Griffith University: Reconstructing Qld’s secret WWII history in the outback

Charleville’s new interactive and educational WWII Secret Base is the culmination of years of work guided by Griffith University experts.

When Griffith Institute for Tourism Associate Professor Brent Moyle arrived in the outback town, located in the Shire of Murweh with a population of less than 3500 people, he was tasked with consulting on a new tour of WWII relics from a Top-Secret US Airbase at the edge of town.

“The Murweh Shire Council (MSC) developed a tour to showcase the military heritage. However, many of the relics were crumbling away and at risk of being lost forever to other potential competing development priorities,” he said.

Relics including an aircraft hangar, revetments, a building to house the Top-Secret Norden bombsight, living quarters for soldiers and nurses, kitchens and ablution blocks were built in secret during WWII.

Commonly known as the ‘Brisbane Line’, the airbase was part of General Douglas MacArthur’s controversial strategy of defence to concede northern parts of Australia in the event the Japanese invaded.

“During WWII there were over 3000 US soldiers living there alongside B-17 bombers and P-40 fighters at what was primarily a maintenance base during the Battle of the Coral Sea. The US soldiers weren’t allowed to tell anybody they were stationed there,’’ Dr Moyle said.

“How many other towns have a secret US airbase active during WWII?”

“It’s got bunkers, buried bombers and all sorts of secrets. It was a major opportunity to preserve this unique heritage for future generations to experience.”

Revitalising signature dark sky tourism experiences

But before Dr Moyle could work on the WWII Secret Base project, Murweh Shire Council asked him to consult on the revitalisation of the town’s signature Dark Sky tourism attraction, the Cosmos Centre and Observatory.

Co-creating new experiences for the Cosmos Centre by involving community stakeholders, visitors and Griffith experts would become his signature collaborative process that led to the creation of a masterplan for a Top-Secret Tourism Precinct.

“Visitors told us they wanted a bit of humour and storytelling to exist alongside the focus on science. They wanted to know the first swear word in space and the most unique item brought into space. We found a Scottish astronaut who brought up his bagpipes, which we layered into the experience.”

“We’ve still got the science of living and going to space, but we’ve included stories about the people and secrets of humans going to space.”

Introducing an Indigenous Night Sky Experience, housing the largest telescope for non-research purposes and developing a cosmic time warp experience were also part of the process.

Dr Moyle said after diversifying the tourism experience, which included the blending of interactive digital technology to construct a virtual rocket simulating an astronaut’s journey into space, visitation soared.

“We also wrote a report recommending the construction of a Planetarium to minimise the impact of cloudy nights on the Dark Sky tourism experience which helped secure a Building Our Regions and Growing Tourism Infrastructure Grant from the Queensland Government.”

Preserving WWII history with augmented and virtual reality
Impressed with the Cosmos Centre and Planetarium, MSC greenlit a three-year research and development project of the town’s WWII heritage by investing a quarter of a million dollars through an Advanced Queensland Fellowship (AQF).

The research team set about developing three immersive prototypes which included the use of innovative 3D scanning to bring the stories of the people who lived on the Top-Secret US Airbase during WWII to life in augmented and virtual reality.

“We try to take visitors back to that point in time when the base was active, so we enlist them into the US military and simulate the journey on the ship from New York to Sydney, around the coast of Brazil and the train ride from Sydney to Charleville.”

“Then there’s a whole raft of different experiences in the WWII centre recently constructed as part of an Outback Tourism Infrastructure (OTI) grant, an outcome of the AQF,” said Dr Moyle.

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