A bunker from the 1940s on the steep banks of the Merri Creek in Westgarth really inspired my interest in military archaeology and in bunkers in general. My friend jokes that i have a bunker fetish! He is a psychiatrist by background so no doubt its the Freud coming through in him. I was 24 years old back in 2007 when i developed my so called bunker fetish. At this time an old work colleague of mine mentioned that as a young boy he remembers playing in bunkers along the Merri Creek.
We were taking a walk down the creek when he told me. He said that most of them had been forgotten with time and covered up with ivy. From this moment on i was so fascinated and intrigued with what he told me that it i embarked on a trail of investigation.
After some reading at my local library i did a Google search and it led me to Mark Rawson, a criminal solicitor based in Lilydale and amateur archaeologist who was digging a second world war bunker on the Merri Creek. He was hoping to find army weapons, chemicals or explosives. Stephen Cauchi an age reporter had written an article about it; http://www.theage.com.au/news/National/Childhood-memory-may-lead-to-army-war-bunker/2005/04/15/1113509925493.html?from=moreStories. Its a true adventure report ! I’m sure Cauchi had an adventure interviewing Mark and visiting the site for his story.
Through Cauchi’s article i tracked Mark down and called him at his law firm to find out more about his bunker. He invited me on board to help out given my archaeological background. I was the only female in his male team of : Barry a truck driver, Pete a stonemason and Jim a firefighter. Occasionally Pete’s son Justin would join in to help. They were real characters straight out of a Tintin comic. They were so eccentric but in a good way.
Barry was like Mick out of Timeteam UK with his big woolly jumpers. Unlike Mick though he swore like a pirate. His life at sea in the past no doubt had something to do with his tongue. Pete was a stonemason who was passionate about the different types of stone in existence and so passionate about digging the bunker. He would drive all the way from Port Fairy to Westgarth to dig on most weekends. He had been doing this for the past eight years when i came on board. If this is not dedication, i don’t know what is ! Jim the fireman was chief of staff for the Metropolitan fire brigade and was often on call to emergencies whilst digging. I remember he was often in his firefighter uniform. Justin, was the most reserved and quiet of them all being the youngest male in his mid 20s. The others were middle aged.
Mark the team leader was a man of vision and passion as he had dedicated more than eight years, most weekends to this bunker. He would miss out on so many functions and activities with his wife and young children. He was inspired to spend so much digging as he had a huge passion for archaeology and military history .Mark had found this tunnel with a tip off by two men who as children had played in the vicinity and saw the entrance to the tunnel. They remembered it begin guarded by a US Army officer. One of the men went down the tunnel and saw crates marked ‘US Army High Explosives.’
The tunnel run deep underneath the suburb of Westgarth. It was over 400 metres long and it was pitch black. The only light source came from torches used by the crew. I used to use a head torch. The tunnel had a distinct smell, which i can still smell. A mix of soil and mildew with sewerage in some sections. The tunnel ran under people’s homes so often there was runoffs of sewerage water when pipes were broken. You never forget such a smell, it was horrible but my dedication along with the rest of the team ensured we just got on with the work.
For me Mark was a real life Indiana Jones , but instead of wearing a leather jacket, fedora and bull whip he often wore a safety vest, hard hat and shovel. In addition he always had a coffee thermos with him given his love of coffee. Every-time he took a break from digging he would drink a coffee. That thermos was part of his signature look.
I remember often whilst taking breaks and having a coffee with Mark he would tell me about bunkers in Melbourne and around Australia in general. The Melbourne ones really fascinated me being such a Melbourne bound girl that i am. According to Mark’s research , during the war the US Army had extensive networks of tunnels in Melbourne. They were used for a range of purposes like storage and shelter.
Mark used to say they are like spaghetti running in all directions underground. My curiosity reached a whole new level upon hearing this. However its an impossibility getting access to these tunnels or even finding documentation on them given their military connection. There is a web of secrecy around them. On top of this there is the passage of time that has seen many of the people associated with their construction and use now deceased.
Check out this page of Americans in Australia in WWII with original fun loving 1940’s music playing as soon as you open it : http://www.ww2australia.gov.au/allin/yanksdownunder.html
Mark believed the Merri Creek bunker was part of a system that possibly linked Northcote, Royal Park, Richmond, South Yarra (the US Army had a base at Melbourne High), Fairfield and Dights Falls (where the war cabinet would escape by boat on the Yarra in case of attack).
Unfortunately due to a promise i made to Mark and his team i am not able to go into further details as to the extense of the bunker system nor into what we discovered. I cannot break my promise to Mark who gave me his trust and an unforgettable opportunity to come on board his team. As a team member and journalist in training i need to honor such promises. What i have disclosed here is just the tip of the iceberg. I needed to write this post as i believe its an important piece for adventure reporting. In addition it was an important part of my life for three years that influenced me.
Extra info on bunkers in Melbourne;