In April 2017, I arrived in Exmouth, Western Australia on a flight from Perth. As the plane descended toward the Ningaloo Coast, I looked down at red dirt, rolling ranges, blue water and one road visible from the sky and wondered where in the world I had decided to spend the next several months. Once the plane landed and we headed toward town, we passed the petrol station, two grocery stores, a few shops and restaurants, and I realized that this little town would make a good home.
When the locals learned I am from the US, I began hearing stories of Exmouth’s American history. In September of 1967, U.S. Naval Communication Station North West Cape was commissioned to support Very Low Frequency transmitters, which allow communication with submarines around the world.
The station was later renamed Naval Communication Station Harold E. Holt in honor of the late Prime Minister of Australia. From 1967 to 1992, the US Navy presence in Exmouth, Western Australia shaped the town and its traditions. While the US base is now empty and operations have been relinquished to a civilian company, memories of that time remain an important part of Exmouth’s DNA.
Almost everyone I’ve met who was here during that time has a memory to share, and I’ve loved learning about how people would drive on the left side of the road in town, but turn into base and continue on the right side. And I learned that there was a beer vending machine that only accepted American coins, so people would save coins all week to buy beer from the machine.
To understand more about this town and its unique history, I asked some Exmouth locals and Americans who were stationed at HEH to share their favorite memories from the “American era,” and I was overwhelmed with the responses! I hope you’ll enjoy this trip down memory lane as much as I did.
I ran the Base Post Office 85-87. Back then no cell phones and no internet so getting mail was the connection from home. Especially during the Christmas season. What I would do on Christmas Eve was to make sure everyone got their goodies was to roll out the bag racks outside and put out the word for mail call until everybody came and picked up their last minute mail. It was a big boost for morale and I loved doing it.
My best memories were the parade and riding in the bumper cars. Rode them until I couldn’t stand up straight. I didn’t care. It was a lot of fun. Also, BBQ’ing a turkey outside on the back patio for Christmas. Great memories with great friends.
For us it was great living here then – no fences our children grew up with no prejudice because of the diversity of the population and we found the Americans on a whole to be very friendly people who contributed to the community in many ways.
We were there from Aug 1973 until Aug 1976. So many of us had said we wonder what life would have been like for us had we had cell phones and internet when we were there….we had NO phones at all for the most part.All communications by mail…even having pictures developed, most were sent to the States, taking sometimes two weeks to get back. There was a news agency in town that developed pics, but was costly for US personnel converting to Australian dollars. For clothing and household items ordering from Sears and JC Penney catalogs took forever….entailed mailing an order and then waiting for it to deliver.
I remember it being very hot at Christmas….so not like the cold winter-times we were used to. I put all my shutters down and turned the a/c as low as it would go….somehow couldn’t recreate snow….lol. Both Thanksgiving and Christmas was family-time regardless of being many miles from home. For the three Thanksgivings and Christmases we were there we would make the traditional holiday meals and have the single men over for dinner. I think many of the families there did that…..too far to go home for holidays!
I loved 4th July on the oval. We used to have KFC flown into town.
I am from a dual nationality household, so American and New Zealand traditions were observed at our house, while growing up in Exmouth. Here is the basic rundown of some of the bigger traditions we enjoyed while in Exmouth in the late 70’s,and early 80’s:
New Year’s. We would have a big party with our neighbours, the Oldfield’s, in their back yard. We lived on Fife street, down near the Learmonth street end. I believe that it was in 83, that the police pipe band…all four members worth, showed up and stayed. They’d been going around town playing at various parties and ended up crashing at ours.
Easter was fairly quiet, and we would have a traditional leg of lamb dinner and occasionally head off to the beach with the Oldfield’s.
ANZAC Day. Mum’s family has quite the history when it comes to the ANZACS and we would observe in memory of my great grandfather, grandfather, and great uncle, as well as others who had served. Dad, being American, liked the history behind ANZAC Day, and the history he’d married into.
Halloween was always fun. We definitely got dressed up and would go trick or treating. We would usually hit the American houses only because many of the Australian houses didn’t celebrate or participate back then in the 80’s. A few did, but it was not common.
Thanksgiving; Dad was the only reason we even had Thanksgiving at our house. My sister and I would go to school, but classes were usually only half full, because a lot of the American students did not go to class on Thanksgiving. Mum would cook the traditional turkey dinner and we would invite the Oldfield’s over to dine with us.
Christmas was always a favourite. I was so disappointed when we went to the States and Christmas was cold. I loved getting up early for presents and then heading to the beach to spend the whole day mucking about while we barbequed and just had a ball. When we lived in Hawaii in the late 80’s, early 90’s, it made up for it a bit, because it wasn’t cold. I’ve never liked the cold weather at Christmas and am looking forward to when I retire back to Christmas in summer.
The 4th of July has always been a bit odd in our house, because we’re a dual nationality household, Kiwi and American. The most fun 4th of July celebrations I remember were in Exmouth. We lived there twice, 77-79 and again in 81-84. The 83 celebration was the exception.
We were at the oval and hot dogs were such an uncommon thing in our house while we lived in Exmouth, that I ate hot dogs until I got sick. I was almost 9 then and could eat quite a bit back then. The hot dogs had been grilled and I must have had 4 or 5 of them before getting ill. I can’t eat grilled hot dogs to this day because of that. I also remember the fireworks being something else because we were right underneath them.
Best 8yrs of my life. Moved there when I was in kindy and left halfway through year 8. Loved loved loved Halloween, the American lollies, sailing with my dad, camping, fishing, just everything. Miss it so much. Best place to grow up and to me it is my home town.
I remember when we landed at Learmonth field, the first thing I saw was a gentleman that had 20 or more flies on his back! I learned quick about those pesky flies! The country was beautiful, and the friendly Australian people. The base wasn’t completely built at the time I arrived, nothing but red dirt “pindan”, is what they called it.
There was a stand in town that sold “Roo Burgers” at least that is what we called them. I think it was mutton with some different type of sauce. We grew to love them. Then we would go to the PotShot Inn, it was a great place to relax n have a couple of “Swan Lagers”. I really loved the taste of that beer. When I came home, I tried to find it and couldn’t here in the USA.
We didn’t have a car n the Navy Shuttled bus wasn’t running all the time, so we walked most places. I don’t remember knowing names of the different area beaches like I see on this site. We just went to the beach. I remember we used to have three days off, we would go to the beach with beer and food, drink and have fun. I lost my High School ring on one of those beaches 50 years ago. Maybe someone will find it in the future.
I remember eating Chico rolls at the Drive-In theater. They were so good! And for a farm girl from Wisconsin, being served “prawns” in town was quite an experience; they were HUGE and their heads and legs were intact! I also remember the flies that hitchhiked up the hill by riding on our backs. I remember wearing my Navy issue sweater when the weather “dipped” into the 80s.
First and Foremost – The Drive In ( l don’t know if it still exists!!)- How many kids, Male and Female, found ‘ love’ for the first time in those canvas seats?? It was a right of passage for anybody between 13 and 17 years of age !! Exmouth (because of the American Prescence) always got first run movies, l never saw more than the first ten minutes!!
First impression…… where is the town?
I grew up in a pretty small town by American standards (100k people) and another guy came in that was from a tiny town about 20 miles away. We graduated high school the same year, hung out at some top the same places, and knew a lot of the same people. Took us ending up in Exmouth for us to actually meet!
Best for me during my tour 1974-1975 was the Australian people. One morning I was walking to town to buy a newspaper and I passed an Aussie on the street when he says to me; “Mornin yank come on and let me buy ya a tube of grog.” So off we go to the Potshot Inn if my memories serves me correctly.
Robert T. RMCS USN (Ret.)
Going to the beach, on Christmas day, when it was 40C, was an experience. (Especially being from Michigan.)
I was stationed there as a Seabee from May 74 to Dec 75. I worked at the Power Plant at Area C, High Frequency Reciever site. Met some fantastic Aussie friends, as well as US Navy personnel.
Besides the beautiful times snorkeling, great times caving, my favorite memory is going rodeoing with 4 other shipmates. We had a great time meeting more Australian people on that trip down to Albany and back up to Busselton, and a few places in between.
I have ridden horses since I was a child. Didn’t own any. Just rented. But, my love for horses and western wear has stuck with me to this day.
When I was in Basic Electricity/Electronics school in San Diego, Ca, one of my Texas buddies asked me to drive him out to the east of the city, to a private ranch. This ranch raised and provided rodeo stock. Well, they held buckouts there every weekend. My buddy dared me to ride a bull. I took the dare, and I was hooked!
When I arrived at Harold E. Holt, I immediately connected with the cowboys already there. They were from Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and I think Nebraska. These guys had already been to rodeos there in the land down under. So, they invited me along the next time the chance came up.
We all became members of the Australian Rough Riders Association, then signed up for 2 rodeos. With permission from Naval Command, and temporary assignment to Special Services, we became Ambassadors from the United States Navy to Australia! Sounds important! It wasn’t!
With everything in place, we were given the use of a Special Services van, and we were off! We had done some practicing on a battle set-up the boys had made. Between us, we had 2 bareback bronc rigs, and we all had bull riding ropes. So all 5 of us were signed up for both events at both rodeos.
Since leaving Australia, I have never had another opportunity to enter a rodeo! But it is a great experience and memory!
Another good memory is one of the parties on the beach by the Light House. Fish, prawn, and John Gresley’s lobster on the Barbie. With 22 cases of beer (essential) to wash it down. Swan Lager mate!!! 🙂
I was pool manager, 1975-1977. Loved talking to everybody at the pool all day long, at times I should have had a couch as I heard the most top secret things from the girls and boys stationed there. Wow that was a great party!!! I was there for all three day’s.
70 party at the North Cape Lodge. Now it’s a resort. We had same great times there.
I was there as a “Navy Brat” from October 1978 to October 1980. I turned 18 -20 while living there. I worked on the base in the Theater as a projectionist and at the commissary. One road trip going south along the coast, I counted 175 Roos. I would love to go back and see all the changes. Boy I miss the Cape. Great memories.
I was stationed in Exmouth, from Oct’ 84-April 88. The greatest times of my life were in the land “DownUnder”. The experiences I had with my husband, who was also with me, (civilian) were absolutely wonderful! We met many friends who we are still in touch with today, as well as our Aussie mates. I purchased my first car, Kingswood Holden, in Exmouth. It was an incredible vehicle, and lasted longer than I thought it would. Worked at VLF the entire time I was there. Learned how to snorkel, and drink like a Sailor! I remember when I first arrived at the cape, I drank 2 Emus, and was totally buzzed. Didn’t expect the beer to be so strong.
I was stationed on the cape from 86-88. My wife Tammie was there 85-87. One of my favorite memories of Exmouth would be the establishment of the kids little league baseball. Michael, Keven and I took on job of coaching one of the teams made up of both Australia and American kids.
I also was there in 76, and helped paint the base buses. Played in a little band on the 4th and a few times at the EM club and Potshot Inn. Best duty station in 27 years. Great town, great people.
My favorite 4th of July memories would have to be the bus paintings in 76 and the fire hydrant painting contest that was used to choose who got to paint a bus. Being stationed at HEH was one of the best experiences of my life. Great people, fond memories every time I see a new post in Exmouth Adventure.
Was stationed in Exmouth from 1988 to 1990. Absolutely loved it there! I remember at the Town Oval they had a lot of Fourth of July celebrations and games! The funny thing though it would be kind of chilly because it was winter there. Loved it!
Winter weather July 4..!?! Took a date to watch fireworks …cold..my 54 Hudson didn’t have a heater……….but those were the days my friends..
From those of us who have lived in this magical place is that it is truly the place where memories were made. Likely most of us have pics….although many of us are from the (gasp) film era….and though some of those pictures have faded with time, the memories never will.
Thank you to everyone who shared photos and memories! Want to share your memory? Add it in the comments!
To learn more about the history of Naval Communication Station Harold E. Holt, visit:
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