Story 18 - Exercise Kentia Palm

Lord Howe Island Airstrip Construction 1974

By Denis Hare OAM BEM



Lord Howe Island was serviced by a Flying Boat service but by the early 1970s was about to cease and therefore an airstrip on the Island was urgently required. 

 Story 18 - Lord Howe Island
Flying Boat arriving Lord Howe Island before the Airfield construction (Internet Source)

Lord Howe Island airstrip construction was undertaken primarily by the Royal Australian Engineers (RAE) drawing on the resources of 1 Field Engineer Regiment (1FER) from Holsworthy in 1974.   

The Lord Howe Island Exercise Kentia Palm contingent was typically around 60 men commanded by Capt Tony Coyle (RAE).  As well as the Engineers and Signals, the contingent also included Cooks, Ordnance, Medical, Survey and Vehicle Mechanics.  Each two month rotation moved between the Island by Flying Boat service and on the Island were accommodated at the Leanda Lei Guest House.

 Story 18 - Lord Howe Island
Relocating a house on Lord Howe Island for the airstrip construction with
Army assistance 1974 (Internet Source)

 Communication Task

Royal Australian Corps of Signals (RASigs) provided HF communications from the  Island contingent back to 1FER at Holsworthy between March and Sept 1974.   At the time 104 Sig Sqn (1st Task Force) was tasked but was co-located with 1 Sig Regt (1st Division) at Ingleburn since returning from Vietnam in late 1971.   Hence some radio operators from 1 Sig Regt assisted with the rear link manning.

Story 18 - Lord Howe Island   Story 18 - Lord Howe Island
Photo Left:  1FER Sign at the airstrip construction site (Alan Dudley)
Photo Right:  Sapper Magazine Waterloo Edition 1975 – Page 5 (Gary Barker)

The first RASigs involvement was when the Army Vessel (AV) Balikpapan L126 which was a Landing Craft Heavy (LCH) sailed to Lord Howe Island as part of the reconnaissance by the Engineers prior to the deployment of the 1FER contingent. Manning of the ship communications was an RASigs responsibility and the radio operators on board were David Winch and Wayne Rush.  The Army LCH (L126) and the Navy LCHs played a major part for Exercise Kentia Palm having the unique capability of enabling the transportation of equipment to the Island that had no deep water berths.

The communication task used HF Radio Sets AN/GRC-106 at both ends and was manned 24 hours a day.  The Field Radio Set frequency range was 2 to 29,999MHz with RF output of 400 watts (PEP) and was very suitable for the HF link and communicating with the resupplying LCHs.

As well as the formal military traffic, the link was also used by family members on weekends to talk to loved ones working on the Island.   This part of the communications quickly became known as the “Lonely Hearts Club” and was a very enjoyable part of the task for the supervising Sigs.

On the island in addition to their normal communicating task, the Sigs assisted the engineers with other tasks when they could.  One task was soil testing. 

 RASigs Manning        

Lord Howe Island (LHI) See Note
First Rotation (104 Sig Sqn)
Holsworthy (1FER) See Note
First Rotation (104 Sig Sqn)
Cpl Ian Bardwell (Det Comd) Cpl Donald ‘Don’ Mackeson (Det Comd)
Sig Paul Wood Sig Trevor ‘TJ’ Evans
  Sig Robert ‘Dustoff’ Martin
Second Rotation (104 Sig Sqn) Second Rotation (104 Sig Sqn)
Cpl Donald ‘Don’ Mackeson (Det Comd) Cpl Ian Bardwell (Det Comd)
Sig Alan Dudley Cpl Robert 'Bob' McNee
  Sig Paul Wood
Third Rotation (104 Sig Sqn) Third Rotation (1 Sig Regt)
Cpl Michael ‘Mick’ Tierney  (Det Comd) Cpl Alan 'Al' Brown (Det Comd - 1 Sig Regt)
Sig Phillip ‘Phil’ Barbary Sig from 1 Sig Regt?
  Sig from 1 Sig Regt?

Note: The third rotation details have not been confirmed.  The Lord Howe Detachment from those involved believe it must of been Mick Tierney and Phil Barbary.  Mick has been out of contact with 104 Sig Sqn Vietnam Veterans for many years and was born in Ireland.  Maybe he returned to Ireland.  Phil past away in July 2018 and therefore couldn’t be interviewed.  The Holsworthy third rotation was Alan Brown; he was from 1 Sig Regt but after the many years since 1974, can’t remember his detachment members. 

RASigs Recalls

David ‘Buddha’ Winch (LCH126) - I was on the AV Balikpapan and sailed to Lord Howe Island with Wayne Rush as part of the recce that was done prior to the landing strip being built. We had a pilot come aboard who steered us through the reef and into the lagoon on the western side of the island. The Skipper dropped the stern anchor about 50 metres off shore so we could pull off the beach on low tide.   We stayed at Lord Howe for a few days and were steadily running out of rations. To supplement the rations local King Fish was bought. We ate King Fish for the following eight days. Feck I got sick of it.

Wayne shared that he went back to Lord Howe on the Balikpapan when the rear link was operating and got talking to one of the Sigs guys there. The Sig guys were using HF 106's I think and said when they first got to the island comms back to the mainland were crystal clear but after a few weeks comms were degrading and they didn't know why. Wayne told them to wash their wire antennas. Once they did that comms improved considerably. Salt water and wire don't radiate very well it seems. (Email)

Robert McNee (1FER Det) – Remember the talks for wives on Sundays, all the ladies bringing hot roast for the boys! (Facebook)

Paul Wood (LHI Det) - I was part of the detachment on the island with Ian Bardwell. On the island we were all housed at the Leanda Lei Lodge.  Some great memories of our time there and recall how the islanders were so receptive and welcoming to us all.  From memory 2 or 3 schedules a day and our weekends were spent ensuring family talks could be undertaken via radio for the engineers. (Facebook)

Paul Wood (LHI/1FER Dets) – Schedules 0900 1300 and 1600 then Holsworthy went on to listen watch. (Facebook)

Allan Dudley (LHI Det) – 104 Sig Sqn provided HF communications from the island back to the mainland Holsworthy. The detachment where housed in the old butcher store at 1FER. Resupply was delivered by HMAS Brunei L127 and had an RASigs Operator on board, I believe at that time, Ronald “Ronny” Patch.  

Story 18 - Lord Howe Island
HMAS Brunei (LCH127) unloading on Lord Howe Island (Alan Dudley)

Further we also provided members of the RAE detachment an opportunity to speak to family members back on the mainland every Sunday. I also had additional role of collecting core samples from the strip and test for density and compactness. 

Story 18 - Lord Howe Island
Sig Alan Dudley testing core samples, Lord Howe Island 1974 (Alan Dudley)

Also the sea planes were the Sunderland and they were based at Rose Bay, Sydney and they would land in the lagoon at Lord Howe. During my period one of the seaplanes was anchored in the lagoon overnight and a storm hit resulting in one of the pontoon on the wing being damaged. The engineers recovered the plane onto the beach and constructed a platform to allow the wings to be supported so the damaged pontoon could be repaired.  (Email)

Story 18 - Lord Howe Island   Story 18 - Lord Howe Island
Flying Boat damage on Lord Howe Island 9 June 1974.  (Alan Dudley)

David Regan – Fun Fact, the RAE Captain Tony ‘Springer’ Coyle mentioned as the contingent commander is the father of Col Mark Coyle (RAE) and his wife is Maj Gen Susan Coyle (RASigs).  (Facebook)

Alan Brown (1FER Det) – Manned the rear link at 1FER for a time but was 1 Sig Regt.  Never went to the Island.  Also think I had 1 Sig Regt’s members as part of the detachment manning at 1FER. (Phone)

Trevor ‘TJ’ Evans (1FER) – Location at 1FER of the detachment was in the old Butchers facility at Holsworthy Barracks.  Photo of Don was taken at the facility. (Facebook)
Comment:  See Don's photo from Sapper Magazine Waterloo Edition 1975 earlier in the story.

    Story 18 - Lord Howe Island   Story 18 - Lord Howe Island
Old butchers shop used for the 1FER SiGCEN (Alan Dudley)

Completed Airstrip

Story 18 - Lord Howe Island
Completed Airstrip, Lord Howe Island as view from a RAAF Caribou late 1974 (Alan Dudley)

The first aircraft to test the new airstrip was a RAAF Caribou on the 5 August 1974.  The RAAF while preparing the aircraft at Richmond RAAF Base the day before the test was advised that a council worker on the Island had broken his right ankle and needed medical attention.  For the test flight the Caribou took along two RAAF doctors plus a nurse and MEDEVAC the worker to Brisbane as part of the successful testing of the new Lord Howe Island airstrip.

Footnote:  The 50th Anniversary of the completion of the construction of the Lord Island Airstrip will be in 2024 and is being investigated for a reunion in that year. A list of those involved is currently being prepared by Mr Gary Barker.   If you were part of Exercise Kentia Palm and would like to be involved in 2024, or have details of the exercise, you can contact Gary on 0409-446475 or by emailing your details to: