Saturday, October 24, 2015

Battle of Brisbane

US government poster, 1942

A contrary view: Japanese propaganda that plays on perceived better conditions for American servicemen

Not all of the World War 2 battles that involved Australia were against foreign enemies. One battle, which took place on Australian soil, was against personnel of the US, an ally, and came to be known as The Battle of Brisbane.

Over here:

In 1942 General Douglas Macarthur left the Phillipines, declaring to return, and set up base in Brisbane. The population increased from 300,000 to almost 600,000 in a short space of time. The seppos had smarter uniforms, better pay, movie star accents and greater access to luxury goods through their Post Exchanges (PX’s). This attracted many an Australian woman, at the same time annoying many an Australian man. It also led to the observation that the trouble with the Yanks was that they were oversexed, overpaid and over here! Adding to the volatility of the situation were the facts that Macarthur had made comments critical of Australian troops, some US failures in New Guinea and the American segregation of its black soldiers. Although the Australian position on race left a lot to be desired, the Australian military did not segregate black soldiers and the populace welcomed the African-American servicemen. This did not sit well with the white American personnel. Overall the situation was tense.

Women with visiting American sailors, Brisbane, Queensland, 1941

The Australian Army 7th Division, march along Queen Street Brisbane

U.S. servicemen march through King George Square, Brisbane, circa 1943


In the leadup to the Battle of Brisbane there were up to 20 brawls a night between Australian and American servicemen, including gun battles, knife fights, clubbing and stabbings. Both countries sustained deaths in these clashes.

The immediate cause:

On the evening of 26 November 1942, Thanksgiving Day, intoxicated US Army Private Stein was conversing with some Australian soldiers on the street when Private O’Sullivan, a US Military Policeman, approached. The Australian soldiers generally disliked the American MP’s, officially named “Provost Corps” but referred to as “provo bastards” by the Australians, for being arrogant and too quick to use their batons. The MP arrested Stein after he was too slow in taking out his pass, prompting the Australian Diggers to tell the MP to leave their new-found mate alone. O’Sullivan either struck an Australian soldier with his baton or raised his baton to do so, prompting the other Australians to punch him and to strike him with their brass buckled webbing belts. O’Sullivan, with Stein, made a strategic withdrawal into the nearby American PX. Australian soldiers and civilians gathered outside and threw rocks and bottles.

American military police outside the Central Hotel, Brisbane, Queensland, 1942

The situation had calmed down when a US army weapons carrier drove up, containing two MPs, one of whom, Private Grant, was waving a riot gun, similar to a 12-gauge shotgun. The Australians demanded that he put the gun down. An Australian gunner, Edward Webster, who had already seen action in the North African campaign, seized the barrel. He was killed when the gun went off, although it remains unclear as to whether or not the MP had intended to fire. Another two shots were fired, with the pellets wounding another seven Diggers and an Australian civilian. 

The fighting spreads:

After the above clash, the fighting and sieges of American buildings and facilities spread throughout the city:

  • Servicemen were ordered back to their barracks and ships.

  • Soldiers with fixed bayonets escorted women in the city from the area. 

  • By 8 p.m. up to 5,000 people were involved.

  • Several Australian MPs removed their armbands and joined in the physical battles.

  • Corporal Duncan Caporn commandeered a small truck driven by an Australian officer and three soldiers. The truck contained four Owen sub-machine guns, several boxes of ammunition and some hand grenades. The local Brisbane Fire Brigade arrived, but simply looked on and did not use their hoses. The American authorities were later to criticise them for not doing so.

  • The American Red Cross Services Club, along with the nearby US PX, was besieged the following night by a crowd of 500 to 600 Australian servicemen. The building was by heavily armed American MPs abd there was a standoff. Australian soldiers confiscated several hand grenades from people in the crowd.

American Red Cross Services Club, 1942

  • At one clash, an Australian officer intervened and persuaded the American commander, who had had his men draw their arms, take his men away from the area. 

  • A crowd shouted abuse at MacArthur's headquarters. The intersection was filled with rings of Australians beating up GIs and more than 20 were injured. 

  • U.S. Army Sergeant Bill Bentson who was present on both nights recalled how he was amazed to see "Americans flying up in the air." “But after that, it sort of settled down and you go into a pub and an Aussie would come and up and slap me on the back. ‘Oh, wasn't that a good ruckus we had the other night? And have a beer on me.’ "

  • On the first night one Australian serviceman was killed, eight people suffered gunshot wounds and several hundred people were injured. 

  • The second night, eight U.S. MPs, one serviceman and four American officers were hospitalised with countless others injured.
The aftermath:

  • The units involved in the riots were relocated out of Brisbane, the MPs' strength was increased, the Australian canteen was closed and the American PX was relocated.

  • Pvt. Grant was court-martialled by the U.S. military authorities for manslaughter in relation to the death of Webster, but was acquitted on the grounds of self-defence.

  • Five Australians were convicted of assault as a result of the events described above, and one was jailed for six months.

  • News of the battle was censored by the Chief Censor's Office in Brisbane. The few reports that did mention the event recorded only a brawl without mentioning the scale of the riots or nationalities.

  • US authorities killed any and all discussion, including removal of any mention from the letters of soldiers.

  • Following the Battle of Brisbane, resentment towards American troops led to several smaller riots in Townsville, Rockhampton and Mount Isa. Similar riots in other states also followed: Melbourne on 1 December 1942, Bondi on 6 February 1943, Perth in January 1944 and Fremantle in April 1944.

1 comment:

  1. History is indeed a very interesting topic to read up on despite some of the facts not being favourable for us to know of. Nevertheless, there are many concealed stories that we have yet to uncover and share with the present generation. During my spare time at the self storage, I will sometimes discuss fascinating historical facts which I know of with fellow colleagues just to kill time as history is never a boring subject matter.


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