Tell about your background and interest in avaiation
I was brought up at Bacchus Marsh, a small town in Victoria Australia, where we had a small farm. My introduction to aviation was through my father who had been with the Victorian Aero Club at Essendon during the Kingsford Smith era. He underwent flying training under the then Chief Flying Instructor, Roy Goon, who went on to command 83 Squadron RAAF. I recall quite clearly Dad taking me to Essendon when the Lockheed Constellation of Qantas arrived there - we were allowed onto the tarmac in those days and I recall looking up to the nosewheel leg which seemed to go on forever.
Bacchus Marsh was the site of the old Darley army camp and the place the USAAF's 49th Pursuit Group stayed before moving to their training fields interstate. Near our farm was the local airfield which saw a variety of aircraft including DC-3s of Ansett ANA doing touch and go landings, Avro Ansons, Argosys, a P-51 I remember, RAAF Winjeels, Cessna 310s and a range of other types. I rode out there at every opportunity to watch them and was often able to climb inside for a look or sit in the cockpit. Myself and a school mate also used to ride the 32 miles to Essendon each weekend - when we weren't out trapping rabbits to supplement our coffers - and worked at the Ansett ANA workshops doing the dirty jobs. Our pay was in kind - a flight in an aircraft. DC-3s, DC-4s, the Avro Ansons of Brain and Brown and the Bristol Freighter - dubbed 'ten thousand rivets in formation'.
Also operating from the airfield was the Geelong Gliding Club, which I joined at 13-years of age and at 7/6 (75c) per 15 minutes, flying was restricted by my earning capacity on the farm, a paper delivery twice a day, slicing and wrapping bread from 4.30am and cleaning up the local butcher's shop. School work was a priority so the days were long and hard. I managed to build up my flying time but had to leave when the family moved to Melbourne some time later.
The obvious progression to WWII and the RAAF took priority as Melbourne - the big smoke - provided the opportunity to purchase books and read up on the subject, some of which remain in my former collection - now the AHSNT/Alford Collection of the Aviation Historical Society of the Northern Territory (AHSNT).
Speak about your service in the RAAF
After some time working in Melbourne as a customs agent I joined the army and after two years transferred to the RAAF. Following 'rookies' (a breeze after the army training) I went through the Trainee Mechanics course, then Armament Mechanic and on to Armament Fitter. From there I was posted to an operational squadron equipped with the old DH Vampire and the CAC 27 Sabre fighter. Another part of the unit was equipped with the Mirage fighters and though I did the Mirage course it was not until 1969 that I was posted to 75 Squadron at RAAF Base Butterworth in Malaysia.
At that time the remnants of WWII remained essentially intact, particularly on Penang Island where we had our married quarters, and north of Butterworth around Alor Star. Sungei Patani was also a time capsule. My interest soon developed around the activities of the RAAF at Butterworth and in walking through the hills on Penang I located the remains of two aircraft - one I believed to be a Buffalo and the other a Ki-43 Hayabusa.
I did three tours of Butterworth and Malaysia totalling nine years before 75 Squadron was relocated to Darwin in August 1983. Though I had been to Darwin on detachments previously, and one in 1974 during which I was involved in a demolition exercise at the Kalumburu Mission [Drysdale] in Western Australia. It was Darwin that provided the opportunity to actually see and feel the artefact material associated with Australia's wartime history and particularly that of the air war. The Kalumburu trip had helped in this as there were the remains of the wartime airfield and revetted buildings, aircraft wreckage and camp sites - the nearby Truscott Airfield was no less a treasure house.
One of my first actions on being posted to Darwin was to join the AHSNT. In late 1983 I was asked to join them on an investigation of wreckage in Darwin Harbour more as a RAAF Armourer as there was derelict ammunition associated with it. As it transpired, after considerable research, it was confirmed as being the wreckage of SqnLdr Ray Thorold-Smith's Spitfire Mk Vc A58-92 which had disappeared on 15 March 1943. I feel quite pleased at being able to have been a part of that and to have been able to confirm its identity.
From there I was associated with the location of many more aircraft sites, along with call-outs to dispose of Japanese 60kg bombs in Darwin and unexploded ordnance (UXO) in the Top End of the Territory. I retired from the RAAF in mid-1986 after 20 years and was engaged in locating UXO at the old Leanyer Air Weapons Range on Darwin's outskirts. A shoulder reconstruction put paid to that and after recuperation I was engaged to conduct site surveys and compile reports on WWII sites including aircraft crash sites for the Darwin Museums and Art Galleries Board.
Tell about your first book Darwin's Air War
Shortly afterwards I was engaged as the Research Officer with the National Trust and as part of the 50th anniversary commemorative activities associated with the 19 February 1942 bombing and war service I was asked by the AHSNT to write a book on Darwin's role in the air war. For some years I had been compiling information, interviewing veterans during their visits, taking them to their old stamping grounds and corresponding with veterans around the world.
The information I had was comprehensive and accordingly it was a matter more of compiling this into a readable form. The AHSNT also had a considerable amount of information and this along with the photos and documents provided to me by veterans formed the basis of the original Darwin's Air War.
What has surprised many people is that writing the original book took only eleven days, though my wife recalls the time with some angst. Essentially I spread the entire collection chronologically over the lounge room floor and went through it writing it up. Woe betide any child or pet who even breathed on it! But, it worked and after typing the manuscript was presented, photos captioned and positioned and the product printed. Unfortunately the proofreading fell short and there were a number of errors in it, but despite that it was reprinted four times and sold extremely well.
I consider myself to be primarily a researcher and historian but am an accredited Professional Historian and was a founding member of the Northern Territory chapter of the Australia-wide Professional Historians Association.
Talk about some of the aircraft wrecks you visited
During the 25 years in Darwin I was fortunate to have been able to 'go bush' both as a part of my job and as a leisure activity. I compiled a list of over 80 aircraft crash sites, mapped a range of airfield camp sites, military camps and wartime sites generally.
Probably the two most problematic sites I investigated were those of the B-24D "Nothing Sacred" 42-40509, which after many years was finally located some miles from where I had put it. The aircraft wreckage I misidentified as Nothing Sacred was in fact B-24D Liberator 42-41242 in which the Lt. Grenfell crew perished when the aircraft crashed after take off on 11 November 1943 - everything fitted until much later when we found a piece of wreckage confirming it as having the Hawaiian nose mod - Nothing Sacred didn't.
The other remains with me - the wreckage of a G4M1 Betty T-361 of the Takao Ku which was downed over Darwin on 4 April 1942. After so many years of investigations, site visits, sifting material and seeking information worldwide, I am still no closer to determing the manufacturer's number of the aircraft... one day perhaps!
Speak about the Darwin's Air War (Revised Edition) published in 2011
The revised edition of Darwin's Air War began in 2009 when the AHSNT approached me to undertake the task. The Committee had decided to revisit the book and to their credit resolved to have it completely rewritten. This time, however, I had a computer and with the previous edition, a couple of research visits to Darwin, internet research of various archives, the researchers at J-Aircraft, Pacific Wrecks and Straggler Research among others, the book evolved to over double it's previous size. This time I was also able to correct a number of incidents and events that had become 'conventional wisdom' and also include a lot of previously unavailable information on the activities of the Japanese air forces and other units of the RAAF, USAAF, RAF and RNEIAF.
The book was officially launched in Darwin on 19 February 2011 at Northern Territory Library in Parliament House Darwin by Austin Asche, a former Radar Operator with 38 Radar Station on Bathurst Island during the war, a lawyer, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and Administrator of the NT (the equivalent of a State Governor).
Describe your association with the AHSNT
I first joined the AHSNT in 1983 and over the years served as Secretary, Historian and as President. I was awarded Honourary Life Membership of the Society when my wife and I retired to Thailand in April 2007. Parting with Australia was a disappointment at first as I left behind many friends and fellow aviation enthusiasts - however the email and internet we have these days has shrunk the world and accordingly I am able to stay in touch whilst thoroughly enjoying the lifestyle we have here.
In the main it is the veterans with whom I had very close relationships that I miss. Most have passed away now but I recall them all with very fond memories. Clyde Barnett, Susumu Akasaka and Miramitsu Sasaki, Gus Winckel, Tom Hunt, Russ Brooks, Bob Foster, 'Slats' Black, Bob McMahon and a host others of many nationalities who all served in or over the NT during WWII.
All my photos of crash sites, but for a very few, are in the collection is the property of AHSNT as the AHSNT/Alford Collection.
What are your feelings about wreckage that remains to this day?
My fellings about the remaining wrecks are twofold - as a heritage practitioner I can see both sides. But in having said that, my experience, and those of fellow researchers in the Northern Territory is that wrecks are not disturbed for the purposes of restoration but purely as an exercise in pillaging with a view to either 'souveniring' or on-selling the items - or six months later it is thrown away as 'crap'. We've found that if you let someone purporting to be a serious researcher know of a crash site, the following day there will be nothing left and it will be on a truck heading south. Now we tell no-one the locations.
For the serious restorers it is a different matter, but even then there have been so many occasions that these 'restorers' have come to a brick wall with the project and have then dumped the lot - thus there is nothing to remind us of the story of that aircraft. Or they rebuild an aircraft around a longeron or data plate and call it a restoration. I think the days of pulling wrecks out to restore are very rapidly dwindling as governments can now see the potential for tourism in the sites, but also the public has become much more aware of their heritage.
The crash sites themselves tell a story mostly, unfortunately of death, and often, thankfully, of survival. But each has what we call 'a sense of place'. An excellent example of this is the wreckage of a B-24J "Milady" 42-73134 which crashed west of Darwin in February 1945 killing the crew of six. It was rapidly falling victim to the souvenir hunters until we had it put on the NT Heritage Register and thus legislatively protected. The local government offices took it's presentation and maintenance up as a project and the NT Government had the site interpreted with assistance of the 380th Bomb. Group Association in the USA. Items previously taken from the site were returned and many people visit the site annually. The very real potential for these sites now is the ever increasing interest in visiting the WWII heritage the Territory offers.
Speak about some of your efforts to preserve wrecks
My involvement in helping protect these sites goes back many years - probably from the 1960s in Malaysia with the RAAF but certainly to 1974 when I was able to visit the wartime Kalumburu and Truscott airfields and access the time capsules they had become. Settling in Darwin when we returned with 75 Squadron from Butterworth in 1983 consolidated that interest and my time with the National Trust as Director, as a Heritage Consultant and as Chair of the Northern Territory Heritage Council, provided the opportunity to at least assess these sites for their significance - if they fulfilled the strict criteria for inclusion, and the owners and Government Minister agreed then they were inscribed on the Register.
As a Heritage Consultant I was also involved in carrying out heritage assessments of a range of sites; from Chinese mining and settlement sites, Aboriginal communities and military sites to aircraft crash sites among others. I was also fortunate to have been involved in the development of the interpretation and signage of many sites. All these contribute to an educational process that allows the public to get a feel for the sites and to respect and protect them. If I've been able to contribute to that then I think I've done the job I set out to do.
Tell about some of your efforts with veterans and their associations
The one aspect of the years I have spent in researching the Territory's heritage, military and otherwise, that I have most enjoyed is the opportunity to have met such a large number of veterans who served in the area during WWII. Many visited the Territory and I had been fortunate enough to have become known as the first contact for them. I was able to take them to their old camp sites, their airfields, gun emplacements, aircraft wrecks and a range of sites whilst also providing a commentary that they could take with them. The result was almost always a lasting friendship, continued correspondence and the arrival of photos and documents in the post that they 'just happened to find'.
I was also fortunate in being made the Australian Historian and researcher for a number of associations both in Australia and overseas. The 380th Bomb Group was one and I remain their Australian contact. I provided research for many, including authors and publishers though some were more take and no give and the association ended abruptly from my end once that became the case.
In the late 1980s I was fortunate to have become involved with the well known Australian historian and author, Bob Piper, in researching the Japanese reconnaissance unit, the 70 DCS (Dokuritsu Dai Shijugo Chutai) flying Ki-46 Dinahs. In 1990 the association head, Susumu Akasaka, a former IJAAF Captain and pilot with the unit proposed a visit to Australia which included Darwin. They thoroughly enjoyed the visit, despite some negative media, and followed it up with a further visit in 1992 during which they dedicated a plaque at the crash site of their wartime C.O. Capt Shunji Sasaki Ki-46-II Dinah 2414.
Tell about your new home in Thailand
My wife and I are residing in a village on the outskirts of Lampang in northern Thailand, itself the wartime site of a number of Japanese Army Air Force units, including the 70th DCS which flew Mitsubishi Ki-46 Dinahs over Darwin from late 1942. The wartime airfield at Koh Ka Airfield some 12 km from Lampang is no longer there and memories have faded but I've begun research here and hopefully that will develop as I get more information. All that remains of the wartime airfield and HQ of 10th Hiko Sentai at Koh Ka is a flat area near the ancient 15th Century Wat Phratat Lampang Luang temple - in a presentation book Susumu Akasaka of the 70th DCS Association gave me is an image of what I think is the temple in 1942. Chiangmai is only 90km northwest and beyond that the mountains which are said to hide a number aircraft wrecks.
What are your future projects?
Over the years I have researched the Territory's aviation and wartime heritage I have prepared a wide range of papers, articles, reports, interpretive plans and signage, and heritage assessments. I have also co-authored the booklets on wartime sites, Signs of History and Trails of History for the NT Government and A Wartime Journey - A Stuart Highway Heritage Guide. The first Darwin's Air War and now the latest 261 page version are my favorites.
However I feel my new work, Japanese Air Forces Over the NWA (North Western Area) 1942-1945 may be the most memorable in terms of research as it has been the greatest learning curve. Curently I am completing a book of some 96 pages covering the NEI (Netherlands East Indies) in toto, Dutch New Guinea, Timor and Arafura Seas, Northern Territory and the northwestern area of Western Australia. It was a huge area and has been dutifully ignored in favour of the SWPA and New Guinea, despite the loss of many hundreds of airmen - USAAF, RAF, RAAF, RNEIAF and of course the Japanese. The book will provide a background historical summary, potted histories of individual units and descriptions of colours and markings extracted from combat and intelligence reports. A series of excellent colour profiles by Brisbane researcher and artist, Darryl Ford, detail a number of schemes of aircraft associated with the NWA and photographs provide a visual reference to the book. Hopefully this effort will provide information that will be of interest to anyone interested in 'the other side'.
Thank you for the interview, Mr. Alford