MOUNT Isa’s underground hospital is well hidden, but that was the whole point.
Volunteer coordinator at the underground hospital and museum Diane Johns said the hospital was an important but little-known part of our history.
After the Japanese bombed Darwin in 1942 during the Second World War many thought the mines in Mount Isa would be the next target, especially with thousands of American troops heading to the north-west.
In Darwin too the hospital was bombed and officials at the Mount Isa hospital were worried they might be in the firing line.
Diane said Mount Isa’s medical superintendent Dr Edward Ryan discussed the need for an underground air-raid shelter with Vic Mann, superintendent of Mount Isa Mines.
The underground hospital quickly became a reality carved into the hills near the base hospital.
“They just went ahead and did it and within 15 weeks under foreman Wally Onton they had built the underground hospital,” Diane said.
“It was all volunteer labour, they’d work eight hours at the mines, then four hours building the hospital.”
It was fitted out with full medical facilities but by the time it was ready the threat from Japan had receded and it was never called into use as a hospital.
“Before airconditioning the nurses used it as a rest area as it was cool and dark,” Diane said.
After the war the underground hospital fell into disuse and became dilapidated and vandalised.
Restoring the hospital for tourism purposes was a four year project which began in 1997 thanks to the energetic work of committee chair Margaret Medley.
Mount Isa Mines provided timber and labour and it was fitted out as close as possible to resemble the 1942 hospital.
Without access to plans, old photos were used to get the detail right.
It opened in 2001 with the tunnels named in Wally Onton’s honour and with historic photos taken from the era.
Also re-opened was the old Kuridala hospital building which was served as the Mount Isa hospital from 1931 until a four-storey 81-bed hospital was constructed on the site between 1956 and 1960.
The Kuridala hospital is now a museum and entry point for the underground hospital.
Diane said the Museum was always on the look out for new volunteers to help show visitors round.
“A friend asked me 12 years ago to volunteer saying I’d love it, and I said I’d never even heard of the undergound hospital,” Diane said.
“But she was right, I do love it – It’s only four hours a week and you get to meet the most lovely people every day here.”