On 22 March 1942, nine Japanese ‘Betty’ bombers attacked Katherine. While there was little damage to buildings or facilities, an Aboriginal man was killed in the attack. This was the southern-most extent of Japanese air raids on the Northern Territory. Following the attack, the Australian Army established a large headquarters along the Katherine River, which included engineering and surveying companies, signals and observations units, supply depots, farms and the largest hospital in the Territory, the 121st Australian General Hospital with 1200 beds.
After the bombing of Darwin in 1942, the defence force decided to disperse their aircraft over several airfields, making it harder for the Japanese to destroy all the aircraft in single targeted attacks. The 43rd Engineer General Regiment of United States, under the command of Flight Lieutenant John Yeaman, was responsible for the selection and development of aerodromes for the Northern Territory region. They began by building an airfield at Manbulloo Station, located 16kms south of Katherine. This regiment also constructed airfields at Venn, Tindal, Fenton and McDonald.
Manbulloo was used by a number of units including: 2 Air Ambulance, 24 and 34 RAAF Squadrons, 529th and 530th USAAF Squadrons flying B-24 Liberators, also know as the “Flying Circus”. From Manbulloo, the bomber squadrons flew successful missions attacking Japanese installations at Dobo, Aru Islands, and Babo, the main base in Dutch New Guinea. By the end of 1943, the 529th and 530th bomber squadrons moved to Long Airfield. Manbullo airfield finally closed in mid-1944 as the war moved further north and the remaining RAAF squadrons relocated to Fenton Airfield.
Feeding the troops and support personnel was a major exercise made that much harder by the lack of infrastructure in the Territory. The Army constructed an abattoir on Manbulloo Station, 14kms west from Katherine, to feed the three services stationed in the Northern Territory. Construction of the abattoir started in 1942 and the site consisted of 46 buildings including mess halls, barracks, a poultry farm and chilling rooms which could hold up to 1000 carcasses.
Aboriginal stockmen drove local cattle from Pine Creek, Mataranka and the Manbulloo area to the abattoir. At the end of 1944, approximately 700 head of cattle were being processed each week. There was several butchery units stationed at the Abattoirs including the 2/3rd Australia Field Butchery Platoon, along with engineers, cooks and quartermaster personnel.