Keith Miller with the plane getting restored.
Keith Miller with the plane getting restored.

Memories come back to life as old war plane restored

MEMORIES of a war-time aircraft factory repairing damaged trainer planes came flooding back as Keith Miller surveyed the frame and engine of a Wackett being rebuilt at the Maryborough Airport.

It was his 91st birthday. He had travelled from Toowoomba to see the work being done by the Maryborough Military Aviation Museum committee which is gathering artefacts for a museum about the World War II aviation base.

The airport was a hive of activity during the war, with 190 buildings accommodating air force

personnel engaged in the training of wireless operators and gunners. About 40 of the hastily built, basic, single-engine Wacketts with wooden wings were based in Maryborough.

Crashes and accidents were frequent.

The damaged Wacketts and two-engine Avro Ansons, which were based in Bundaberg, were taken to an aircraft factory in Richmond Street, beside what is now Bee Mart.

Much of the work was in repairing damaged wooden wings.

“We didn’t build aircraft. We just fixed them,” Mr Miller said.

He began working at the factory in 1943 when he was 14, after starting his apprenticeship at the age of 13 with Taylor’s cabinet making factory in Ellis St.

A year earlier, he and other young people had been evacuated to Springsure when it was believed Maryborough would be a Japanese target at the time of the Battle of the Coral Sea.

At Ellis St, orders came for wardrobes for the rapidly expanding air base.

Keith Miller with the plane getting restored.
Keith Miller with the plane getting restored.

“There were wardrobes everywhere. We made about 1000 of them.”

When the Richmond St factory was built, Taylor’s machinery – and personnel including the young Keith Miller – were moved there to help in the war effort.

About 130 men and women worked at the Richmond St factory at its peak. Pranks were a-plenty and use of the six pan toilets at the back could be perilous, with glue brushes or ripe papaws thrust through a suddenly opened service aperture.

“One of my first jobs was to go to the Sydney Hotel every day to get a bucket of fresh milk for the men using the ‘red dope”,” Mr Miller said.

The “red dope” painted on to the fabric fuselage of the planes, shrinking and tightening the heavy material.

The milk was used to counter the effects of the toxic fumes.

“They always sent me to get the milk because I didn’t drink. I have never tasted alcohol. I think they worried that if they sent someone else they might stay at the bar,” Mr Miller said.

Reeling off the names of men who worked at the factory, he told of Billy, a “rather rash Pom” who had a habit of kicking loose bits of timber around.

“The blokes didn’t like it. They thought they would get hurt by the flying timber. Billy wore sandals so they nailed a few bits of timber to the floor. He soon stopped,” Mr Miller said.

The Richmond St factory closed after the war ended.

Mr Miller finished his apprenticeship and went back to school, becoming a teacher, a school guidance officer and a minister of religion.

He spent several years in schools around the Wide Bay and for many years owned a house at Point Vernon.