On the edge of a small island in northern Queensland, gentle ocean waves cover the rusting remains of two warplanes that once flew over Australia’s east coast in search of Japanese ships and submarines.

Legend has it that a boat pulled them from the depths of Challenger Bay, a deep ocean channel about 70 kilometers off Townsville, and towed them to where they now lie at Wallaby Point on Palm Island. .

The two Catalina seaplanes are a reminder of the region’s contact with war.(ABC News: Jade Toomey)

Aside from a crumbling concrete shack that was once a US Navy base, wreckage of warplanes are all that remains to tell the little-known story of how an island home to an Aboriginal reservation protected Australia from a World War II attack.

Palm Island “fundamental” for the success of the war

Due to its proximity to the Pacific, Townsville was Australia’s most important air base when it was bombed by Japanese forces in four raids in late July 1942.

A fallen coconut tree was the sole casualty of the attack – the third raid was broadcast live by ABC war correspondent Chester Wilmot.

A black and white photograph of four men in the water, with sticks, an island in the background.
Soldiers searched for unexploded bombs in the waters off Townsville.(Provided: Australian War Memorial)

North Queensland’s contact with the war has been vastly underestimated by Australians, said retired captain of Naval Historical Society president David Michael.

“I think most Australians now realize that there were bombings all over the north,” Mr Michael said.

“Places like Palm Island and Townsville have been critical to success.”

How the Flying Boats Defended the North

Palm Island became home to a US naval air base and a fleet of a dozen Catalina seaplanes about a year after the raids on Townsville.

“These planes had a range of over 2,300 kilometers and they could fly for 10 hours,” Mr Michael said.

“So you could imagine them…entering the Indonesian archipelago [from Palm Island].”

At the time, Palm Island was a strictly government-run reserve for Aborigines, considered too “disruptive” for the mainland.

But its northern half was turned into a tent city that housed around 1,000 American troops as part of an allied island-hopping campaign to defend Papua New Guinea against Japanese forces.

A composite of three historic photos, a large ship, an aerial view of aircraft and tents lining the foreshore.
Palm Island’s deep channels and sheltered bays made it the ideal location for an American naval air station.(Provided: Peter Dunn)

“If the Japanese had captured Port Moresby it could have been a whole different story for Australia,” Mr Michael said.

“I think most Australians must realize how far it’s come.”

The ancients remember the “cruel war”

Palm Island elder Robert Friday said ‘old people’ remembered the ‘big ships’ that docked in the deep and sheltered Challenger Bay off the island.

Native man with shirt and jacket looks at camera with beach background.
Elder Robert Friday says equipment and weapons from a US Navy station were buried in the deep ocean nearby.(ABC North Qld: Jade Toomey)

“Most of us were unaware of what was happening on the island…but the planes were flying overhead,” he said.

“It was a cruel war.

“They used to patrol up and down Palm Island and back and forth to see if any enemy ships were coming into Townsville… see if the enemy was coming in.”

But there was time for fun, according to the diaries of Second Lieutenant Ian Wrigley, who was serving on HMAS Australia when he docked near Palm Island while awaiting a berth in Townsville.

“Palm Island had a sports ground where it was possible to stage a game of rugby against teams from other ships but, just as importantly, against teams from the local Aboriginal community who very much enjoyed the friendly competition This is where I won a place in the very competitive Aussie First Fifteen.

A composite image of two rugby teams, about a dozen each wearing shirts.
HMAS Aussie First Fifteen take on the Palm Island Rugby Team during World War II.(Supplied: Naval Historical Society of Australia)

The little boat that could

Betty Holt was a four-year-old living on Palm Island with her family when World War II broke out, and the buzz of planes overhead became the norm.

But when a 500-pound bomb exploded on the horizon at sunset on July 20, 1942, she remembers the islanders screaming and anxious.

“The Voluntary Defense Corps saw this Catalina go down…and the only boat that was available [to rescue it] was my dad’s little 20ft speedboat,’ Ms Holt said.

“He went to the ocean.

“The plane was blown over the horizon… some of them [the survivors] were on the wing to keep their balance.”

A painting of two men in the foreground, a plane crashed into the ocean in the background with two people on the wings and steering.
An unknown Australian serviceman rescued from a plane crash off Palm Island has created a work of art of Fredrick Holt’s heroism.(Provided: Glendan Krause)

“I remember Dad saying it took almost six hours…it was quite a rough trip because of the waves,” Ms Holt said.

“They were quite amazed that he was able to do it.

“Some have not been so lucky.”

All 14 Australian servicemen on board were rescued by Ms Holt’s father, Fredrick Krause.

One of the survivors – no one knows which one – created a painting of the dramatic rescue.

Divers ‘wreck hunting’ to uncover more secrets

Decades after World War II, aircraft wreckage from past battles remains scattered across the Palm Island group.

Defense veteran and dive master Jason Mengel goes on a “wreck hunt” with other veterans to find out what might have happened to the souls on board.

But, he says, it’s not always an easy task and the rewards are few.

A dark-haired man inspects a diving vest, a green ocean background.
Jason Mengel goes on a “wreck hunt” for fallen World War II planes abandoned at the bottom of the Great Barrier Reef.(ABC News: Jade Toomey)

“We’ve gone out and looked for quite a bit of equipment, but it’s not always where they say it is,” Mengel said.

“We probably have about four A4 pages of wrecks from the Palm Island group.

“But as we slowly cross them over time, there isn’t much left, and that could just be due to the currents and the depths and the cyclone that we get over the years.”

Mr. Mengel regularly inspects wrecks for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

“There are still a lot of wrecks out there that are still missing,” he said.

“It horrified me”

Residents of Palm Island have found ammunition, firearms and even 1940s California coke bottles washed up on Wallaby Point for decades.

An old military helmet has also been seen around the island.

“[It means] our younger generation knows Wallaby Point today,” said elder Robert Friday.

Children running on the beach and in the ocean.
Defense equipment, such as bullet casings and pilot helmets, sometimes wash up on the shores of Palm Island.(Provided: Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council)

But Betty Holt said the rest of Australia never appreciated the northern role.

She hopes more people will learn of North Queensland’s role in defending Australia from WWII onslaught.

“We North Queenslanders knew how close it was,” she said.

“The majority of Sydneysiders thought the only thing that had happened was that three miniature submarines had tried to enter Sydney Harbour.

“It has horrified me over the years… how ignorant they are of what happened in the north.”