by Ray Matsumoto
On November 26th, 1942, at around 6:50 p.m., Private James R. Stein of the U.S. Army’s 404th Signal Company was stopped by U.S. Military Police (MP) Private Anthony E. O’Sullivan at an Australian canteen. O’Sullivan suspected Stein of absence without leave and demanded to see his leave pass. Although Stein did have a leave pass, he struggled to find it in his belongings. O’Sullivan, growing impatient, proceeded to arrest him. A group of Australian soldiers who witnessed the event defended Stein by shouting, “Leave our mate alone. Give him back his pass. Provo bastards!” (Thompson and Macklin 210). As O’Sullivan lifts his baton to threaten them, the Australian soldiers rush him, inciting a brawl between American MPs and Australian troops.
The tension between the Americans and the Australian had been brewing since the start of the Pacific War. Due to the threat, Japan posed in Southeast Asia, General Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed the construction of a military base in Australia, which was approved by the U.S. Army Chief of Staff George Marshall on December 17th, 1941 (Ray). General Douglas MacArthur was appointed three months later as the commander of all Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific theater. In July, Brisbane became the new headquarters for the Allied command. MacArthur quickly became despised by the Australians. He was outspoken about his contempt toward Australian soldiers stating that they “lacked fighting spirit” (Ray). His decision to relieve Gen. Sir Sydney Rowell, who led his troops to prevent Japanese advancement in New Guinea, also led to Australian resentment towards MacArthur.
Australian animosity against the American soldiers also stemmed from unequal living standards. American soldiers earned roughly double the pay of the Australians and had greater access to food and daily necessities (Thompson and Macklin 158). While Australians were prohibited from entering American canteens, American soldiers had full access to Australian supplies. Moreover, the PXs provided a seemingly unlimited range of goods, including sweets such as ice cream and chocolate, as well as alcohol and cigarettes (all of which were luxuries during the war). Tension also stemmed from the attitudes of the American MPs. While Australian military police generally had less power over the soldiers and rarely resorted to violence, American MPs commonly disciplined the Australians through physical force. As war historian Dudley McCarthy claims, “It is probably a fair generalization to say that in the United States, the display of batons and firearms in the hands of police is an effective way of quelling a riot, whereas in Australia it is an effective way of starting one.”
The biggest source of irritation for the Australian soldiers came from the relationships between American soldiers and Australian women. Americans openly flirted with local women and boasted about their success on the battlefield. Many also exploited the women by coercing and harassing them, notably while drunk. Conversely, many Australian women were attracted to the confident, well-dressed, and generous soldiers, many even marrying the Americans during their stationing. This relationship fueled animosity and jealousy among the Australians. Australian historian Marilyn Lake goes as far as describing Australian men as feeling “sexually impotent” (625). In turn, many Australian men criticized these women by labeling them “prostitutes” and despised them throughout the war.
One of the Australian soldiers with Stein on November 26th was Gunner Edward S. Webster. Born in New South Wales, Webster grew up working at a relative’s sheep station. He enlisted in 1940 and joined the 2/2nd Anti-Tank Regiment despite having a withered leg (Thompson and Macklin 43). Within two years, Wester was awarded two campaign medals for his role in the battles in the Middle East and Northern Africa against the German and Vichy French forces. The Australian military discharged Webster in August 1942 due to trouble with his leg. He remained at a staging camp until his proceedings were concluded and continued wearing his uniform to maintain access to the canteens. Although Webster was fortunate enough to avoid the New Guinea campaign, he still faced danger in Brisbane.
By 8:00 p.m., the conflict escalated to a riot, with some sources claiming the crowd numbered between two to four thousand people (Powell). MP Private Norbert Grant entered the scene with a riot gun after receiving notice of the incident. Webster, along with several other Australian soldiers, attempted to disarm Grant. He later described the incident, “Suddenly they all came for me and I had my back to the wall … I menaced them with the gun and told them to break it up, and one of the Australian soldiers came close to me, so I jabbed him with it … This other Australian had a hold of me by the neck and tried to strangle me and this was when the first shot went off” (Thompson and Macklin 213). A total of three shots went off during the skirmish killing Webster and injuring seven others. The violence continued the next night, with Australians rioting outside the Red Cross building and the AMP building, MacArthur’s headquarters.
Japanese propagandists exploited the conflict by taunting the Australians on a broadcast from Batavia (Jakarta). The “battle” also became an inspiration for anti-American propaganda during the New Guinea campaign. Many leaflets depicted American men “stealing” Australian
wives and girlfriends. These leaflets graphically portrayed Australian soldiers dying on the battlefield, as well as sexual depictions of Australian women. Many leaflets emphasized the idea that the U.S. was exploiting the Australians. For many Australians, this sentiment was not inaccurate. Most soldiers felt belittled and underappreciated due to the presence of American troops. Although the Australian Command admitted that its soldiers were responsible for the conflict, many continued to despise the Americans. Lieutenant William Thomas, who investigated the incident, stated, “The Australians had grievances, and they had very solid reasons to be aggrieved. The Yanks had everything—the girls, the canteens and all the rest of it—and our blokes were completely ostracized in their own city. The damage had been done, The wounds were very deep … It’s a wonder there wasn’t more upset” (Thompson and Macklin 236).
Grant was court-martialed following the conflict but was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense. The Americans heavily censored the event to maintain the narrative of unity among the Allies. The story never saw the day of light in the U.S. and was barely covered by the Australian media. To this day, information surrounding the incident is minimal.
Hogg, Marie. “Battle of Brisbane Exploded from the Enmity between Australian and American Soldiers.” The Daily Telegraph, November 25, 2017. https://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/battle-of-brisbane-exploded-from-the-enmity-between-australian-and-american-soldiers/news-story/2772efa6ab49b4c1b97be2050d747dc7.
Lake, Marilyn. “The Desire for a Yank: Sexual Relations between Australian Women and American Servicemen during World War II.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 2, no. 4 (1992): 621–33. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3704267.
Miller, Danielle. “Battle of Brisbane–Australian masculinity under threat.” Queensland Historical Atlas, Vol. 2009–2010. (November 2010): 1–3. https://www.qhatlas.com.au/ battle-brisbane-%E2%80%93-australian-masculinity-under-threat.
Powell, Judith. “Battle of Brisbane.” State Library Of Queensland, November 23, 2017. https://www.slq.qld.gov.au/blog/battle-brisbane.
Ray, Michael. “Battle of Brisbane.” Encyclopedia Britannica, March 29, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Brisbane.
A report on Australian attitudes toward the Pacific War by J.Edward Angly, December 9, 1942, HA-HN 1942, OSS Collection, Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room, Central Intelligence Agency, Langley, VA.
Thompson, Peter A. and Robert Macklin. The Battle of Brisbane: Australians and the Yanks at War. Sydney: ABC Books, 2000.
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