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.
Visitors to the WWII Secret Base centre can use iPads to scan an augmented reality table to show highly detailed scans orienting them to the layout of the base.
“By connecting with a team at Griffith Engineering, we were able to do 3D laser scanning to within two millimetres of accuracy of all the heritage sites, now preserved in a digital format that won’t degrade over time. There’s an opportunity to take what we’ve done into classrooms and share it through online digital libraries.”
But the final prototype developed is arguably the WWII Secret Base’s show-stopping experience and is based on archival research that the base was used for training pilots. It is an interactive replica of the back of a B-17 bomber, complete with a Norden bombsight used by the US Army Air Forces during WWII.
“With our industry partner Xzibit, who specialise in the fit out of interpretative centres, we built the back of a bomber where you can go in and sit,” said Dr Moyle.
“We also created a training exercise for visitors where a US pilot is talking to you in the language of the time, and then you have to use the replica Norden bombsight to line it up and drop a bomb on a target.
“You feel like you’re being transported back in time and it’s an effective way to engage visitors in the history and experience of what it might have been like on the base.”
Developing the centre exhibits has inspired the surrounding Charleville community to get involved, with the local Aviation Club currently building a replica 1:6 size B-17 bomber, which Dr Moyle anticipated within the long-term planning of the WWII Secret Base.
“Quite often these outback visitor centres are built and not integrated into council management plans becoming a liability over time. Our AQF and subsequent OTI grants has an area out the back for Griffith staff and students to go and work with the community to co-create different exhibits that can be put back into the visitor centre.”
Sustainable co-creation: Building for the long term
Dr Moyle said the Tourism Experiential Lab is a space designed to keep Griffith University and other key stakeholders engaged with these community groups, helping to upskill locals on what tourism is and to tell the stories visitors want to hear about.
“We’ve created a lot of meaningful career opportunities for people in the tourism industry for not only people who live in the Murweh Shire Council, but for our students who worked on the project.”
The WWII Secret Base, recently opened to the public, is just one part of an ambitious 20-year roadmap developed in partnership between Griffith University and MSC known as the Top-Secret Tourism Precinct Master Plan.
Led by Dr Moyle and delivered by a team of Griffith University architects under the guidance of Professor Karine Dupre from the School of Engineering and Built Environment, the team has been involved in the urban planning and design of a new Planetarium, National Outback Museum and revitalisation of the Charleville Airfield Museum.
Charleville’s WWII Secret Base was proudly funded by the Queensland Government’s Outback Tourism Infrastructure Fund and Murweh Shire Council.