Mitchell River Airfield
Mitchell River Mission
- North and Cape York
Magnificent Creek, Kowanyama 4871
In 1942, civil aviation services throughout Cape York used a landing area (DCA Landing Ground No 516) near Mitchell River Mission. This site provided light aircraft access for minor RAAF interest in the area. The most significant of which was the installation of a radar station (No 320), nearby.
While this landing area never compared with the many developed and frequently used throughout the State during WW2, its proximity to a well documented USAAF B-17 Bomber recovery meant that it became better known. This particular recovery called Mitchell River Mission residents, particularly large numbers of Aboriginals at the centre, into great prominence at the time even though newspaper censorship masked location and identities.
The WW2 history of major bases, not just in Queensland, is frequently peppered not just with day to day operational matters, but also with inevitable crashes, often fatal. The opportunity to cover in pictorial detail an overland mission of some hundreds of kilometres both by train (several trucks on board) and beyond over poor roads and often, NO ROAD OR TRACK, was most enticing.
In an extract from QAWW2 page 42 …"'Blacks save Big Plane.' So stated the Brisbane 'Sunday Mail' newspaper, 3 January 1943. In a 5 'column inch' report hampered by the censorship of the day, the 'Sunday Mail' quoted W F Mackenzie, in charge of a Presbyterian Mission in the 'wild bush of the north':
…not long ago a Flying Fortress with an American crew made a forced landing. She pancaked on to a natural saltpan clearing, but she was in pretty bad shape,… She was located by a Catalina, and a message was sent through to the superintendent of a river station where there are about 700 blacks. The head stockman set out with a team of horses and brought in the crew.
The rescue pilot had a rest and something to eat, then asked could he borrow some men to take him back, because he would have to destroy the plane. That meant £80,000 worth of Flying Fortress would have to be destroyed. In the report based on the crash, it continued to explain with how the Mission Superintendent (Alec) McLeod saw the potential for the aircraft’s recovery given the help of 700 'strong healthy natives'.
US authorities despatched a team from Charters Towers equipped with several GMC 6 wheel trucks with trailers and workshop equipment by train through Cairns to the terminus at Mungana. From there, the convoy drove via Wrotham Park, Highbury on the Mitchell River, and probably through Rutland Plains to the Mission. The ABM (Australian Board of Missions) Review, published monthly even during the war, carried the following item in its 1 March 1943 edition under the heading of MITCHELL RIVER MISSION:
…Even with war conditions so noticeable in the north the work of the Mission goes on, but is more varied than usual. Its variation consists in rescuing airmen, building by native voluntary labour a 17 mile road to where these planes came down, and constructing a runaway to take off again.
The airmen were amazed at the capacity of the natives to find their way about in the dark, and also refusing payment for the work. The 17 miles of road was put through in a week, and the landing strip of 1200 yards in five days. To get to this plane, four rivers had to be crossed and many creeks had to be made so that they would carry 8 ton trucks. The natives had only a few shovels and picks; the rest worked with their hands. It was a case of the natives showing the Yanks how to work.
Following the war, the airstrip returned to its pre-war use as a civil landing ground and continues to service the community of Kowanyama.
- Roger Marks (Contributing Author)
- Marks, R. (1994). “Queensland Airfields WW2—50 years on", Brisbane : R & J Marks