Darwin bombing survivor shares war stories

World War 2 veteran Arnall Salway in his Bermagui home.
World War 2 veteran Arnall Salway in his Bermagui home.

ARNALL Salway helped defend his country during World War 2 by serving as a transport driver and was the youngest in his section. 

He was stationed south of Darwin in Coomalie Creek, where he transported servicemen between the air strip and the camp as well as driving fire trucks and ambulance vans, refuelling planes and carting ammunition. 

Mr Salway was born on July 23, 1924 at Cobargo, and grew up in the area attending schools such as Bega High. 

He travelled to Wagga Wagga to join the 31 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in the transport section.

In October 1942 they moved everything they had by train to Aubrey, Adelaide then to Alice Springs.

On the way to Alice Springs the train ran out of coal and while there was a stash of coal further down the track they had to get there first, so pulled out old sleepers to use as fuel.

The air base at Coomalie Creek was the only place where planes could leave mainland Australia for Timor and return, and it became his home for 16 months.

They were fed bully beef, which everyone hated, and the tinned fish known as “goldfish” – which Mr Salway loved to the surprise of everyone. 

The US soldiers stationed nearby had ice cream, cigarettes and ham, but they loved bully beef so the Australians would trade the beef for those three pleasures. 

Arnall Salway in 1942, taken when he was 18.

Arnall Salway in 1942, taken when he was 18.

Mr Salway said they would get bombed or strafed by Japanese planes while sleeping, and their tents set alight. 

The Japanese would attack at the three days coming to the full moon and three days after, as the moon would give them reasonably good vision from a height and they could regulate shadows well. 

In the wet season the bombers would fly out of the sun, as there was still cloud around and couldn’t be seen.

The only warning the personnel on the ground had that bombers were approaching was an old oxygen tank which someone from the operations tent would bang when they could hear the planes. 

Mr Salway was in Darwin when it was bombed the second and third times, and thinks surviving those barrages caused him to have the hearing problems he experiences today.

The city was “a shambles” - ships were destroyed, buildings levelled and “there was not much left”. 

While in Darwin Mr Salway found a dog, a dachshund he named Fritz, which became the transport sections dog, and would drive around in their trucks. 

A thrilling experience Mr Salway recalled happened due to his good friend, the pilot Eric Barnett.

Barnett was terrified of driving in motor vehicles so when transporting him up the thin, windy dirt track to the strip Mr Salway would have some fun by driving “like buggery”.

One day, Mr Barnett was going up to test out cannons on a Beaufighter and Mr Salway was getting the plane ready when a commanding officer, Charlie Reid, came up and told the surprised Mr Salway he was under the impression Mr Salway was going up in the air too.

Mr Barnett said a seat and a parachute was ready for Mr Salway, and with pressure from Mr Reid he went.

The strip was so small the plane almost ran off it twice, and when Mr Barnett got it in the air he would fly so low he chopped the tops off trees and Mr Salway could smell the scent of eucalyptus coming through the cabin.

Once he left Coomalie Creek he was posted to Victoria Park, Brisbane to serve in signals at the Allied Air Force Headquarters for RAAF Command until the end of the war, where his job was carrying important documents from the command to other headquarters in the city. 

He had an incredible story which involved a cake tin. 

At Coomalie Creek Mr Salway’s mother sent him a Christmas cake in a tin, and during a bombing raid it was lost.

When he returned to the site of the base in the 1980s, he found the tin again.


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