Growing up in Brisbane as a baby boomer, I always knew something about the Battle of Brisbane. It was part of the rich soup of stories we grew up in: the impact of the Pacific War, the rationing, the American presence and how this sometimes led to fights between Australian soldiers and the Americans – ‘overpaid, oversexed and over here’.
Some of the stories were funny. Here’s an American account of one:
Many Australian troops returning home resented the Americans. Dell Brooks [a submariner from the Seahorse] encountered that resentment in a theater in Brisbane showing Walt Disney’s 1942 animated classic, Bambi. In one segment, Bambi cries out, “Mommy, mommy, where are you?” From the balcony came a voice, “She’s out with some damn Yank; where do you think she’s at?”
Others were serious. On 26 November 1942, a group of drunken Australian servicemen attacked the American canteen (PX) on the corner of Creek and Adelaide Streets in the city. By 8:30 that evening, perhaps 3000 or 4000 solders were involved in the brawl. Unlike their Australian counterparts, the American military police were armed and shots were fired. As official historian Dudley McCarthy commented laconically in 1959,
It is probably a fair generalisation to say that in the United States the display of batons and firearms in the hands of police is an effective way of quieting a riot whereas in Australia it is an effective way of starting one.
One Australian soldier was shot dead, and a number were wounded, while others were badly beaten with batons. The affair became known as ‘the Battle of Brisbane’. Largely hushed up at the time, it became a notorious part of Brisbane’s folklore, and historians have studied it many times since.
What I didn’t realise before was the significance of the date: in 1942, 26 November was Thanksgiving.
As the Pacific war moved south during 1941 and 1942, the Japanese threatened Australia. There were bombing raids on Darwin and Broome – and a stray submarine in Sydney Harbour. So Australians greeted the arrival of American allies with relief. The American army arrived in Brisbane in early 1942 following the fall of the Philippines. General Macarthur set up his headquarters in Lennons Hotel in Queen St, and thousands of soldiers were billeted throughout the city.
Brisbane was small, provincial and overwhelmed, yet suddenly it was on the front line in the Pacific War. So it’s no wonder there was resentment. What counted for a PR machine in both governments attempted to give Australians and Americans quick cross-cultural briefings – but on the matter of Thanksgiving, someone seems to have got it terribly wrong.
The first references to Thanksgiving begin to appear in Queensland papers around August 1942. They all have the same or similar phrases, so they probably come from the same press release:
United States forces in Australia will celebrate Thanksgiving Day, on November 26, with the traditional turkey and pumpkin pie. Arrangements have been made for a shipload of frozen turkeys to come from America to Australia in time for the celebrations. Each man will have at least one pound of turkey, accompanied by the usual garnishing of cranberry sauce. Thanksgiving Day has a deep religious significance in the States, where it ranks with Christmas. It began in 1621, when the Pilgrim Fathers celebrated their first harvest. [Townsville Daily Bulletin, 27 August 1942]
By early November, more details were released:
A menu to make your mouth water – traditional fare of turkeys and cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, suchatash [sic] and sweet potatoes – has been drawn up by the American centre in Sydney to serve with due pomp and ceremony…
Cooks on the centre’s roster will go into action the previous night, cooking the turkeys with the special home-made stuffing which includes sage, cornmeal and orange juice. Mince pies by the hundred, huge pumpkin pies, glazed sweet potatoes and suchatash (a dish of sweet corn and beans) will also be on the menu for dinner… Traditional decorations, including pumpkins polished and cut into faces, sheaves of wheat, and autumn coloured streamers will be arranged… [Rockhampton Morning Bulletin, 10 November 1942]
By 26 November, then, everyone in Brisbane would have known that – at a time of strict rationing – the Americans were sitting down to roast turkey with all the trimmings. Thanksgiving also took over the airwaves. At 11 o’clock 4QR (now ABC RN) broadcast a special service conducted by the chief US padre, followed by a report from the Australian-American Association luncheon.
The American canteen in the city was the centre of local resentment. At ground level was a store where servicemen could buy special items not available elsewhere, not just for themselves, but as gifts – including nylon stockings, always cited as the alleged currency of sexual trade.
I now think that shipping in frozen turkeys for Thanksgiving was a sensible move to boost morale for a lot of homesick GIs – but I also wonder whether this helped to trigger the Battle of Brisbane. Resentment was building anyway, and there were other outbreaks during the years that thousands of Americans passed through Brisbane on their way to the Pacific War. But this was the worst.
Perhaps the PR merchants learned something too. On 8 December, the Brisbane Courier Mail reported that
American toys, diverted to Australia at the outbreak of the Pacific war, will be released this week, in plenty of time for the Christmas shopping…. A preview glimpse of Queensland’s quota showed that many of these toys are gayer and quainter than any Australia produced, even before the war.
But at the end of December, the Americans also moved their canteen to Queen St. No longer on a corner block, the new location was probably easier to defend if any further trouble broke out again.
Margaret Kowald, World War 2 – Battle of Brisbane 26 November 1942. Unpublished MS in Police Museum, Brisbane.
Dudley McCarthy, South-West Pacific Area – first year Kokoda to Wau (Australian War Memorial, 1959), p. 626.
Carl Lavo, Slade Cutter, Submarine Warrior (2003)