Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The story of Nadzab Airport

Longtime Lae resident, the late Horace Niall, once predicted that Nadazab would one day become the main international airport for Papua New Guinea (Picture above showsNadzab, just before it was opened in late 1977)

It hasn’t, as yet, however, is capable of receiving international flights and remains one of the busiest airports in the country.

Niall was one of those who helped to build Nadzab back in 1943 into one of the busiest airstrips of World War 11.

And he fondly recalls that Nadzab was almost in every respect an “international airport” in those days, with loudspeakers calling for passengers to Honolulu, Los Angeles, Australia and many other faraway places.

Nadzab fell into disuse after WW11, however, rose from the ashes of the war to be reopened in 1977 and eventually took over from Lae as the main airport.

“Having had so much to do with Nadzab, I was happy to hear in 1973 that it was to be made operational again,” Niall wrote in 1978.

“I doubt that it will ever be as busy as it was from late 1943 to 1945, but I have a feeling in my bones that one day it will become the main international airport for Papua New Guinea.”

The first airfield in the Nadzab area of the Morobe Province’s Markham Valley was established by the Lutheran Mission for use by small planes serving the mission station at Gabmatzung.

It was not used very often and, after the outbreak of the Pacific War, it soon became overgrown with dense kunai grass.

It was with the capture of Japanese-occupied Lae in mind that the Allied forces decided to use the Nadzab area as a landing craft for Dakota and other aircraft.
On September 5, 1943, about 1600 men of the 503rd American Parachute Infantry Regiment, with an Australian battery of 25-pounders, were dropped at Nadzab.

The Americans were in 82 Dakota transports, the Australian gunners in five.

Before the attack, part of the 2/2nd Pioneer Battalion, with a Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB) company and an Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU) detachment with almost 1000 Papua New Guineans as carriers and labourers, had been assembled at Tsili Tsili airstrip in the Lower Watut area, to the southwest of Nadzab.

“The ANGAU detachment was under my command,” Niall takes up the story.

“All of us made a three-day march from Tsili Tsili to a point overlooking the Markham River and almost opposite the area where the paratroopers were to land.

“Before the drop, the site was heavily strafed by Mitchell bombers and fighter planes.

“At the same time the Lae airstrip was also coming under heavy bombardment.

“During the strafing, large areas of kunai grass were set alight.

“The paratroopers landed with no opposition.

“The overland troops and carriers crossed the Markham River just west of the junction with the Erap River but their progress to the drop area was held up because a track had to be cut through the tall pitpit (a wild sugarcane).

“By dark, Lieutenant Colonel J.T. Lang, CO of the Pioneers, and myself had reached the site of the proposed new airstrip.

“Word was sent back along the track for all to sleep where they could and to be at the old airstrip site by first light.

“This happened and by 7.30am I was able to report that, by a superhuman effort on the part of the Papua New Guinea labourers, the old strip was cleared and ready for planes to land on it.

“On hearing this, the 5th Air Force headquarters began moving troops of the Australian 7th Division, the first arrivals landing about 11.30am.

“Cover for the incoming aircraft was provided by the US paratroopers.

“The next day I was told to report to Colonel Price of the US Army engineers, who instructed me to accompany him to a site, marked on aerial photograph of the area, which appeared suitable for a large airstrip.

“We travelled at breakneck speed across country to the site of the present Nadzab airstrip.

“After driving up and down the proposed site a few times the colonel said he was satisfied it would be suitable.

“We then arranged for 50 labourers to be put to work clearing the kunai and other rubbish.

“A camp site, which is still recognisable, was selected for ANGAU personnel near the present turn-off from the Highlands Highway to the airport.”

Grass knives and machetes were dropped and some large tractor drawn mowers were sent from Port Moresby.
However, they could not be used until large stones and bush covering the area had been cleared.

Then six bulldozers were flown in.

They cleared a track as they drove to the site of the planned strip.

That track was almost in the same position as the track which today leads from the airport to the racecourse.

“The ‘dozers quickly leveled the area but in doing so they raised a pall of black dust, caused by the kunai being set alight, which made working conditions unpleasant, especially since drinking water had to be carried several miles,” Niall recalls.

“Another danger was the death adders which turned up by the score.

“Most were large and angry at being disturbed and each had to be caught and killed before work could proceed.

“Luckily no one was bitten and I think the adders helped augment the meat rations of some workers!”

Next came the Marsden steel matting which was laid on the new strip by the US engineers.

Two days after work had begun, the first flight of Mitchell bombers landed.

The strip had already been tested by a few Dakota landings and a makeshift control tower, made from poles cut from the nearby bushes and tied with wire and kunai vines, had been erected.

In the days that followed Lae was recaptured and the US 5th Air Force headquarters was moved from Port Moresby to Nadzab.

Two more strips were prepared plus an emergency landing ground.

Dispersal bays were made and connecting roads, most of which were sealed with bitumen flown from Port Moresby, were laid.

An Australian Construction Squadron also built two strips near the entrance to the present-day Nadzab airport for use by RAAF aircraft.

The main airstrip was, at first, used mostly by medium and heavy bombers such as Liberators and Flying Fortresses which were attacking Madang, Wewak, Rabaul and Hollandia (now Jayapura in West Irian).

They came and went from dawn till dark.

This went on until Hollandia was captured by US troops.

The heavy aircraft were then moved to Hollandia, and to Morotai in the northern Moluccas.

Nadazab then became home to the Combat Replacement Training Centre (CRTC).

Planes were flown in from Australia and the United States and the crews were given their final training before combat.

“Nadzab was almost in every respect an international airport,” Niall remembers.

“All day long, one could hear loudspeakers calling for passengers to Honolulu, Los Angeles, Australia and many other faraway places.

“Most air operations for the transport aircraft were controlled by civilians in uniform.

“One told me they were getting ready for the period after the war when they would be traffic controllers for US civil airlines.

“It must have been excellent training for them!

“We were hoping to have the use of a lot of the army-built huts at Nadzab after the 5th Air Force moved on but to our disappointment nearly all were dismantled and flown to Hollandia.
“Only the concrete floors were left, many of which can be seen at Nadzab today.”

The war over, Nadzab fell into disuse, nearly all air movements being made from Lae.

“Two years later, the only sign of activity was the ‘graveyard’ of dozens of wrecked Liberators and Fortress bombers plus a few Dakotas and fighter planes,” Niall continues.

“These were bought by an enterprising group who set up a furnace, smelted down the pieces into ingots and shipped them from Lae at what was said to have been a very handsome profit.

“It was sad to see the old bombers being chopped up.

“On their sides were a great selection of humourous paintwork – fancy names, markings signifying the number of missions, numbers of ships hit or sunk and other aircraft shot down in combat.

“Practically nothing is left today of the ‘graveyard’ which was at the western end of the present airstrip.”

In 1962, the main strip at Nadzab was resealed by the Australian Commonwealth Department of

Works and lengthened to make it suitable for Mirage fighters, even though they never materialised.

However, it was always maintained by the Australian Department of Civil Aviation as an alternative to Lae in poor weather conditions.

Likes its predecessor in Lae, Nadzab has made an indelible impact on the history of Lae, Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea and the world.

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