What is little known in Camden is the interest the US Air Force took in Camden Airfield in November 1942 and again in February 1944. On both occasions the 5th US Air Force completed secret reports, now declassified and held by the National Archives of Australia, on the readiness of Camden Airfield to accommodate US aircraft and personnel.
The US 5th Air Force, part of the US Army Air Force, provided the aerial spearhead for General Douglas MacArthur’s island hopping campaign in 1942 and 1943. It provided an air umbrella for MacArthur and was an integral part of the successful campaign to retake New Guinea, the Philippines and eventually Okinawa. The US 5th Air Force, was originally part of the Far East Air Force which was largely destroyed in the December 1941 when Japanese forces attacked the Philippines, hours after attacking Pearl Harbour. The unit retreated to Australia’s Top End in December 1941 (Darwin), re-designated as the US 5th Air Force and headquarter in Brisbane for a time (September 1942).
The initial Camden Airfield report was conducted by the US Army Services of Supply and the 5th Air Force in 1942 when the unit was based in Brisbane. The reports summarised the readiness of the airfield to accommodate aircraft and personnel.
In 1942 the Camden airfield was only considered a minor installation, with a limited capacity and a number of aircraft hazards. The airfield’s main runway was 5,400 feet long and 150 wide while the remainder of the field was grass, had natural drainage and became boggy in the wet.
The airfield was located in a basin surrounded by hills up to one mile away, with the hills ranging in height from 100 feet to 200 feet in height. The field was equipped to only handle occasional night landings with ‘obstruction’ warning lighting on the hangars, camp buildings and the St John’s church spire, which was 450 feet high.
There was 7 Bellman hangars and one smaller hangar, and the only maintenance provisions were for Lockheed Hudson aircraft. There were two underground fuel tanks of 10,000 gallons, one of 18,000 gallons and one of 13,000 gallons.
Communications at the airfield were limited to one telephone line and a telegraph line linked to headquarters in Sydney. The airfield was manned from 0600 hours to 2000 hours with no prior notice needed to call up the airfield. The airfield contact was by telegraph with a call sign of VNCD. The field had no weather station and had to rely on information from Richmond. The climatic conditions noted that the field was subject to daily fogs in July, up to 10 days per year.
Airfield access by an all weather road to Camden and a bridge over the Nepean River, at Macquarie Grove, at the entrance to the airfield ‘capable of carrying heavy loads’.
The 1942 report concluded that there were provisions for eleven dispersal bays in the northern part of the field and five bays at southern end. The field was considered suitable for fighters, and with upgrade suitable for heavier aircraft. At the time of the 1942 assessment the field was occupied by one General Reconnaissance Flying Boat Squadron.
The 1942 report concluded that there was sufficient accommodation for 1000 service personnel in the Camden area with 800 men garrisoned at the airfield, with another 200 men to be accommodated in Camden’s ‘modern hotels’.
If the US Air Force had decided to occupy Camden airfield under National Security Regulations the Americans had the right to do anything they felt was ‘necessary in relation to the airfield for military purposes’.
Over the next two years wartime conditions prompted activity at Camden airfield. By 1944 the field had undergone major improvements and after a re-assessment by the American authorities it was classified as a major airfield.
Improvements included extensions to the E-W runway beyond the airfield boundary, although it was noted that were still deficient with no anti-aircraft defensive installations.
The airfield had an improved ability to service a variety of aircraft, while doing only minor repairs, and there has been flood lighting of the St John’s spire. The field have become equipped with a sick quarters with 15 beds, the runways had become all weather with gravel taxiways and the base had a 24 hour weather service. The improvements amounted to $184,000.
After having completed the two reports, the 5th US Air Force was never based at Camden Airfield. Given the impact of American forces elsewhere in Australia Camden probably had a lucky escape not hosting ‘the Yanks’.
The presence of over 1000 American servicemen at the airfield would have changed Camden from a sleepy little rural village into a garrison town. While many Camden locals would have welcomed the American presence, particularly local businesses, there would have been significant negative effects, given what happened in other localities such as Brisbane and Townsville.
As the war played out the Camden community had very cordial relations with RAAF and RAF personnel stationed at the airfield between 1940 and 1946, mainly because the town was not overwhelmed by large number of troops. There were dances, afternoon tea parties, invitations to local homes, dates with local girls and lots of other interactions with the defence personnel including a number of marriages to local girls.
If the Yanks had come to town it would have been an unforgettable experience.
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