Sepia Saturday: Wartime in Brisbane


Unidentified (1940). View along Adelaide Street, Brisbane, ca. 1940. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Brisbane in the late 1930s was a sleepy town more reminiscent of a country town than the capital of the state of Queensland in the land Down Under. That would change in 1939 when Australia entered World War II and men and munitions were despatched forth for embarkation to the European front.

AERIAL STARBOARD SIDE VIEW OF THE AMERICAN TANSPORT HOLBROOK WHICH BROUGHT US TROOPS TO AUSTRALIA AS PART OF THE PENSACOLA CONVOY IN 1941-12

Japan entered the war by bombing  Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 and then made swift and steady progress south through Asia. After this attack by Japan, America entered the war with specific concerns about the Japanese focus on the Philippines where the USA had significant military and naval interests. The Pensacola Convoy of ships was heading to their Philippines base prior to Pearl Harbor but were re-routed to sleepy Brisbane. As with a US naval visit in 1941, the troops were welcomed with great excitement especially by the women of the town. Already the seeds of disenchantment, frustration and anger were being sown.

2005. Women with visiting American sailors, Brisbane, Queensland, 1941. State Library of Queensland.

Australia’s new Prime Minister, John Curtin, was forced into a conflict of wills with Britain’s Winston Churchill to bring our troops back from the European front, north Africa and the Middle East. The Fall of Singapore in February 1942 and capture of Australian (and other) troops and evacuation of civilians and nurses certainly caused great anxiety in Australia. Britain had refused to believe Singapore could be defeated, assuming any attack would come from the sea not through the back door overland. With the determined and steady approach of the Japanese military, there was a fear that Australia was in the line of attack. No doubt the bombing of Darwin on 19 February 1942, of Broome on 3 March 1942, and Townsville on 25 July 1942 could only have exacerbated that fear.

Australian War Memorial, Canberra ACT. 1972-09-15. A copy of  a colour lithographic print of a painting by a Japanese artist, showing the signing of around a long table of the surrender documents at Singapore, by Lieutenant General A E Percival on 1942–02-15. The table is now in the collection of the Australian War Memorial. Image out of copyright.

There is a strong belief, at least in Queensland, that, during the war years, our national policy was to defend the country below the Brisbane line. The rest of the state, to Brisbane’s north, was to be considered expendable. This strategy has been widely disputed over the decades but only detailed historical research would confirm or deny it.

I have often wondered whether it was a coincidence that my grandfather relocated his family from Townsville to Brisbane in mid-1941. He was a supervisor in the carpentry workshop with the railways, an essential service during the war. I can only imagine how relieved he must have been to be miles away when Townsville was bombed, but perhaps less thrilled to have three teenaged daughters in Brisbane with the presence of so many Australian or US troops.

Brisbane City Council (1942). Air Raid Shelters and Salt Water Pipes in Elizabeth Street behind the General Post Office.

Just imagine Brisbane at the time: a country-town sized capital of some 330,000 people firmly entrenched in the idea of Britain as home and with very British attitudes. The architecture was peculiar to this sub-tropical town with many wooden houses built on stilts and hotels with wide verandahs – it probably all looked a bit “wild west” to the incoming troops. Sadly, today much of that diverse architecture no longer stands having been wilfully demolished to make way for grander, taller, more modern buildings.

Unidentified (1942). Australian Hotel in Brisbane during World War II. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. This hotel was not far from the US PX.

During the years 1941-1945, around 90,000 US military (including the much-debated General MacArthur) would pour into the town. If we put a rubbery 1:3 ratio on the men in the local population, they were matched 1 to 1 by the new arrivals although many Australian soldiers (Diggers) were already posted elsewhere. There was also resentment between the two forces about their relative fighting “performances” in the highly challenging Papua New Guinea confrontations with the Japanese, even though the first land battle defeat of the Japanese had occurred in Milne Bay in August 1942.

Unidentified (1942). American soldiers in Charlotte Street, Brisbane, ca. 1942. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

The local mantra during the war was that the US men were “overpaid, oversexed and over here”. Their uniforms were smarter, their pay was higher, and they had access to goods not available in the city’s shops through their Post Exchange or PX, and they were “exotic”. Perhaps unsurprisingly they were a big hit with the young Brisbane women.  The sad thing is how the behaviour of the women is reported – as if they were floozies, “no better than they ought to be”, tarts or amateur prostitutes. It seems that, as so often happens, the women got the blame for social behaviour. Add to that their Australian men weren’t socialised to just hang out with women and generally spent their spare time with their mates. Even today Aussie barbeques are famous for the division of the sexes. It can be argued that there was little difference between the Diggers in England during the war(s) when they were the exotic overpaid troops. The reality is that wherever men were stationed, they fell in love (or lust) with local women, and some married and the new-minted wives moved back to the man’s home country, as war brides.

Brisbane City Council (1950). Corner of Queen Street and Creek Street Brisbane.

It’s pretty easy to see in retrospect that there might be trouble brewing in sleepy Brisbane, but it seemed to have escaped the attention of the powers that be. On top of the social tensions, it was quite likely that tempers might well have been short simply because the heat and humidity of the approaching Brisbane summer.

Tensions would erupt with a vengeance on Thanksgiving Day in 1942. Come back tomorrow and learn what happened in sleepy downtown Brisbane. (pronounced, btw, as Bris-bin not Bris-BANE).

Meanwhile, venture over to see where other Sepians travelled this week.

Sepia Saturday 528 Header

As I write, US marines are currently stationed in Darwin in Australia’s north, and have been since 2011/12.  This is in addition to the Pine Gap base in Australia’s Red Centre.

You can read a few stories about the strategic decision to send the marines to Australia here and here. You can read some of my earlier stories about the Pitch Black multi-national ops in Darwin here on my other blog.

Queensland Newspapers Pty Ltd (2007). American serviceman meeting a wallaby in Brisbane, Queensland. State Library of Queensland.

 

4 thoughts on “Sepia Saturday: Wartime in Brisbane

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