Adelaide River was designated as a rest camp and farm area by the Army in 1939. Following the Japanese air raid on Darwin in February 1942, it became Australia’s new ‘front line’ and many units relocated to the area. The American forces arrived to set up their headquarters for Base Section One; a massive Field Supply Depot was established, including eight large warehouses, a field bakery and an abattoir. Australian Army Canteens Service even began producing soft drink and the Railway Refreshment Room in the railway station became a wet canteen, serving warm beer to the soldiers.
One of the first units to move to the north side of Adelaide River was 119 Australian General Hospital (AGH). At first, conditions were very primitive and equipment was scarce. Strong winds and torrential rains during the first six weeks also caused havoc amongst the newly-erected tents. Nursing staff battled the trying conditions which included camp grounds that turned into a muddy sludge. With the arrival of the 6th Division, the hospital was moved to the south side of Adelaide River and camouflage tents were erected to accommodate over 600 beds. During this time, it was not only the first army hospital for the Northern Territory but also Australia’s only hospital entirely under canvas.
Matron McQuade White was in charge of 119 AGH and wrote: “The wet season in the Northern Territory never seems to end without a cyclone. In April the whole of the tented hospital with the exception of one ward, fell to the spell of the “knock ‘em down rains”. Kelvinators [refrigerators] were thrown to the ground, patients and staff scrambled from under flattened tents. Strangely, enough there were no serious injuries.”
After this event, tents were gradually replaced by tin huts and facilities improved. In a short space of time, the hospital grew to 22 Sidney Williams huts, 66 tents as wards, several operating theatres, a resuscitation ward, and physiotherapy, dentistry, pathology, and ophthalmic departments. A prefabricated steel frame building, the Sidney Williams hut was able to be easily transported and quickly constructed, providing camps with the necessary protection against the elements.
The lack of good food was a constant source of complaint during the war. Soldiers relied on tinned and dried foods supplied by the Army, such as bully beef and herrings in tomato sauce. To remedy this food shortage, 1 Australian Farm Company was established at Adelaide River using experienced gardeners. Any labour shortages during harvests were met by temporary detachments from engineer, infantry or other Australian Army Service Corps (AASC) units. It was not uncommon for a working party to be sent from Darwin to pick tomatoes. The farm grew to 61 hectares, at its peak producing 1.7 million kilograms of tropical fruits and vegetables. Day old chicks were even flown up to the Territory from the south and raised on the farm to eventually produce