by fire about 1925 and the Commercial Hotel was constructed soon after by Charlie Butler a prominent businessman in the district.
The United States (US) 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, including the 501st Parachute Battalion and ‘A’ Company of the 504th Parachute Infantry Battalion, disembarked in Cairns on 2 December 1942 after a long voyage across the Pacific during which they were reduced to two meals a day due to difficulties in accessing rations onboard ship. At Cairns the troops and their gear were loaded onto trucks and taken to an undeveloped camp area south-west of Gordonvale on the Gillies Highway. Their camp extended on both sides of the road near Alley Creek in the Riverstone area. The site was at first without messing facilities and local residents stepped in to provide food for the troops.
With the arrival of over 3000 troops it became imperative to quickly establish a larger station hospital in the town by taking over the most suitable buildings. Following snap decisions by a US Army doctor, the bar of the Gordonvale Hotel became the operating theatre, a storeroom was used as the morgue and a surgical ward was established in the upstairs bedrooms. A ramp was built from the surgical ward across the roof of the chemist shop to the medical ward in the Commercial Hotel. The chemist shop became the hospital pharmacy and a room at the rear was used for the storage of coffins. A connecting doorway between the surgical ward and the adjacent Nelson Theatre allowed non-walking patients to attend the picture shows. The ground floor of the Commercial Hotel was used as a casualty ward and for outpatients, and the first floor became a medical ward. The Gordonvale Hotel was used for surgical cases and the Commercial Hotel was used for medical cases. The new station hospital held about 250 beds.
In July 1943 the detachment of US 2 Station Hospital at Gordonvale were recalled to their main base hospital at Mareeba State School prior to their unit being deployed closer to the New Guinea frontline. They were relieved at Gordonvale by personnel of US 63 Station Hospital.
In August 1943 the US 503 Parachute Infantry Regiment left Gordonvale for Cairns to embark for Port Moresby. On 5 September, in one of the largest infantry parachute jumps then undertaken, the regiment secured the Nadzab area on the north coast of New Guinea, for the construction of an airstrip so that the Australian 7th Division could be flown in to attack the Japanese stronghold of Lae from the landward side, while the 9th Division carried out an assault from the sea.
US 63 Station Hospital at Gordonvale closed in May 1944, transferring its remaining patients to the newly completed US 44th General Hospital at Black River north of Townsville and moving its equipment and personnel there. US 63 Station Hospital was subsequently transferred to New Guinea were it was absorbed into the US 4th General Hospital at Finschhafen on the Huon Peninsula.
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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.
PD Wilson. North Queensland: WWII 1942–1945, Department of Geographic Information, Brisbane, 1988.