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.

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.

US MPs outside the Central HotelLack 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.

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.

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, loud mouthed and ill disciplined.

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.

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, Nth. Queensland 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.

After an incident with a baton wielding American MP, the American Red Cross Services Club, at the corner of Adelaide Street and Creek Street, along with the nearby U.S. military Post Exchange (PX), was attacked by Australian servicemen and civilians, on 26-27 November 1942.

Red Cross Services ClubSporadic 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. An Australian corporal 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. People in the crowd took umbrage at this demonstration of force and attempted to relieve a private of his weapon. He jabbed one Australian with his gun before a soldier grabbed the barrel, while another soldier grabbed him around the neck. During the scuffle, it was discharged three times. The first shot hit one of them in the chest, killing him instantly.

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.

Joe remembers the Battle of Brisbane and it brings a smile to his face!