USN Mine and Torpedo Depot (Camp Cootha)
Mount Coot-tha Forest Park
- Ammunition facility
- Brisbane City
Sir Samuel Griffith Drive, Mount Coot-Tha 4066
The US Navy requisitioned Mt Coot-tha Reserve in 1942. Being heavily wooded, it was suitable to camouflage the USN Mine Depot constructed by the 55th Seabees Battalion in mid-1943. Later the Depot undertook torpedo assembly and storage for Brisbane’s important USN submarine base. As the USN began to shift the Depot to Darwin in 1944, the RAAF took over the site for a Magnetic and Acoustic Mines Depot. The USN retained the lease of the site to war’s end.
Mt Coot-tha was declared a Public Reserve in 1880. By the 1930s, it was a popular picnic spot, criss-crossed with walking tracks. On 1 August 1942, the Brisbane City Council lent the park to the US Navy for use as an ordnance depot. Its dense bushland provided suitable camouflage for munitions storage.
The 55th Naval Construction Battalion built the depot. The 55th Naval Construction Battalion arrived in Brisbane on 24 March 1943. Such battalions were known as Seabees after their unit emblem. The battalion was based at Camp Seabee off Lavarack Avenue at Eagle Farm, which the unit constructed prior to commencing work on the Mine Depot. The Seabees were trucked to Mt Coot-tha daily to build above-ground magazines that were then covered with dirt and to clear the bush with bulldozers and tip-trucks for roads and buildings. They used explosives to blast roads along the mountainside. The Allied Works Council provided Australian labour to assist the Seabees.
The initial 13 magazines were timber-framed, covered in fibrolite. Later, 38 prefabricated steel Armco magazines were shipped to Brisbane from the USA and emplaced in the Depot. All magazines were covered with dirt, grass and bushes to aid camouflage. A camp for the USN personnel who were to be based at the Depot was built near the present Hoop pine picnic area. It comprised 1 steel Stran Administration Buildings (40x100 ft) and 16 pre-fabricated Quonset huts (20x48 ft igloos) for separate Officers and Enlisted Men’s Messes, a kitchen, a bakery, a food store, a Quartermaster’s Store, a Chief Petty officer’s office and quarters, a laundry, a latrine and a hospital. As a USN facility, naval terms were used so that the Officers’ Mess was called the Wardroom, the kitchen was the Galley, the bakery was a Bakeshop, the hospital was the Sickbay and the latrine buildings were the Heads. There was a Powder Surveillance Building (30x30 ft). A Garage and Maintenance Shed (40x100 ft) serviced the Depot’s vehicles and machinery and there was a small Pump House, a power generator hut (20x14 ft), a 3,000 gallon-oil tank plus two 2,000 gallon-water tanks, one 3,000 gallon-water-tank, an incinerator and a USN regulation flagstaff. The Depot had two entry points, both with manned sentry boxes and was surrounded by a barbed wire fence to prevent public access. These were at the Mt Coot-tha Reserve gates and at the intersection of Simpson’s Road and Sir Samuel Griffith Drive. The Depot was commonly referred to as 'Camp Coot-tha'.
Commander of the USN Mt Coot-tha Mine Depot was Lieutenant Commander Xavier Smith. The magazines held detonators while the unfused mines were stored in open pits. Both items were then put together in the Depot’s assembly plant buildings. A few months after opening, the USN requested that the site be formally requisitioned in preparation for expanding the Depot and leasing further land. The US Navy commenced paying Council for the lease of The Reserve on 31 May 1943. The rent was £1,413.8.0 p.a. Additional sites were leased on 20 May and 15 June 1943 plus 9 May 1944. By that latter date, there were so many personnel at the Depot that some enlisted men had to be accommodated in a separate tent area (10 tents), complete with a Head (20x30 ft), a boiler house (9x15 ft), paths and a clothesline.
Torpedo storage and assembly were added to the Depot’s responsibilities. The Australian Army Hiring Service leased the Benedict Stone Factory at Mt Coot-tha for a USN Torpedo Repair Shop. A large extension and new crane rails were added to the factory, while an Enlisted Men’s barracks and mess was built nearby. Torpedo storage and assembly was of major importance. US General Douglas MacArthur was only allotted a small number of warships 9the 7th Fleet) by the USN but his submarines could carry the fight all the way to the Philippines. Brisbane became the major US submarine base on Australia’s east coast.
The summit of Mt Coot-tha contained a kiosk and a scenic observation mini-park. The Australian Army occupied the summit and placed anti-aircraft guns and searchlights there. Pits were dug for the AA guns while the searchlights were mobile; being mounted on four-wheeled towed trailers. Lieutenant Douglas Campbell commanded one searchlight unit. The large Moreton Bay Fig trees in the mini-park were heavily lopped to provide a clear field of fire. These trees never recovered. In 1944, the Australian Army AA and Searchlight batteries vacated the summit for rebasing elsewhere and the US Navy then occupied the gun pits and other facilities.
In 1944, the Seabees began to relocate the USN Depot to Darwin. The Depot was downgraded so that its command fell to a Lieutenant (R.L. Keeting). The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) reutilised the facilities at Mt Coot-tha for a Magnetic and Acoustic Mines Depot. Flight Lieutenant W.C.A. Worland commanded the RAAF Depot. By war’s end in September 1945, t he USN had built a total of 58 Armco steel magazines in The Reserve. Three small detonator magazines (4ft x 4ft x 5ft) were also added to the Depot. It is estimated that 120,000 tons of explosives were stored at Mt Coot-tha throughout the War.
The USN maintained its control of Mt Coot-tha until 31 August 1945. The USN ceased paying rent on 17 May 1946. The Royal Australian Navy occupied the Depot from 1 September 1945 to 17 May 1946 for the specific purpose of supervising the removal of ammunition from The Reserve. By 15 September 1945, a clean-up and disposal party comprising 8 officers and 179 sailors was left at the site.
On 24 August 1948, Council lodged a compensation claim for £1,952 to the Commonwealth for the removal of concrete floor slabs plus the general restoration of after its use as a USN Depot. On 10 November 1948, Council reassessed its compensation claim and it was reduced to £1,748.5.0. Council decided to retain rather than remove the 800-yard concrete drain built by the USN for the Depot beside Simpsons Rd. The USN left behind a road network, drains, concrete culverts and footbridges still scattered throughout Mt Coot-tha Forest Park. The US had spent $300,909 (US) on the USN Mt Coot-tha Mine Depot, with Australia providing $35,162.60 (US) in Reciprocal Lend Lease aid for the project.
BCC Heritage Unit file
USN Bureau of Yards & Docks Section 1946 report
The 55th Seabees 1942-45