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Exmouth: an Australian town with American history

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.

HEH Ceremony Cover Jack McMichael

Photo credit: Jack McMichael

HEH Ceremony #1 Jack McMichael

Photo credit: Jack McMichael

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.

Dennis Brockschmidt Exmouth 4 July 1976 VLF towers

Photo credit: Dennis Brockschmidt

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. 

Dennis Brockschmidt Exmouth 4 July 1976 freedom train

Photo credit: Dennis Brockschmidt

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.

Lewis M.

Dennis Brockschmidt Exmouth 4 July 1976

Photo credit: Dennis Brockschmidt

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.

Suzanne M.

Ron Henderson Exmouth 1973

Photo credit: Gerry Wild

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.

Exmouth American Christmas Dennis Brockschmidt

Photo credit: Dennis Brockschmidt

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!

Cappie P.

Dan Moore.4th July 1977

Photo credit: Gerry Wild

I loved 4th July on the oval. We used to have KFC flown into town.

Karen F.

Dennis Brockschmidt Exmouth 4 July 1976 quilt

Photo credit: Dennis Brockschmidt

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.

Dennis Brockschmidt Exmouth 4 July 1976 hot dogs

Photo credit: Dennis Brockschmidt

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.

Johan F.

Kat on 4th July 1973

Photo credit: Gerry Wild

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.

Hayley O.

MAC Flight off the Cape Exmouth Australia

Photo credit: Craig Haskins

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.

NWC BASE#1 Jack McMichael

Photo credit: Jack McMichael

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.

SWIMMING IN Exmouth Australia Jack McMichael

Photo credit: Jack McMichael

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.

Jack M.

Exmouth American Bus

Photo credit: Craig Haskins

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.

Laurelei C.

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!!

Ken F.

friends in front of Craig Haskins Hostel room

Photo credit: Craig Haskins

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!

Greg F.

Potshot inn NWC Exmouth Australia Jack McMichael

Photo credit: Jack McMichael

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.)

Rich S.

Harold E Holt Jack McMichael

Photo credit: Jack McMichael

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.

John Mitchell showing his roping skills

Photo credit: Craig Haskins

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.

John Mitchell about to launch out of the chute on a bareback bronc

Photo credit: Craig Haskins

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!

Craig Haskins rodeo

Photo credit: Craig Haskins

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.

Exmouth American Cowboys checking out the arena at Many Peaks Australia

Photo credit: Craig Haskins

Since leaving Australia, I have never had another opportunity to enter a rodeo! But it is a great experience and memory!

Shark caught while working on Exmouth Pier Craig Haskins

Photo credit: Craig Haskins

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!!!  🙂

Craig H.

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.

Jason W.

John G 70 party

Photo Credit: John Gresley

70 party at the North Cape Lodge. Now it’s a resort. We had same great times there.

John G.

road south off the Exmouth Cape Craig Haskins

Photo credit: Craig Haskins

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.

Rod K.

Norm Exmouth 1973

Photo credit: Gerry Wild

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.

Michele W.

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.

Michael G.

Pipers.4th July 1977 Exmouth Australia

Photo credit: Gerry Wild

Dennis Brockschmidt Exmouth American 4 July 1976 bus painting

Photo credit: Dennis Brockschmidt

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.

Alan L.

Dennis Brockschmidt Exmouth 4 July 1976 fire hydrant

Photo credit: Dennis Brockschmidt

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.

Ken C.

 
4th July.Exmouth.1977

Photo credit: Gerry Wild

4th July HEH Exmouth 1974

Photo credit: Gerry Wild

4th July Exmouth 1973

Photo credit: Gerry Wild

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!

Jamie G.

Fireworks.Base.1977 Exmouth Australia

Photo credit: Gerry Wild

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..

David C.

north west cape chiefs house Jack McMichael

Photo credit: Jack McMichael

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.

Vicki R.

GUYS LEAVING NWC Exmouth American base Jack McMichael

Photo credit: Jack McMichael

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:

HEH Naval Communication Station

Little America in the remote Pilbara: The ruins of a cold war US defence base

A Little America in Western Australia: The US Naval Communication Station at North West Cape and the Founding of Exmouth

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Brian Moore

Friday 31st of December 2021

Brian Moore here....I lived in Exmouth from 1973 - 1978 and was in 4th to 8th grade. My parents were Dan and Fran Moore... and I had two sisteers, Tricia and Jenny .My dad is the one in the minuteman costume in two of your pictures and I see another girl with a Cape Association Swim Club jacket, of which I use to have as I was in that swim club. So miss the best years of my life and now watch a youtube channel called Youngbloods that shows a lot of the water and surrounding areas. I would love to be in contact with anyone that knew us as I have just loaded all my dads pics from Austrialia to Google photos and I can share. Also, if someone knows of other sites that are from school kids during that time, let me know and would love to reconnte. Amazing seeing the names of those I remember as a kid....Craig Johnson, Darly Desilva, Matt CLive, Joel Narcisco, Liam Lemmon, Lars Jacobsen, Karen Green, Tracey Cook, David Roots.......and on...

Brittany

Wednesday 5th of January 2022

Thanks so much for sharing your story, Brian!

michael mcgovern

Sunday 24th of October 2021

I first visited Exmouth in 1994. The base was operating but I was not able to gain access to look the place over. Very disappointed ,as I had previous served in the Australian Army Reserve. Visited again Seotember 2021. What a change. The two multi story single person accommodation units, which had been converted into Backpackers accommodation and Best Western Resort were closed and looking very dilapidated. The church, bowling alley,, swimming pool, etc were also closed and slowly being overcome with natural vegetation. They were not included in the perimeter fencing. I was surprised to be questioned by the Federal police and politely told not to go back to my car and not take any more photos.. I hope that some US Navy person reading this rant would get in touch with me as I would love to hear from them. Mike McGovern, Karrinyup, Western Australia

Brittany

Monday 25th of October 2021

Thanks for sharing your story with us, Mike! It sounds like there's been a lot of change out there!

Ross

Saturday 28th of August 2021

In mid-1965 I was a 20-year-old labourer getting paid £30 per week to dig trenches through rock-hard ground at King Bay, now the site of Dampier port. One day I looked up to see a young guy in clean clothes and a towelling hat setting up a tripod. He told me he was a surveyor getting paid £35 per week, £5 more than me. I immediately quit my job and hitched a lift back to Perth determined to become a surveyor.

In Perth I applied for a surveying job but the man who interviewed me asked questions I couldn’t answer. Then I heard about Datronics who was paying riggers £10 per hour to construct towers at the North West Cape, near Exmouth. I didn’t care how high those towers were, I wanted one of those jobs. When I found the small Datronics’ office in a building in St Georges Terrace the receptionist, Margaret, told me that riggers were brought in from America. She said the only position available was surveyor.

Margaret set up a meeting for me with Earl Styles who owned and managed Datronics. He was the first American I had ever met. Earl was a steel construction man, he knew nothing about surveying. He asked me if I could use a T2; I had no idea what this was. "That's what I'm using on my present job" I said. “What salary are you getting now?” he asked. "Fifty pounds" I lied. "We'll pay you £55, Margaret will arrange a ticket, you'll fly up Wednesday".

That was it, I had the surveying job. I found out from a friend that a T2 was a theodolite, a surveying instrument. I couldn’t find any information about the T2; I'd have to cross that bridge when I came to it. But I did find a book on elementary surveying and set that aside to read on the plane to Exmouth.

We took off late Tuesday evening on the "milk run" flight that stopped numerous times to drop off mail and passengers. It would be several hours before we got to Exmouth. I opened my surveying book and settled back to learn all I needed to know. I tried several times to read the first two or three pages. I had no idea what they were about. I flicked through the rest of the book, it looked even worse. It was hopeless; there was no way I could understand this stuff. I got increasingly nervous as the flight progressed.

In the morning we landed on a gravel airstrip at Learmonth and came to a stop in the middle of nowhere. I was the only one who got off.

It was hot. Flat, red ground and sparse scrub all the way to the horizon, 360 degrees around, and a glimpse of the sea through the bush. There was nothing at Learmonth except three men standing beside a small tin shed, a couple of cars, a fuel tank.

One of the men told me to get in his car and he drove me to Exmouth. I was getting increasingly anxious. The driver stopped at a camp site with about 30 caravans lined up in several rows beside a large tin building. The cook came out and took me to a caravan. "This one is yours. Your boss will be here soon." The caravan was like an oven, but the heat was the least of my worries. I didn't unpack my suitcase, I was certain I would be on the next plane back to Perth.

It was an hour or so before the caravan door suddenly opened. “Are you working for me?” ”I’m not sure” I said, “I’ve been hired as a surveyor". "What experience have you had?” "To tell you the truth, I haven't had any, I lied to Mr Styles." "Well, don't worry, we'll soon teach you."

That was my introduction to Mickey Finn, my new boss. He was an American, 30 years old. He was tall, slim, handsome, confident, strong. Mickey showed me how to set up the T2, he explained what he wanted me to do and he trusted me to get on with my job. We worked together, we lived in the same camp, his caravan was next to mine, and we sometimes hung out together on our rare days off. He gave me confidence and self-respect and I felt proud that he was my friend.

I had never met anyone who had lived such an interesting life. Mickey had been in the US Air Force in Japan and Korea where he had boxed at championship level. Later, while he put himself through university, he worked as a policeman on the beat in Washington DC and had become expert in self-defence using a long baton. Mickey had a quarter horse back home in Maryland and he rode with the hunt when he was in Perth. He'd had a Jaguar sports car in the States and kept an Austin Healey in Perth. He had a BSA 650 motorbike in Exmouth and rode it hard and fast on gravel roads going into controlled slides around corners. He was fearless. He played Joan Baez records and said that no one else had a voice as clear and as beautiful as hers. She immediately became my favourite too. Mickey showed me his Browning 25 pistol, so small that it fitted inside a cigarette pack. If the Australian police knew about that he would have been in trouble, but Mickey didn't seem concerned. I felt honoured that he had confided in me. Mickey was cool, he was stylish, he spoke softly, he'd been around, he knew things. I had started smoking a pipe just before I met him. He told me that meerschaum lined bowls were much better than my wooden pipe. The first time I went back to Perth I bought an expensive pipe with meerschaum lining.

Several months after I got to Exmouth Datronics got into financial difficulties and Hardeman Monier Hutchison took over tower construction. The same day they put Mickey on a plane back to Perth. Soon afterwards he went to work in Vietnam. A few months later he offered me a job there. I accepted and arrived in Saigon in early February 1966. I worked in Vietnam as a civil engineer on various remote sites for two years and left in March 1968 several weeks after the Tet Offensive.

Brittany

Sunday 29th of August 2021

Thanks so much for sharing your story, Ross! It sounds like it was an incredible time!

Declan cahill

Friday 7th of May 2021

What amazing stories you all share . I’m here in Exmouth on holidays in 2021. What a special place . Live in Perth since 2006 and blessed to have visited such an unspoilt location . Fascinated to hear the locals talk about the American navy and kinship back in the day . Drove past the base and swam with the majestic whale sharks . What a spot.

Brittany

Friday 7th of May 2021

Sounds like you're having an epic trip! Enjoy every moment!!

Janice Borneman

Friday 9th of April 2021

Hello, My girlfriend and I were on a working holiday and had the opportunity of working at Norcape Lodge Resort for three months getting it ready to open in 1967. We made all the curtains for the huge dining room. It was a very interesting town. We drove a Volkswagen from Perth to Exmouth for the Managers of Norcape Lodge Resort. We moved on to Darwin after Exmouth. Australia was a very different country in the 1960’s. Cheers Jan and Tonny.

Brittany

Friday 9th of April 2021

What a cool story! I wonder where those curtains are now!