Higgins Airfield (Bamaga Higgins RAAF Advanced Operational Base)
Red Point, Red Island or Red Island Point Airfield, Jacky Jacky Airfield
- North and Cape York
Airport Road, Northern Peninsula Airport, Bamaga 4876
Higgins Airfield was developed during late 1942 as a dispersal airfield for the Horn Island airfield, and was upgraded during 1943–1944. Higgins is now operated as Injinoo/Bamaga Airport, located about 8 kilometres southeast of Bamaga, on Airport Road.Sections of the gravelled taxiways, along with bitumen-sealed dispersal bays, survive around the runway. Most dispersal bays, some with earth mound protection, remain intact although many are now covered with regrowth. The Duty Pilot’s Tower and associated facilities were once located near the centre of the southern side of the runway. The area contains gravel quarry pits and evidence of a bitumen processing plant. A row of three or more light machine gun posts are located near the control tower site. The camp area for RAAF 33 Operational Base Unit (OBU) is located west of the runway. Concrete features are concentrated around the site of the OBU kitchen and mess. The Repair and Salvage Unit (RSU) workshops and camp site occupies an area about 1 km north-west of the runway. The site contains a large concrete floor slab of a hangar. Two aircraft wrecks near the airfield include a Beaufort, A9-190, on the northern side of the runway and a Douglas DC-3, VH-CXD, located 3 km north-west of the runway, now in a fenced enclosure with a memorial.
With Japanese advances into the South West Pacific Area, the RAAF’s Horn Island Advanced Operational Base (AOB), where two runways had been constructed during 1941, became an important staging base for Allied missions over New Guinea and for the transit of aircraft to Port Moresby. By May 1942 Horn Island AOB had received four Japanese air raids causing damage to a number of RAAF aircraft caught on the ground. As it was not possible to provide an emergency dispersal strip on Horn Island, attention turned to the area around Red Island Point (now Seisia) near the tip of Cape York. In late June it was reported that a suitable airfield site had been located south east of Red Island Point.
By 8 August 1942 two companies of the US 91st Engineer Battalion (African American troops) had arrived and were in the process of unloading heavy equipment. By October the US Engineers were working on the airstrip and roads, and were also engaged in pile-driving for a jetty “at Red Island Point".
Some disagreement exists over whether the harbour for supplying the airfield was built at Red Island Point or Mutee Head. US records in August 1942 suggested the port of entry was moved from Red Island Point to Mutee Head. However, records of US improvements at Higgins included a 10 mile (16km) access road and a 120′ by 12′ (36.6m by 3.7m) wharf approach and a 80′ by 12′ (24.4m by 3.7m) loading leg. If the road ran from the wharf to the airfield, then the distance matches Red Island Point, not Mutee Head. In addition, by October 1945 a “D” shaped jetty (with three sections about 52m, 33.5m and 55m long) and a pontoon landing existed at Red Island Point for unloading fuel for the airfield. At this time it was reported that the jetty at Mutee Head had never been used, its position being unsuitable for tying up boats. A “well constructed” road also ran from Red Island Point to the airstrip, and a cold store existed about 2 miles (3.2km) south of Red Island Point.
The airstrip, with one 132 degree runway, was initially referred to as 'Red Island Point' by the Americans and 'Jacky Jacky' by the Australians. The first B-17 bomber landed on Jacky Jacky airstrip on 28 October 1942. However, all work on the airfield ceased during December as the wet season got underway. The US Engineers were transferred to New Guinea and the Allied Works Council (AWC) was asked to take over the remaining construction work and maintenance at the airfield, with the help of the Queensland Main Roads Commission (MRC).
In late 1942 the MRC commenced work on the construction of heavy (3.7-inch) anti-aircraft gun stations 444 and 445 for the defence of Jacky Jacky. The guns, set up as two sections, north and south of the airstrip, were initially manned by 35th Australian Heavy Anti-Aircraft (HAA) Battery and were operational by 22 January 1943. However, after a month the artillery personnel of 35th HAA Battery were transferred to Cairns and the gun stations were placed under care and maintenance until late 1943.
Meanwhile, to protect the facilities at Red Island Point and Jacky Jacky airfield against Japanese landings, in October 1942 the 31st Infantry Battalion (Militia, also known as the Kennedy Regiment), along with signals, engineer, artillery, anti-tank, Australian Army Service Corps, ambulance and LAD detachments, arrived after an overland journey up Cape York. As part of 11 Brigade the 31st Battalion had defended Townsville prior to the arrival of 5th Division (Militia) in May 1942. The 31st dug in around Townsville from late March to early May 1942, at first near the beaches, Kissing Point, and on high ground to the north and east of Castle Hill; and later to the west of Castle Hill between Rowes Bay and the showgrounds. The 31st Battalion moved to the Bohle River 19–20 May, changing places with the 51st Battalion of 11 Brigade, and then moved to the Little Bohle River 29–30 May. After training in the Many Peaks Range area in June, the 31st moved to Nome, southeast of Townsville, on 1 July 1942.
After further training exercises, the battalion was loaded onto trains at Nome between 25 and 27 September, and travelled via Cairns and Kuranda to Chillagoe. An overland convoy of 226 vehicles in eight groups then travelled up Cape York from the Walsh River to Red Island Point (via the Mitchell River, Palmerville, the Hann River, Musgrave Telegraph Station, the Stewart River, Coen, the Archer River, Moreton Telegraph Station (Wenlock River), the Skardon River and the Jardine River) between 1 October and 10 October 1942. Meanwhile, a carrier platoon and six US-supplied light tanks, each armed with two MGs (possibly twin-turreted M2A2 'Mae Wests'), were sent by sea to Red Island Point. The battalion took up defensive positions around Red Island Point and the airfield, and remained in the area until December. Transported by the Liberty Ship Willis Van Devanter (after being transhipped from Red Island Point onto the Willis Van Devanter by the steamship Poonbar), the battalion arrived in Cairns on 31 December 1942. In April 1943 the 31st Battalion was merged with the 51st Battalion, and the new unit (31/51st) later served with 11 Brigade in Dutch New Guinea as part of Merauke Force (11 Brigade becoming the first Militia unit to serve outside Australian territory).
Wet season failure of the drainage system under the western extension of the east-west strip on Horn Island meant that by January 1943 the RAAF was urgently reviewing the future of Horn Island Airfield and its suitability for use by heavy bombers. Jacky Jacky was inspected by the RAAF as an alternative AOB to Horn Island and a report of the inspection noted that it contained a 7,000 ft. (2,134m) strip complete with dispersal bays. However, the runway would require reconstruction with attention to drainage to make it suitable for an AOB.
Funds were allocated to the MRC for the essential reconstruction works at Jacky Jacky. About 250 workers constituting the first RAAF mobile construction company (No.1 Mobile Unit) were assembled at Sydney to undertake urgent works. On arrival at Jacky Jacky the men were housed in temporary accommodation while a prefabricated camp was established by the Townsville contractor, John Stubbs & Sons, who had been engaged to assist the MRC.
On 3 June 1943 Lieutenant-General George Kenney, commander of the US Fifth Air Force in Australia, directed that the name of the airfield be changed from Jacky Jacky to Higgins Field in honour of Flight Lieutenant Brian H. Higgins, RAAF, killed in air operations on 25 May 1943. Also in June 1943, RAAF No.1 Repair and Salvage Unit (RSU) was assigned to Higgins.
RAAF No.33 Operational Base Unit (OBU) arrived at Higgins in October 1943 to take over refuelling duties and the administration of the AOB. During the month the OBU camp area was cleared and sleeping huts and ablutions blocks were erected. The unit canteen and OBU administrative officers and operations building were completed during November, as was the RSU camp.
Although priming and sealing of the reconstructed runway had been ordered in June 1943, by late October it was noted that only 5,500 feet (1,676m) of Higgins runway was serviceable but not yet sealed. About 1500 feet (457m) of runway at the north-west end of the strip was still in the process of being rebuilt and strengthened where the drainage culvert crossed under the airfield. Work on drainage, taxiways and hardstands continued until early January 1944 when sealing of the airstrip at last commenced. Final sealed length was about 7079 feet (2158m) by 100′ (30.5m).
In late 1943 the Australian Army’s 137th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery arrived at Red Island Point from Cairns to re-commission the HAA gun stations at Higgins which were operational again by 15 December 1943. The Artillery’s 56th Composite Anti-Aircraft Regiment was formed at Higgins in December 1943 and became operative in February 1944. Composite anti-aircraft regiments were raised during 1943 to provide complete anti-aircraft defence against high and low flying aircraft, combining 3.7-inch HAA guns and 40mm Bofors guns. At Higgins ‘A’ Troop were equipped with three Bofors guns. To increase the field of fire against low flying aircraft, the Bofors guns were mounted on nine-metre high timber towers.
Beaufort medium bombers of No.7 Squadron RAAF, transferred from Horn Island to Jacky Jacky on 26 March 1944. From late 1942 a detachment of No.7 Squadron Beauforts had conducted maritime and anti-submarine patrols from Horn Island, and from November 1943 the squadron undertook bombing raids from Higgins with attacks on Japanese-held airstrips and villages in New Guinea. The squadron continued to be based at Higgins until late 1944.
In addition to No.7 Squadron and No.33 OBU, other units located at Higgins at various times included RAAF No.75 Wing Headquarters; RAAF 5 RSU from May 1944 to March 1945; a detachment of No.23 Squadron RAAF equipped with Vultee A-31 Vengeance dive bombers; a detachment of No.34 Squadron RAAF equipped with Douglas C-47 transport aircraft; and the Australian Army’s 105th Light Field Ambulance.
By mid-1944 groups of camp buildings occupied the higher ground at the western end of the airfield. These included the squadron camp south of the northwest end of the runway; the OBU camp southwest of the squadron camp; and the RSU camp southwest of the OBU camp. The RSU motor transport area was to the north of the RSU camp; while the RSU workshops area with two gable roofed hangars (88′ 6″ by 22′, or 27m by 6.7m) was located northeast of the motor transport area, to the northwest of the runway.
The OBU camp included, amongst other buildings, an operations room, headquarters, armoury, medical section, post office and recreation hall, while the RSU camp included a recreation hall; a timber and bush pole picture theatre, stage and projection box; and a chapel. Next to the RSU camp were a homing beacon shed, mast and engine shed; and an ionospheric recording station with power house, recording room and bush pole aerial system. Northwest of the RSU workshops was a W/T transmitter building with masts, and to the northeast a radio range building with a tower. A separate camp for aircrews in transit was also built, consisting of 20 prefabricated huts with accommodation for 160 men.
A High Frequency/Direction Finding (HF/DF) station and a Very High Frequency/Direction Finding (VHF/DF) station were located north of the east end of the runway, while a three storey control tower and hardstand apron were located mid-runway on the southern side of the airstrip alongside a group of light machine gun posts. A bitumen melting and processing plant was constructed nearby. In sealing of the runway and dispersal bays, drums of solid bitumen were heated in 'bitumen kettles' to a liquid suitable for spraying. A row of metal kettles were used. These were square oil-fired heaters (about the size of a ships tank) positioned over a trench so that drums of solid bitumen could be rolled for immersion. The eroded trench, corroded tanks, bitumen drum dumps and sections of steel tramway track remain. Sixty bitumen sealed dispersal bays were formed along winding gravel taxiways extending to the south, west and northwest of the runway.
The importance of recreational activities was reflected in the construction of a tennis court, a basketball court and a swimming pool. A bush rest camp was established at the mouth of a nearby river. About 20 mango trees were planted around the OBU camp and paw paw and lime seeds were cultivated. A piggery was also established.
Aircraft movements through Higgins during September 1944 included 195 RAAF, 16 US, 16 Dutch and 25 civil flights. In the early morning of 5 May 1945 an air transport DC-3 'Courier' aircraft, VH-CXD, crashed and caught fire 3 km short of the airstrip while making a landing approach. The pilot, an Australian National Airways employee, the crew of four and two US passengers died in the crash. The tail section and wings of the wrecked aircraft remain at the crash site. The fuselage and wings of a RAAF Beaufort bomber, A9-190, are located at what was probably a salvaged parts dump north of the runway.
Higgins field still had a RAAF unit in occupation in July 1947, with a Courier Service aircraft calling in each week, but the airfield was declared surplus to RAAF requirements in 1948. The Red Island Point jetty, the cold store and the airfield’s buildings were purchased by the Queensland government for the Queensland Department of Native Affairs, but the Commonwealth retained (but did not maintain) the airstrip itself, leasing it from Queensland from 1951 to 1969 and thereby allowing “immediate possession in the event of strategic necessity". The airfield is now operated by the Northern Peninsula Area Regional Council as Injinoo/Bamaga Airport.
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