Battle of Brisbane

26 Nov 1942 - 27 Nov 1942


ww2dbaseIn 1942 diggers within Australia recognised two immediate threats to the Australian way of life. By far the most obvious threat was the Japanese forces, which conducted operations which appeared to place Australian shores in peril: a southward thrust in Malaya the previous year, which had culminated in the capture of the British fortress on Singapore Island; a task-force which launched numerous air raids on Darwin, and other attacks by land-based aircraft on significant air bases & ports across northern Australia; a campaign against Australian guerrilla units in Portuguese Timor, and the RAN ships which supplied & reinforced them; submarine attacks on shipping along Australia's heavily populated eastern coast, and a carrier battle in the Coral Sea; an overland assault on Port Moresby along the treacherous Kokoda Track in New Guinea, as well as occupation of many strongholds in New Britain & the Solomons. The other perceived threat had already breached Australian shores, and was in the country to fight the Japanese in the region. While it was recognised that the United States military was ensuring Australia's security, American GIs had influences on Australian society which it had not previously been exposed to. Like many introduced social trends, these influences were seen to be detrimental: the American military's pay scale was double its Australian equivalent; the GIs had access to consumer goods through the US military postal exchange (PX) that were virtually unknown after years of austerity campaigns in Australia had restricted the public access to them; the American servicemen were sexually sophisticated, which combined with more money to spend and access to silk stockings, chocolates & ice-cream, the Americans got the dates with the local girls; Japanese propaganda in New Guinea focused on the prospect that while the Australians were fighting the Japanese in the jungle the Americans were back in Australia having a grand time with the Australian girls. The phrase describing the American troops as "Overpaid, oversexed and over here" was heard almost as frequently in Australian cities where American servicemen gathered as it was in London during the war years. The diggers and Australian civilians were not the only party with grievances: the Americans, conscripted themselves, resented Australia's opinion on conscripts for overseas service; they also begrudged inflated "Yank prices", a markup in prices whenever US troops attempted to pay for basic foodstuffs, entertainment, or services. American servicemen also took some time to get used to Australian love of drink, their readiness for a brawl, and the Australian sense of humour. An Australian guidebook distributed to American servicemen retold the following account, which highlights both Australian humour and indifference to the GIs bravado:

Two Americans walk into a bar, spot an Australian, and say "You can go home mate, we're here to save you". The Australian looks them up and down, commenting "I thought you were refugees from Pearl Harbor".

ww2dbaseWherever significant amounts of American servicemen were stationed riots erupted between diggers and GIs. The Australian military authorities recognised the difficulty these tensions might pose for the Allied war effort, a secret report compiled by Australian Military Intelligence at the time observed:

It is of the utmost importance that every step should be taken to combat the spread of ill-feeling between the men of the two armies and prevent the recurrence of incidents which, if unchecked, may have a serious effect upon our combined war effort.

ww2dbaseDouglas MacArthur was presented with a difficulty caused by US-Australian relations after having established South West Pacific Area (SWPA) headquarters on 18 April at 401 Collins Street in Melbourne, the first Australian city to experience a massed "American invasion". 30,000 US servicemen were soon garrisoned there. In what could only escalate this tension in Melbourne three women residing in the city were murdered, and an American serviceman, Eddie Leonski, was accused of this heinous crime. In an effort to ease tensions between the two Allied nations' troops, MacArthur ordered Leonski tried with haste & departed Melbourne on 20 July to look for a city to stay in further north, taking most United States servicemen with him. As Leonski was found guilty of the deviance he was accused of, MacArthur established the new SWPA headquarters in Brisbane on 21 July, occupying four suites of Lennon's Hotel with his family. The city's population doubled to 600,000 overnight, as American troops occupied strategic buildings & fortified them. The rapid increase in population resulted in widespread congestion, brownouts, and demand for basic goods & services. For the remainder of 1942, 96,000 of the 119,000 US servicemen within Australia could be found in the northern state of Queensland. Brisbane had been the first Australian port to welcome the arrival of the American forces in December 1941, with significantly less suspicion of the new allies than would later be evident. Not all were stationed in Brisbane, with many serving in other urban centres, such as Rockhampton or Townsville. The American "occupation" of Brisbane still had a profound effect on the city's inhabitants. Although it was a state capital city, it was little more than a provincial town compared to other Allied cities which had also seen substantial build-up of American troops during the war: from the imperial capital, London; or to Sydney & Melboune. The citizens of older, larger, more populous cities had a greater sense of identity to lean on when it seemed like they were being displaced from their home city by foreign, albeit friendly, troops. Sargeant Bill Bentson of the US Army observed how Brisbane residents and diggers stationed there felt about the situation:

The Americans had the chocolates, the ice-cream, the silk stockings and the dollars. They were able to show the girls a good time. The Australians became very resentful of the fact that they'd lost control of their own city.

ww2dbaseThe result was predictable. Yet due to wartime censorship and Brisbane possessing the characteristics of a sizable small town, with 300,000 inhabitants in 1941, inaccurate rumours with little basis in fact concerning what had transpired during the Battle of Brisbane flew wildly on 27 November. The most repeated of these tales was that a train full of GIs heading north departed a Roma Street station in Brisbane, throngs of Australian women tenderly saying their farewells, as a train full of Australians, many walking wounded from the Kokoda Track, arrived. As the carriage doors flew open, floods of men fought each other with bare fists, or whatever was at hand. At the time that the rumours were at their most inventive the press invented a story of its own, minimising the attack, claiming it to involve around fifty men. The truth of what transpired on the night of 26 November reveals a more frightening scale. That day it had occurred was Thanksgiving in the United States, but the GIs and their allies in Brisbane did not have much to be thankful for on that day. A semi-organised Australian attack on the US PX at 1945 hours turned into a riot involving two to four thousand men as US MPs tried to defend themselves against the quarrelsome Australians. A shot rang out at 2000 hours, the man pulling the trigger was US MP Norbert J. Grant. As the rioting Australians and defensive Americans silently watched in horror, an Australian digger, Gunner Edward S. Webster, lay lifelessly in the dust. Eight other Australians were wounded, as were eleven Americans. A secret inquiry was held at the Victoria Barracks in Brisbane the next day to investigate the events that took place in the Queensland capital on 26 November 1942. There was no doubt that the Australians started the physical clash, but the Americans were also responsible. The US legal team tried to keep the Board of Inquiry's focus on the "riotous behaviour" of the Australians and Grant was not even called as a witness, much less questioned about his actions. He was exonerated with all the other US servicemen involved. Three Australian servicemen, accused of being ringleaders of the riot, were arrested - Private Roy Michael Cocciardi, Private John Scott, and Private Alfred James Osbourne - and sentenced to over five months imprisonment with hard labour. Some of these convicted servicemen were sentenced due to comments made to the GIs prior to the scuffle. An American who gave testimony to the Board of Inquiry, Chaplain Samuel Kerr said "the riot was planned and premeditated", adding that Queensland police stood by and watched the Australians smash the windows of the PX. This reveals a deeper Australian antipathy towards the Americans from much higher level than grassroots relations, grievances against the GIs could be found in the bureaucracies of military and civil authorities. Police in all Australian states were concerned that the presence of the GIs would disrupt the civil order wherever they were present, but seemed more concerned with the private lives of Australian women than legitimate law enforcement issues, such as prostitution around American military camps. The military authorities of both nations were also responsible for the opinions of the common soldier: at the pinnacle of the command structure of their respective country's military forces in the SWPA, Douglas MacArthur and Thomas Blamey nursed ill-feeling towards each other, and this trickled down the command structure through the officers to the troops. What started off as the personal opinion of the most senior officers about each other eventually became a general bias against all troops of the other allied nation. Despite the outbreaks of violence between US and Australian troops, the build-up of GIs in Australia continued throughout the next year, and peaked in mid-1943 at 150,000. As the war progressed the effect of US troops on Australia's culture would have been more noticeable, by the end of 1944 two-thirds of Australia's imports came from the United States. In the decades following the war the United States and Australia did not thoroughly investigate the events surrounding the Battle of Brisbane, as both Allied nations decided that the incident would reflect badly upon them.

ww2dbaseSources: P. A. Thompson & R. Macklin, The Battle of Brisbane: Australians and the Yanks at War; Wikipedia; J. Beaumont, Australia's War: 1939-45; Australian War Memorial; P. Thompson, Pacific Fury.

Last Major Update: Mar 2010

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Visitor Submitted Comments

1. Commenter identity confirmed Alan Chanter says:
16 Mar 2010 02:04:50 AM

Excellent article

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