The original building where the rioting focused, on Thursday 26 November 1942, still stands. It is the six story, dark-brick structure on the far-right corner of Adelaide and Creek Streets before the road rises on its way to Fortitude Valley. Known today as the Primary’s Building, in 1942 it served as the American PX (or Postal Exchange), its ground floor groaning under a profusion of American luxuries – cigarettes, alcohol, hams and turkeys, ice-cream, chocolates and nylon stockings – items that were to Australian servicemen and civilians either out of bounds, heavily rationed, or far more highly priced elsewhere.
The rioting began, ironically enough, on the evening of American Thanksgiving Day – a commemoration of traditional goodwill and reconciliation. Less than a fortnight away lay the first anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbour. But, unlike that attack, this trouble did not simply descend on the town out of the blue.
One interpretation of frontline Brisbane during World War Two depicts the place as singularly united against a rapidly encroaching Pacific enemy. Queensland was regarded as the ‘invasion State’ and Brisbane, especially since American troops had begun arriving in late 1941, had become a garrison city par excellence - far more so than any other large urban centre in Australia. The American presence was welcomed on the one hand as a kind of deliverance from disaster, but also soon became, on the other, a source of mounting discontent and disturbance – a social disaster in its own right. For many citizens, it created a sense of intense disharmony rather than cohesion.
Brisbane at the beginning of World War Two had the appearance of a big country town. Its total population was under 330,000. Between late 1941 and 1945, however, it would play host to almost a million American servicemen. In no other Allied city across the world during the War was the proportional demographic impact of the GI presence so great. Brisbane in this period became arguably the most rapidly and thoroughly Americanised place on earth. From July 1942, it was also General MacArthur’s headquarters, the locus of military command for the Pacific War. It was about the closest that a homefront could get to becoming a warfront without being directly attacked.
Rapid Americanisation had a destabilising effect upon the whole society. It would not be exaggerating to say that almost everything, quite suddenly, changed; for the vast bulk of the changes impacted at an immediate, everyday and intimate level. Eating and drinking habits, speech patterns, entertainment, music and dancing were all profoundly affected. The much cherished Britishness of this sub-tropical outpost, clinging tenaciously to the habits of a dying Empire, was both affronted and bemused by crass Yankee-dom; much as the pervasive White Australia Policy was compromised by the first substantial non-European migration of African-American troops into the region. Local press reaction bordered on sycophancy. The American anthem played at all movie screenings and the Star Spangled Banner adorned city buildings. Brisbane became known condescendingly as ‘The American Village’. Most crucially, sexual relations were revolutionised as men and women began interacting in quite unprecedented ways. American troops and local women mixed together as effortlessly as gin and tonic. And Australian men were confronted by a new and threateningly competitive pattern of aggressive masculinity – far slicker, more indulgent, exciting and well-heeled.
American soldiers saw Brisbane as a place of ‘milk and honey and pretty girls’ – ‘the best liberty port in the world’ – while many young women, heavily influenced by Hollywood imagery, regarded the sudden appearance of the ‘biggest God-damn army in the God-damn world’ as heaven-sent. As Peter Thompson and Robert Macklin, authors of The Battle of Brisbane put it:
In the middle of wartime austerity they brought promise of an exciting release from boredom, drudgery and endless restrictions. Many Brisbane girls loved their jive talk and wanted to learn jitterbugging steps like the ‘jersey bounce’ and the ‘jig walk,’ eat hamburgers and drink milkshakes. They went to coffee inns, ate hot dogs and dreamed of a glamorous life in California with a swimming pool and a Cadillac, and Clark Gable living next door.
The Americans generally displayed greater sophistication and panache in their dealing with local women than the average Australian male. They understood the delicate rules of romance and courtship much better. Australian men, who were accustomed to congregating herd-like at social functions in order to over-assert their masculinity – largely for each other’s benefit – were easily out-stripped by GIs who tended to define maleness in terms of sexual prowess and gallantry towards the opposite sex. Capitalising on their superior pay scales and more glamorous uniforms, the Americans swept onwards and found Australian women happily voting with more than just their feet.
The diffidence of most Australian males towards female company rapidly turned to bitterness and jealousy. Donald Friend, working as an official war artist with the AIF in Queensland, caustically described young females jitterbugging with American servicemen at a dance in the `Town Hall’ as though they were ‘juveniles going on the streets':
the girls faces were expressionless, mesmerised, their shallow eyes glazed, thin lips which seemed to express at the same time the softness of childhood and the viciousness of accomplished whoredom – set and straight. They seemed drugged, while their bodies (bed-wracked, easy) pulsed erotic contortions to the rhythm.
In mid-1942, a reporter for the weekly newspaper, Truth, going along Queen Street and into a movie theatre, counted 152 local women in company with 112 uniformed Americans but only 31 women accompanying some 60 Australian soldiers. That it was considered necessary to count such things highlights the threat posed to masculine possessiveness by the American presence. It seems to be no coincidence that the first major clash between US and Australian servicemen, soon after the Pensacola fleet arrived in December 1941, occurred at a downtown dance-hall.
Street skirmishing became endemic in Brisbane during World War Two. By late 1942, Military Police were breaking up, on average, twenty fights each night in South Brisbane alone. Even before the Americans had arrived, there were some dramatic urban clashes. During 1940, Australian troops had rioted in the city centre, breaking shop windows, halting trams and putting the civilian police to flight. During a second night of disturbances, they had been dispersed with police baton charges. Similarly, on a subsequent occasion, Australian soldiers fought Air Force recruits – contemptuously known as ‘Blue Orchids’ – at North Quay. During the massive brawl, witnessed by scores of civilians, a tram was overturned.
Racism and sexual fears lay at the heart of the first major riots involving Americans – but in this instance no Australians were involved. Over ten frantic days and nights of racial disturbance in Brisbane between 11 and 20 March 1942, troops of the 208th Coast Artillery clashed with African-Americans from the 394th Quartermaster Battalion, who had only just arrived in Queensland. The white US soldiers, largely from the segregated American South, resented the African-Americans receiving unrestricted access to dance-halls and skating rinks, and associating with ‘white girls on the streets of Brisbane and in houses of prostitution,’ of which there were some twenty or so in operation, largely in Margaret and lower Albert Streets – the old `Frog’s Hollow’ quarter of the city. When, in response to the white assaults, US military authorities instituted segregative bans on ‘negro troops stationed in the city’, the African-Americans reacted with `disorders of greater proportions’ against any white US soldiers by ‘the banding together of groups of Negro soldiers on the city streets’.
The full extent of these riots is unknown, as nothing appeared about the local presence of black soldiers in the Australian press until 20 March, when the Courier-Mail published a single publicity photograph of two African-Americans stationed in Brisbane. Yet the clashes were significant enough for Inspector General Barnwell to recommend on 11 April that ‘no additional negro troops be sent to Australia’. This was soon revised to the segregative solution of keeping African-Americans to the south-side of the Brisbane River, where special brothels were established, and stationing them at outposts such as Ipswich, Redbank and Wacol. Trouble persisted, however, with a major race riot at Wacol, knife-fights in South Brisbane and individual black troops assaulted or killed by American MPs simply for crossing the Brisbane River to the north-side. One soldier was shot ‘just near the flame at Anzac Square.’
So Brisbane was already very much an unquiet city before the savage eruption of Thanksgiving Day, 1942. As the Japanese invasion threat diminished following Allied successes in the Pacific and Papua/New Guinea, the tendency towards internal brawling increased. As Thompson and Macklin write:
Within the space of a week in October, a knife fight between an American serviceman and three Australian soldiers [in Centenary Park] left one Australian dead and three wounded; an American soldier was arrested after slashing a US medical orderly in… South Brisbane; an Australian soldier was shot by an American policeman … in Townsville; and an American soldier was charged with stabbing three other US soldiers and a young Brisbane woman [near Central Station].
Subsequently, a gun battle involving an American corporal and Australian troops near Inkerman left one Australian soldier and the American dead; and in Brisbane, a pack of twenty Australians fought American submariners and members of the USN Shore Patrol, mauling them badly.
In the late morning of Thanksgiving Day, there was ‘free for all’ in Albert Street, during which an Australian soldier was batoned by an American MP. Simmering rivalries were fed by alcohol consumption as the day progressed. By early evening, a disturbance began at the entrance to the Australian canteen in Adelaide street, some fifty yards from the American PX. As five Australians argued with a drunken American, two US Military Police, armed with batons and side-arms, attempted to muscle in. In the upshot, an Australian was batoned and the MPs were then attacked by those drinking in the canteen, chased down Adelaide Street towards the PX, and struck about the head with webbing belts as they ran.
Conflict rapidly escalated at the PX building, as the rioters were joined by other Australians drinking at nearby hotels (particularly the Gresham) and more MPs waded in with batons flailing. At the height of the struggle, more than 2000 Australians were attempting to raid the PX, using rocks and clubs, as well as ‘uprooted parking signs’ as battering rams. Nine Mps were injured, including one with a fractured skull. Trams and other traffic were halted along Adelaide Street.
After around an hour of struggle, matters seemed to have reached a temporary lull, when two Mps from South Brisbane arrived in a light weapons carrier, armed with a riot gun. As a dozen or so Australians struggled with one of them, Norbert Grant, for control of this weapon, it was discharged. Three shots were fired. Private Ed Webster of Milmerran, who was holding the barrel of the gun, took the first charge directly in the chest and fell dead. Seven other men, six Australian soldiers and a civilian, were wounded with buckshot pellets. Grant was then set upon by the mob and received a severe beating. At least eight others required medical attention for baton-inflicted wounds; while scores of combatants received ‘black eyes split lips, swollen cheeks, broken noses and various abrasions’.
The shotgun blasts echoed around the city. Military authorities tried to hush media reports of the disturbance, but their censorship attempts were counter-productive. Rumours circulated instead that a massacre of diggers had occurred by Americans using Tommy guns and that the Australians had fought back with rifles stolen from a local armoury. Bodies had been piled up on the Post Office steps.
Fired by a mood of rampant revenge, gangs of diggers that evening (27 November) roamed the inner-city, attacking any American they could find. Outside MacArthur’s headquarters at the AMP Building on the corner of Queen and Edward Streets, the intersection was filled with rings of Australians beating up GIs. US Army Sergeant, Bill Bentson recalled how he was amazed to see ‘Americans flying up in the air':
there’d be a circle and in the circle would be a Yank or two and they were being kicked and hit anyway the Aussies could do it … there were three or four circles. Those guys were just being beat. If there was any American … and they couldn’t get him through the crowd to the intersection … they just pushed him over the top of their heads … and then another circle would be made …
They were grabbing them by their arms and legs and throwing them up [in the air] to get them in the intersection … it went on for an hour or two.
MPs and American troops escorting Australian women were singled out for special attention. The violence was severe, widespread and continued for many hours. At one stage, a group of 20 Australian soldiers, wielding stolen MP’s batons, faced off against a body of US Provost Marshals brandishing their 45s along the tram-tracks in Queen Street. A blood-bath was only narrowly avoided. A Sydney woman was out walking in Edward Street with her American husband when the couple was attacked by several hundred Australians. She afterwards wrote:
I got knocked over twice and hit in the stomach and back and jaw… I couldn’t see John except for about 10 soldiers punching him… I can’t explain the terror of all these hundreds yelling ‘Kill him – kick him – kick his brains out’ – in a civilised world and country you cannot imagine anything like this… imagine 400 to one man… have you ever seen a mob gone mad?… all down Queen Street there were mobs of men fighting…. Things are frightful… we just can’t go out after dark now.
This writer, Margaret Scott, believed that a number of Americans had been kicked to death and one been shot, but there is no official record of such fatalities. Nevertheless, dozens – and possibly scores – of Americans were injured. At least 21 were hospitalised. On the third evening, Saturday 28 November, there were signs of more disturbance – including a jeep-load of Australians heading for the city-centre armed with grenades – but a heavy military and civilian police presence scotched any further outbreaks.
For the sake of maintaining a veneer of unanimity between ‘yanks and diggers’, the scope and intensity of the conflict was camouflaged and denied. Only four Australians and no Americans, not even Norbert Grant who fired off the riot gun, were ever punished.
Although the main precipitant of the rioting had been the heavy-handedness of American military authorities, simmering resentment towards American men courting Australian women had caused the most widespread violence. At stake were competing versions of masculinity; and in that competition Australian males were constantly made to feel inferior – out-manoeuvred, outgunned and outmoded. They complained about Americans ‘pawing’ women and embracing them in public. They said they felt ‘ostracised in their own city’. In fact, women, whose economic independence and physical mobility were greatly enhanced by the war crisis, were simply making voluntary choices that many Australian males did not like.
In a host of struggles across Brisbane (and Queensland generally), both the Australian and the American was quick on the draw: one with the fist and the boot, always enjoying ‘a good stoush’, and the other with the hand-gun and knife. Other notable riots occurred in Townsville, Rockhampton and Mt Isa, as well as inter-state. Melbourne riots on 1 December 1942 followed hot on the heels of the Brisbane disturbances. ‘The Battle of Bondi’ occurred on 6 February 1943, and the battles of Perth and Fremantle in January and April 1944. Of all these clashes, the Brisbane riots were the most severe.
It is unlikely, however, that the rage and jealousy of Australian soldiers affected in the slightest the Americans’ capacity to woo and win local women. Riots such as the Battle of Brisbane were no doubt viscerally satisfying for the embattled Aussies, but Australian women continued to fall for – and sometimes fall pregnant to – American servicemen. While before the war marital fidelity on the part of women was automatically assumed, by 1947 divorce rates had trebled, largely due to adultery and desertion, and illegitimacy rates had soared. In the immediate aftermath of the GI ‘occupation’, 1500 war brides and their children made their way to the US and a further 10,000 remained behind waiting to be re-united with their American husbands.
The American withdrawal, post-war, left in its wake a backwash of myths and memories – a powerful strain of anti-Americanism among many Australian males, a more secretive wistfulness among females and a keen desire for emulation among the young, which would soon erupt in the popular culture outbreaks of the 1950s.
The old American PX today is a 7/11 store and a fast-food takeaway, testifying to the commonplace, thorough-going intrusion of American cultural forms into Australian life. And in Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait and Iraq, Australian troops have continued to fight, kill and often die in situations of predominantly American combat.
Raymond Evans is a much-published Queensland historian, especially of race relations and recently retired from the School of History at the University of Queensland. Jacqui Donegan is a social historian currently working on cultural heritage and natural resource management in North Queensland.