Battle of Brisbane
The Battle of Brisbane was two nights of rioting between United States (U.S.) military personnel on one side and Australian servicemen and civilians on the other, in Brisbane, Australia on 26–27 November, 1942, during World War II, during which time the two nations were allies. By the time the violence had been quelled, one Australian soldier was dead, and hundreds of Australians and U.S. servicemen had been injured. News reports of these incidents were suppressed due to the war.
From 1942 until 1945 during the Pacific War, up to one million U.S. military personnel were stationed at various locations throughout eastern Australia. These forces included personnel awaiting deployment to combat operations elsewhere in the Pacific, troops resting, convalescing, and/or refitting from previous combat operations, or military personnel manning Allied military bases and installations in Australia. Many U.S. personnel were stationed in and around Brisbane, which was the headquarters for General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Allied Commander, South West Pacific Area. Many buildings and facilities around Brisbane were given over to the U.S. military's use. Brisbane found it difficult to cope as their population of 300,000 increased to 600,000 almost overnight. The city was fortified, schools were closed, brownouts enforced, crime increased, and many families sold up and moved inland.
Access to goods and services
Although the military personnel from Australia and the U.S. usually enjoyed a cooperative and convivial relationship, there were tensions between the two forces that sometimes resulted in violence. Many factors reportedly contributed to these tensions, including the fact that U.S forces received better rations than Australian soldiers, shops and hotels regularly gave preferential treatment to Americans, and the American custom of "caressing girls in public" was seen as offensive to the Australian morals of the day. Lack of amenities for the Australians in the city also played a part. The Americans had PXs offering merchandise, food, alcohol, cigarettes, hams, turkeys, ice-cream, chocolates, and nylon stockings at low prices, all items that were either forbidden, heavily rationed, or highly priced to Australians. Australian servicemen were not allowed into these establishments, while Australian canteens on the other hand provided meals, soft drinks, tea, and sandwiches but not alcohol, cigarettes, and other luxuries. Hotels were only allowed to serve alcohol twice a day for one hour at a time of their choosing, leading to large numbers of Australian servicemen on the streets rushing from one hotel to the next and then drinking as quickly as possible before it closed.
Differences in pay
Of major concern was the fact that U.S. military pay was considerably higher than that of the Australian military and U.S. military uniforms were seen as more appealing than those of the Australians. This resulted in U.S. servicemen not only enjoying greater success in their pursuit of the few available women but also led to many Americans marrying Australian women, facts greatly resented by the Australians. In mid-1942, a reporter walking along Queen Street counted 152 local women in company with 112 uniformed Americans, while only 31 women accompanied 60 Australian soldiers. That it was thought necessary for the media to report this situation indicates the effect of the American presence. (About 12,000 Australian women married American soldiers by the end of the war.) "They're overpaid, oversexed, and over here" was a common phrase used by Australians around this time and is still an anecdote recognised by some in modern generations.
The Americans had the chocolates, the ice-cream, the silk stockings and the dollars. They were able to show the girls a good time, and the Australians became very resentful about the fact that they'd lost control of their own city.—Sergeant Bill Bentson, U.S. Army
Opinions of each other's soldiers
Another concern was the way the Australian military was viewed by America's high command. Douglas MacArthur had already expressed a low opinion of Australian troops, who were then fighting along the Kokoda Track. Though Australia was bearing the brunt of the land war in New Guinea by itself, MacArthur would report back to the U.S. on "American victories", while Australian victories were communicated to the U.S. as "American and Allied victories". Americans' general ignorance of Australia, and American perceptions that Australians lacked a certain 'get-up-and-go', also soured relations.
Likewise Australians also looked down upon the fighting qualities of Americans; most considered the Americans an inferior fighting force who seemed all glitz and brashness. This feeling towards the Americans would be furthered during the Battle of Buna, where Australian troops bore the brunt of the fighting due to American "inactivity", and Sanananda, the final victory. Buna, the fourth major Allied victory in New Guinea, was presented not only as the first major victory but an American one. Sanananda, an Australian victory, was presented as merely a mopping-up operation. The Americans would not acknowledge that Australians won the critical battles of Milne Bay, Kokoda and Gona, were largely responsible for the victory at Buna, and were "overwhelmingly" responsible for victory at Sanananda. Australians often regarded the U.S solidiers as boasting how they, and they alone, saved Australia. And they became miffed that the US soldiers merely increased the food shortages as they didn't use ration cards, and often got luxuries Australians missed out on.
Plans to abandon Australian territory
The alleged American stance on the Brisbane Line – whereby it was allegedly planned that Australia would leave a large portion of its territory undefended – caused ill feelings between Australians and Americans.
Differing views on race
To a lesser degree there was also tension over the treatment and segregation of the African-American soldiers by the U.S. military. Although white Australians had traditionally treated Aborigines in largely the same way as white Americans treated blacks, this changed markedly from 1940 when Indigenous servicemen (Australian units were not segregated) were given equal pay and conditions and could expect promotion on merit; the Australians welcomed African-American servicemen in a way that shocked American sensibilities. Due to white American resentment towards African-American access to dance halls and for associating with "white girls on the streets of Brisbane", troops of the U.S. 208th Coast Artillery rioted for 10 nights in March 1942, fighting against African-Americans from the 394th Quartermaster Battalion. As a result, U.S. military authorities segregated African-Americans, restricting them to the south side of the Brisbane River. However, trouble continued with a major race riot at Wacol, knife fights in South Brisbane and American military police assaulting or killing black troops simply for crossing the Brisbane River.
Events immediately prior
According to authorities, up to 20 brawls a night were occurring between Australian and American servicemen. In the weeks leading up to the Battle of Brisbane there were several major incidents, including a gun battle between an American soldier and Australian troops near Inkerman which left one Australian and the American dead, an Australian soldier was shot by an American MP in Townsville, an American serviceman and three Australian soldiers in Brisbane's Centenary Park were involved in a knife fight which left one Australian dead, an American soldier was arrested for stabbing three servicemen and a Brisbane woman near the Central railway station, and twenty Australians fought American submariners and members of the USN Shore Patrol, mauling them badly. On the morning of the Battle, an Australian soldier was batoned by an American MP in Albert Street.
According to Australian historian Barry Ralph, on 26 November an intoxicated Private James R. Stein of the U.S. 404th Signal Company left the hotel where he had been drinking when it closed at 6:50 pm and began walking to the Post Exchange (PX) on the corner of Creek and Adelaide Street some 50m further down the road. He had stopped to talk with three Australians when Private Anthony E. O'Sullivan of the U.S. 814th Military Police Company (MP) approached and challenged Stein for his leave pass. While Stein was looking for it, the MP became impatient and asked him to hurry up before grabbing his pass and arresting him. At this the Australians began swearing at the MP and telling him to leave Stein alone. American MPs were not well regarded by Australians as they were notorious for their arrogance and use of batons at the least provocation. When O'Sullivan raised his baton as if to strike one of the Australians, they attacked him. More MPs arrived, blowing whistles, while nearby Australian servicemen and several civilians rushed to help their countrymen. Outnumbered, the MPs retreated to the PX, carrying the injured O'Sullivan. Stein chose to go with them. In the meantime, a crowd of up to 100 Australian servicemen and civilians had gathered and began to besiege the PX, throwing bottles and rocks and breaking windows. Police Inspector Charles Price arrived but could do nothing as the crowd continued to grow, with the American Red Cross Club diagonally opposite the PX also coming under siege.
Sporadic fights broke out throughout the city. The Tivoli Theatre was closed with servicemen ordered back to their barracks and ships, while soldiers with fixed bayonets escorted women in the city from the area. By 8pm up to 5,000 people were involved in the disturbance. Several Australian MPs even removed their armbands and joined in. 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 738th MP Battalion in the PX started to arm the MPs with shotguns in order to protect the building and they moved to the front. People in the crowd took umbrage at this demonstration of force and attempted to relieve Private Norbert Grant of C Company of his weapon. He jabbed one Australian with his gun before Gunner Edward S. Webster of the Australian 2/2nd Anti-Tank Regiment grabbed the barrel, while another soldier grabbed him around the neck. During the scuffle, it was discharged three times. The first shot hit Webster in the chest, killing him instantly. The following two shots hit Private Kenneth Henkel in the cheek and forearm, Private Ian Tieman in the chest, Private Frank Corrie in the thigh, Sapper De Vosso in the thigh, and Lance Corporal Richard Ledson was wounded in the left thigh and left hand and also received a compound fracture of the left ankle. Two civilians were also hit, Joseph Hanlon was wounded in the leg, and 18-year-old Walter Maidment was also wounded. Ledson was later discharged due to his injuries.
In the confusion, Private Grant managed to run back towards the PX hitting an Australian over the head with his shotgun, breaking the butt of his weapon while doing so. An American soldier, Private Joseph Hoffman received a fractured skull in the scuffle. By 10pm the crowd had dispersed leaving the ground floor of the American PX destroyed. A War correspondent, John Hinde, was on a hotel balcony overlooking the scene and later stated, "The most furious battle I ever saw during the war was that night in Brisbane. It was like a civil war."
On the following night, a crowd of 500 to 600 Australian servicemen gathered outside the Red Cross building. The PX building was under heavy security and heavily armed American MPs were located on the first floor of the Red Cross. NCOs went through the crowd and confiscated several hand grenades. In Queen Street, a group of soldiers armed with MP batons ran into 20 U.S. MPs who formed a line and drew their handguns. An Australian officer intervened and persuaded the American commander to take his men away from the area. The crowd then moved to the corner of Queen and Edward Streets outside of MacArthur's headquarters in the AMP Building and began shouting abuse towards the building. 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."
Australian writer Margaret Scott who, along with her American husband, had been assaulted in Edward Street during the riot, has stated that several U.S. servicemen were beaten to death and one shot in the fighting, but there are no official records supporting this claim.
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 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 later 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.
The Chief Censor's Office in Brisbane ordered that "No cabling or broadcasting of details of tonight's Brisbane servicemen's riot. Background for censors only: one Australian killed, six wounded." The Brisbane Courier Mail did publish a heavily censored article the next day about the incident. Although the article mentioned the death and injuries it did not give any idea of nationalities involved or any specific details. It is believed that the incident was never reported by U.S. media and American servicemen in Brisbane had their mail censored to remove any mention. As a result of the secrecy many rumours and exaggerated stories circulated in Brisbane over the following weeks including one saying that 15 Australian servicemen had been shot by Americans with machine guns with the bodies being piled on the Post Office steps.
Following the Battle of Brisbane, resentment towards American troops led to several smaller riots in Townsville, Rockhampton and Mount Isa. In other states similar riots also followed, the Melbourne riots on 1 December 1942 and the Battle of Bondi on 6 February 1943. The Battle of Perth in January 1944 and the Battle of Fremantle in April 1944 also stemmed from resentment towards American troops.
- Peter Dunn, 2005, "The Battle Of Brisbane — 26 & 27 November 1942" (Australia @ War) Downloaded 15/12/06
- Raymond Evans and Jacqui Donegan The Battle of Brisbane Politics and Culture 10 August 2010
- Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 7.30 Report, 27 December 2000, "Book reveals allied soldiers brawling on Brisbane streets" Downloaded 15 December 2006
- Baker, Anni P. (2004). American Soldiers Overseas: The Global Military Presence. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger. pp. 33,35. ISBN 0-275-97354-9.
- Brune, Peter A Bastard of a Place Allen & Unwin Pg 601-622 ISBN 1-74114-403-5
- Cited by Dunn, 2005, op cit.
- Dunn, 2005, op cit.
- "1 Man Killed, 8 injured in City.". The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 - 1954) (Brisbane, Qld.: National Library of Australia). 27 November 1942. p. 3. Retrieved 11 February 2012.
- "More Street Disturbances.". The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 - 1954) (Brisbane, Qld.: National Library of Australia). 28 November 1942. p. 3. Retrieved 11 February 2012.
- Thompson, Peter A.; Robert Macklin (2000). The Battle of Brisbane: Australians and the Yanks at War. Canberra, Australia: BWM Books.