Coomalie Farm, Coomalie
We were sorry to have to leave Darwin, but have promised ourselves that we will return before too long. But on leaving we were excited to be on our way to meet Richard Luxton on his property Coomalie Farm at Coomalie Creek, South of Darwin, which is the site of the WW2 Coomalie Airstrip and RAAF camp. Richard was very generous with his time and gave us a fascinating tour of the old camp and the story of the Chapel. In 1943 the members of 31 Sqn, then equipped with Beaufighters, had taken up a collection to fund the building of a bar. For reasons now unknown there was a change of plan and the leader of the project went to the padre, Canon Dunbar, to tell him that they had raised some funds and wished to build a chapel.
This was clearly needed as evidenced in the squadron’s archive of photographs, showing a number of men kneeling on the tarmac in the shade of a Beaufighter, with a small altar in front, and a service of worship in progress. The project received the canon’s blessing and a small and humble chapel was built of local timber and corrugated ‘black’ iron. Black iron was cheaper than the longer lasting galvanised iron. The first service was held in December 1943 with music provided by a cellist as there was no organ available. The chapel served the men of the camp for the duration of the war. But since then war the depredations of fire, wind and termites saw the unsurprising demise of the building.
In 1992 Richard Luxton, a parishioner at Batchelor’s St Francis Anglican Church and then head of the Faculty of Architecture and Building at Darwin University, together with his students, set about recreating the chapel using a single photograph as reference. Knowing the dimensions of the altar steps and the specifications of the corrugated iron it was possible to accurately determine the buildings dimensions and reproduce the original design. The accuracy of this research was born out when the holes for the posts were dug revealing the ash of the original posts. The building has won awards and received international acclaim and is used for an annual commemorations service as close to August 15th, the anniversary of VJ Day, each year. The building has been made to last using termite proof steel uprights. It is a functional building, providing adequate shelter from the elements but the ventilation so essential in the tropics. But more than that, it it continues to be a sacred and serene place .
I found I had a minor a connection with the airfield. My CO on my first RAAF posting, Cyril Greenwood, flew Beaufighters out of Coomalie and was shot down on an operation over the islands to the North and ending his war in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Attached are photographs of the original runway, still usable by Hercules aircraft, the restored chapel and of its builder, Richard Luxton and Robin.