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Onslow, Atom Bombs And A Short Lived Post Office

Onslow

As you'll know from the last page, we intended to visit Paraburdoo after Tom Price but Paraburdoo has no caravan park so we drove the 475 kilometres to Onslow. Your loss, Paraburdoo. The journey was uneventful other than it rained. Yes, rain!

'Old Onslow' was gazetted in 1885 and named after Sir Alexander Onslow, the Chief Justice of Western Australia. It was then situated at the mouth of the Ashburton River. All the land bordering the river had been taken up by sheep farmers but there was no road or rail connecting the town to anywhere else at that time. It would be another 100 years before the 'blacktop' was to reach Onslow. Until then the town was serviced from the sea. All the wool from the Ashburton sheep stations was taken to Onslow where it was collected by Stateship or Blue Funnel Line. The ships called in as they plied between Fremantle and Singapore.

Onslow, like Broome, had a pearling industry. Good pearls were rarely found, the mainstay of the industry being mother-of-pearl which was used extensively for making buttons. The later advent of plastic buttons put paid to that; today mother-of-pearl is used to give paint a metallic finish.

Problems arose when the mouth of the Ashburton River began silting up making ship access difficult. Recurring cyclone damage to the town finally tipped the balance and in 1925 the old river mouth site was abandoned and the town re-established nineteen kilometres to the north-east in its present location at Beadon Point. A 750 metre long concrete jetty was built out into deep water to accommodate the ships. It was a grand structure with a railway which ran from the Goods Shed in the centre of town, down to the coast, along the foreshore and then out to the end of the jetty. Unfortunately, in 1934 a cyclone destroyed the outer section of the jetty. It was rebuilt in wood.

Things livened up considerably during WWII when the town became a refueling base bringing naval ships to Beadon Bay. The Japanese took exception and on 15th September 1943 a single aircraft dropped three bombs on the airfield, fortunately without doing any damage or hurting anybody. But how rude!

Onslow's new War Memorial

The sun rising in the centre of Onslow's new War Memorial. Just add flags to the masts and imagine the sound of a lone bugle playing the Last Post and see if you don't get goose bumps. I do.

Atomic Bombs Exploded On Onslow's Doorstep.

If the seven hundred residents of Onslow thought things had been lively during WWII, it was as nothing compared to what followed in 1952. After consultation between the British P.M., Clement Attlee, and the Australian P.M., Robert Menzies, it was agreed that Britain should carry out testing of its new atomic bomb on the Monte Bello group of islands, a mere 130 kilometres north west of Onslow. Menzies undoubtedly looked in his school atlas and worked out how far the bang would be from Canberra. Arriving at 3,750 kilometres he decided his backside would be safe. He briefly wondered if he could work a knighthood into the deal, remembered he already had one, and agreed.

Recall the devastation wrought on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima just a few years earlier, the number of instant deaths and the terrible burns. Remember the slow lingering deaths of the many affected by the radiation. Yet the Australian Prime Minister gave the green light to the Brits to explode an even more powerful bomb a mere 130 kilometres from an Australian town.

Today there would be mass protests. Greenpeace would be there in force, there would be riots in the streets and the unions would shut down the country. Germaine Greer would have something to say, too. And should the tests still have gone ahead, the compensation claims from Onslow residents after the blast would have broken the Reserve Bank.

However, in 1952 it was a very different world, a comparatively naive and innocent world, especially in towns like Onslow. And in so many ways, a preferable world, don't you think, dear reader? Remember, the town still wasn't connected to the rest of Australia by a bitumen road so the country remained blissfully ignorant of what was happening 'up north'.

The government and the military kept everything top secret. Only the Yanks and the Russians had 'The Bomb' at that time. To the good people of Onslow, however, Operation Hurricane soon became common knowledge when British warships anchored in Beadon Bay, multitudes of aircraft descended on their airfield, a large flying boat landed daily in the bay and the army arrived, setting up camp on the sports ground. Mysterious scientists, technicians and hordes of journalists turned up too. Soon there were sports events and dances being organised. A great carnival atmosphere prevailed and everyone had a ball, especially the publican of the Beadon Bay Hotel. The actual date and time of the first test were known only to a select few and that secret never leaked. This added to the anticipation in the town and to the frustration of the journalists.

The Australians had been meticulously recording wind and weather statistics around the Monte Bello Islands during the preceding year. The islands, usually deserted, were occasionally visited by pearlers or fishing boats, but now the military placed the whole area out of bounds to both boats and aircraft.

There were to be three atomic tests:-
  1. 3rd October 1952: At 8:04 a.m. Britain's first atomic bomb was exploded below the water line in the bow of H.M.S. Plym, a retired frigate which was anchored in a lagoon off Trimouille Island. This bomb was, at twenty five kilotonnes, the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated.
  2. 16th May 1956: The second bomb was exploded on the northern tip of Trimouille Island.

  3. 19th June 1956: A third bomb was detonated on nearby Alpha Island.

In Onslow, journalists and photographers were camped out at every possible vantage point and excitement ran high. Large aircraft flew over the town, ships littered the bay. Finally the moment came. A brilliant flash lit the sky followed by a dense cloud of smoke that billowed thousands of feet into the atmosphere, spreading out into a mushroom. Then came the sound and a pressure wave that made observers feel like they had been hugged by a wrestler. This was followed by shock waves that rattled every piece of corrugated iron in Onslow. Everybody watched as the cloud rose higher and was caught by an air current, blowing it sideways as it rose. Higher still another air current caught it, bending it back again, leaving a 'Z' shape in the sky.

H.M.S. Plym, inside which the bomb had been detonated, totally vapourised. That large steel frigate was turned to gas in an instant, leaving no sign that it had ever existed. Rocks in the vicinity melted, giant girders some distance away were twisted and the sea was said to be boiling. Before long dead fish began washing up on the beach in Onslow. The first British test was over.

Onslow, and in particular Cliff Ross, the licensee of the Beadon Bay Hotel, was not in the mood to settle back to routine life. Next morning a large WWII mine appeared outside the pub. On it was painted, A Bomb - Do Not Disturb, and similar warnings. An army officer took a dim view of this and nearly had a fit when one of Cliff's mates gave the mine a resounding wallop with a hammer. The residents of Onslow knew it had been made perfectly safe . . . but the officer didn't. Later came a bulletin on the local radio purporting to come from the Navy. Due to unpredicted wind changes, the radioactive cloud had altered course and was blowing back over Onslow - all residents should gather outside the Goods Shed for immediate evacuation. It is reported that the rich and influential were the first to arrive, only to find that Cliff Ross's wicked sense of humour had been at play again.

In 2002 the Federal Government returned the Monte Bello Islands to Western Australia's control. Once again the public was free to visit the islands, though warned that low level residual radiation still existed. A prolonged stay was definitely not a good idea. A story I heard in the Beadon Bay Hotel however, claims that university students checked the islands for radiation and found the levels lower than those in the centre of Perth! As in all such events, myths abound and versions vary. That being the case, I have written this story based on the best information I could obtain from the documents in the museum and first hand accounts of the locals (who were children at the time).

Today the islands have been dedicated as a conservation park. Somewhat ironical, wouldn't you say?
Mount Potter Post Office

Prior to the first explosion in 1952, many photographers and reporters gathered at a remote hill known as Mount Potter, 215 kilometres north east of Onslow. The three hundred feet summit of Mount Potter made a good observation post being elevated and considerably closer to the bomb than Onslow. More pertinently, an overland telegraph line ran past the base of the mountain. The G.P.O. was asked to assist with communications. It agreed to provide the equipment and personnel for an official post office if the newspapers supplied the infrastructure.

Thus the Mount Potter Post Office was created beneath the telegraph line at the foot of the hill. Equipment was set up in the Post Office (on the back of a six ton truck with a tarp over it) and technicians connected it to the telegraph line. A land line was run from there up to the observation post on the summit of Mount Potter. Expert telegraphers were sent to man the Post Office.

Not knowing when the test was to take place, photographers and reporters lived and slept by their equipment at the observation post, as did the telegraphers in the Post Office. Remember, folks, we're talking Morse Code telegraphy here - this was not a telephone voice line.

After the 'bang' the journalists on the mountain rapidly prepared their stories and relayed them down the land line to the new Post Office. There the telegraphers tapped the stories out over the wire to Perth. One signal was routed south to Perth, the other north via a number of repeater stations and then down to Perth via a different line. Thus both operators could transmit simultaneously to get the stories to press as fast as possible. All normal telegraph traffic was suspended while this took place. It was a far cry from broadband communication as we know it today but within minutes of the explosion the stories were being received by the newspapers.

The Mount Potter Post Office never sold a stamp or mailed a letter. Five weeks after it opened in 1952, it closed for ever.
More On Onslow

But back to good old Onslow's history. In 1961 another cyclone destroyed half of the jetty and a lighter was used to ferry goods to and from the ships. The State Government refused to rebuild the jetty and in 1982 the Army blew up what remained of it. There is however, still ample evidence of where it once stood. Steel reinforced pillars lie twisted in the shallow water and several still stand upright.

Onslow really is a tiny town with a population of 790. Situated as it is on a spur jutting north into the Indian Ocean, it is one of the few towns where the sun can be watched both rising and setting over water. A new war memorial has recently been erected on a rise overlooking Beadon Bay (see picture above). What a marvellous location for the Dawn Service on ANZAC Day . . .
Today (2008)

Today the town possesses three shops. There's a post office, a general store and a hardware shop. But wait, there's more. Onslow also has the 'Goods Shed Museum' which houses the tourist information office. Then there's a couple of service stations and one pub. Pharmaceuticals can be obtained from Exmouth, 400 kilometres away by road, through an arrangement with the post office. Given Australia Post's track record with our mail, God help anybody needing urgent medication.

Onslow now relies upon the tourist trade, fishing, prawning and Onslow Salt Pty Ltd which recovers salt from sea water using the same solar evaporation process that we saw in Port Hedland. The company employs up to 65 workers.

Salt pile

We watched salt - sodium chloride - being taken from the stockpile and fed onto a conveyor belt . . .

Conveyor

. . . which carried it for about three and a half kilometres, under the road, over the sand dunes and . . .

Ship

. . . out over the water to where a ship was loading.

We wondered in Port Hedland and we wondered again in Onslow; what happens when it rains? Even without salt, the belt forms a very long, continuous, uncovered channel. Hey, what a wonderful water chute it would make for the kids. Until they reached the end and got dunked in the Indian Ocean.

Gas Rig and Oil Tanks

Not the greatest pictures. These much-magnified images appeared as tiny smudges on the horizon to the naked eye. On the left is one of five gas rigs off the Onslow coast. On the right are three oil tanks situated on Thevenard Island.

Reading a tourist leaflet we were promised that the wharf area on Beadon Creek was an interesting place where we would be able to watch the fishing, prawning, charter and work boats from the offshore islands come and go. We decided to walk over to the creek to see all this activity and we set off with cameras at the ready. We decided it would be nice to have a cup of coffee at a café when we arrived.

It would be untrue to say there was no activity at the wharf because there was a lot of noise - hammering and drilling - coming from a moored boat. However there was not a soul to be seen. Not a boat moved, not a person fished . . . nothing.

A coffee in a café? What café? There was a public toilet block but the doors were locked. Apparently they always are.

Beadon Creek

Beadon Creek where we went to watch the fishing, prawning, charter and work boats from the offshore islands come and go. There's the sole boat from which the noise emanated. Nice sky.

Onslow has a nice boardwalk which runs along the coast from near the new war memorial. It has a lookout which affords lovely ocean views to walkers and links the sunrise beach to the sunset beach. The termites love it too; for the first fortnight of our stay it was closed for repairs. As soon as it re-opened we walked the 1,017 metres each way. (They're very precise in Onslow.) It was difficult to appreciate the views as we spent a lot of time watching where we put our feet as so many of the boards still looked, felt and sounded unsafe. From the boardwalk we could see - and smell - the sad remains of a giant whale which had either stranded or washed up on the beach.

One day, while driving, we came across two very heavy steel fabrications at the roadside, one painted red and the other yellow. We puzzled over what they could be for some time - there was no plaque. My best guess was that they were upside down and were drill heads for boring into the earth or seabed. But what were they doing there? Another question for the tourist information lady who fielded our daily queries with good humour.

Drill Bit

One of our mystery objects. We still don't know what they were originally but they were painted and placed in position by a local character called Back Street Pete. They are now 'sculptures'. On the right are . . . no, not Back Street Pete's impression of the pyramids, but salt stock piles.

On one of our visits to Onslow's three shops Pam bought a local paper, The Pilbara News. On page six was a story from Dampier, a little way up the coast. A gang consisting of two men and two women had stolen items from eighteen cars and rifled through a further twenty in a two-night spree in the town. Nothing very extraordinary about that, you might say, but read on. Sergeant Alby Vandenburg of Dampier Police Station said, The most disturbing aspect of this is that none of the cars were locked and six vehicles had keys in the ignition.
Requiem For A Water Heater

My brother Mike has just contacted me from Merry England to ask: What a cliff-hanger, what suspense you leave us in, was the water seepage residual water from the draining of the tank or . . . is there still a leak?? The suspense is killing, I won’t sleep until all is revealed!!

Water Heater Tank

Pretty! Only four years old, our rusted and leaking water heater tank.

Are you telling me I was boring you, Bro? The water heater had me beaten from the start. It had three leaks (or four if you include one I introduced), the worst of which I fixed. The remaining two were corrosion holes in the weld of the steel tank itself, probably due to the sacrificial anode never having been replaced. A complete heater assembly was dispatched from Sydney, a journey of 3,800 kilometres as the crow flies. However crows won't carry water heaters - not even Carryin' Crows. (Sorry, awful joke.) As a result the heater travelled 5,300 kilometres by road. And that, dear reader, is the last time I shall ever refer to this subject. I promise.

Bizarre Onslow

The longer we stayed in Onslow the more we liked the little town. This was fortunate because we had to stay there until . . . something . . . arrived from Sydney.

Having told you that there were only three shops in the town we discovered that most things could be purchased in one or another of them. You think I'm kidding, don't you? Onslow is one of a kind. We call it On Slow.
Kind, Trusting People

Recently I needed to have some welding done. I went to a firm which specialised in welding. One of the men dropped what he was doing to attend to my fiddly bit of a job. It didn't go right and he spent some time re-doing it. When he'd finished he dunked it in cold water to cool it and gave it back to me. Take it away and see if it's okay. If not, bring it back. If it is okay, pop round with ten bucks some time. He didn't know me from Adam but was happy to trust me. The job was good. He got his $10.

A few days later I was really stuck for a 1½” socket spanner. That is a BIG socket, believe me. The local hardware shop couldn't help, nor could the garage. The manager of the caravan park didn't have one either. Pam suggested Onslow Mechanical, a firm she'd noticed down near the wharf. I drove over and asked the question. Morgs, one of the mechanics, said he was sure he could fix me up and in no time he handed me the correct socket, an extension and a ratchet wrench. (My tools are ½” drive, his socket was ¾” drive.)
Can I leave a deposit? I asked. Say $100?
No need, he said. Just bring it back A.S.A.P.
The tools he lent me were quality items, and as I mentioned earlier, large. They would cost an arm and a leg to replace yet he let me just walk away with them. Again, he didn't know me from Adam. I had them back in two hours with a carton of beer - his kindness had got me out of a tight spot. Then, it being late on a Friday afternoon, I was invited to sit down with Morgs and a good few others and help drink it. Great people.
That Dead Whale

An official notice appeared on the town's notice board concerning the very smelly rotting whale carcass on the beach. The gist of the notice was as follows:

The Department of Primary Industry (formerly Marine and Harbours) has inspected the carcass and because it is not a hazard to shipping, has declined to intervene.

The Department of the Environment and Conservation has also visited Onslow to view the carcass and because the animal is not in distress, has also declined to intervene.

The Shire of Ashburton acknowledges that the enormous carcass is not the ideal thing to have on Onslow's front beach. As it currently sits, it is not accessible to Shire equipment to be able to dispose of it. Should it move onto the sandy section of the beach, the Shire will bury it.

So there you have it. The responsibility rests with the dead whale to move to a more convenient spot. Failing that, the Shire expects it to disintegrate within four to six weeks. So get on with it, you unconscionable whale.
We're Off To Exmouth

Our next entry will be from Exmouth, we've just about squeezed all we can out of Onslow.

Where is Exmouth? If you look at a map of Australia you'll see that the west coast runs more or less north, then half way up it bends round to run north-east. Right where the coastline bends there is peninsula sticking out like an upturned finger. That's the North West Cape and Exmouth is on its east coast, up near the tip.

By air it's only 107 kilometres from Onslow but by road the Gulf of Exmouth gets in the way so we have to drive 404 kilometres. See you there.

Footnote: This re-working of Page 80 was completed on 10th July 2013. It conforms to HTML5 and CSS level 3.