Perth author writes of little known World War II secret air base

Corunna Downs
Corunna Downs

Few Western Australians know much about Corunna Downs, a World War II secret air base south of Marble Bar. The men who worked there endured trying conditions with extreme heat and dust while providing fuel and armaments to American and Australian B24 Liberator bombers flying on special missions.

Perth man Ian Duggan has written a book, Black Swans Over Java, which tells the fascinating story of Corunna Downs and the place it holds in Australian war-time history.

Former police officer, Ian’s mission to bring to life the story behind the air base first started when he was at high school. 

“I had a geography teacher named Jack Drummond who let slip one day that he had been a Liberator pilot; I was always interested in planes as a kid.

“Later on when I was a policeman in South Hedland one of my work colleagues visited Marble Bar and came back with some bomb tail fins which he gave to me and I asked him where they came from. He said an old airstrip south of Marble Bar so I thought that there was a good story there.”

Ian ended up doing research through the National Archives, State Library and the RAAF Museum at Bullcreek and then started to write a book. He says he believes the book is 10 years too late because many of the anecdotes came from people who worked at Corunna Downs have since died.

“Two people have previously written about Corunna Downs including one person who worked there but there is so much more that could have been included. Fortunately, I had access to the RAAF log which I was able to obtain from the National Archives. This material was really good because it recorded the day to day goings-on there. Also, the logs from the anti-aircraft group and radar station helped and others had written about the American 380 bomber group which used to stage through Corunna.”

Ian says several photos for the book, which took about a year to write, came from a woman who helped in the restoration and maintenance of Corunna Downs airstrip while the remainder were from the National Archives and from people who had written about the American 380 Bomber Squadron.

“I enjoy writing and ended up doing a mature age university degree. My assignments were marked well because of the amount of research which I love doing, a throwback to my police career.”

Ian says though Corunna Downs might not be regarded as too important in World War II history, it certainly kept a lid on what the Japanese were doing in Java and Bali. 

“It probably stopped more bombing coming from bases in Bali, Timor and Java.

“The Japanese naval base at Surabaya, which used to service their submarines and warships, became an important target for allied bombing from Corunna. There was a strong impetus to put it out of action which was mainly accomplished with bombers from Corunna Downs and a joint American-British operation where both British and American aircraft flew from two aircraft carriers, HMS
and the US Saratoga sailing south of Java, successfully bombing shipping and harbour facilities.

“That night, bombers from Corunna also flew to Surabaya bombing the then well alight oil and harbour facilities.

“Staff at Corunna ranged from around 280 people to between 500 and 600 when there were big bombing raids taking place. It was a terrible place; near the airport is this huge ironstone dyke and the heat would have radiated off that, conditions would have been appalling, the water quality was substandard and the food terrible.”

Corunna canteen manager Ted Edwards remembered in the book: “I still smile at the thought of being afflicted with the Corunnas, sometimes making it to the thunder box, sometimes not. I put up with the bully beef if it was well disguised, and most of the food, but drew the line at goldfish and powdered egg.”

George Swarz, of Saratosa, Florida, navigator, Belotti’s crew said: “All I can remember it was hot and we got lost. (March 16, 1944)”

Ian Duggan says that we owe a debt to the substantial input of American forces working out of bases in Australia, the aircrews, mariners, submariners and those on the secret navigation bases and how their forces were used in 1944 at a time when it appeared Western Australia was going to be invaded by Japanese forces.

Ian Duggan has written another book about the asbestos mine at Wittenoom and is soon to publish one about a foreign incursion at Cape Leveque in 1944.

Black Swans Over Java by Ian Duggan (Hesperian Press). Cost: $40 pick-up Carlisle (or $52.75 posted). Contact: Hesperian Press, PO Box 317, Victoria Park 6979 or email author: