The Battle Of Brisbane

For two nights in 1942, Australian and U.S. servicemen turned the streets of Brisbane into a war zone

In the heat of World War Two, under the spectre of a Japanese invasion, more than 40,000 members of the United States military were based in Brisbane.

While Australia and the United States were strong allies in the war, things weren’t so friendly between the countries military forces, according to Robert Macklin, co-author of The Battle Of Brisbane.

"It started, basically, because the Americans were getting off with the pretty girls of Brisbane and the Australians were feeling very much left out of it," he said.

"The Americans had the smart uniforms… and the Australians pretty much had nothing. They had lumpy old uniforms and not very much money and they couldn't get the luxuries."

Following months of tension, things came to a head on Thanksgiving Day 1945 when an American military policeman clubbed an Australian soldier in Brisbane’s central business district.

From there, it was on. Around 100 Australia soldiers set upon the American MP, laying siege to the building where he tried to take cover. 

When Norbert Grant, a fellow MP, arrived on the scene brandishing a shotgun he was quickly tackled by Australian Private Edward Webster.

Apparently fearing for his life, Grant began shooting, killing Private Webster and injuring at least eight other Australian servicemen.

Brawls began erupting, seemingly at random, throughout the streets. All attempts by the police, military and fire brigade to calm the violence failed.

By the time the streets fell quiet, it’s estimated between 2,000 and 4,000 soldiers had been involved in the riots.

On the second night, 27 November 1942, crowds surged towards the headquarters of U.S. General Douglas Macarthur, an incredibly unpopular figure to Australians at the time.

"They had contempt for each other and Macarthur expressed his contempt indeed for the Australian fighting soldier, so things were very tense in the forces,” says Macklin.

"It just really needed something like what happened to set the spark."

And spark it did, with violence once more erupting as tensions boiled over. As tempers cooled and the night wore on, the violence began to calm.

But it wouldn’t be the last battle between Australian and U.S. forces, according to Kay Saunders, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Queensland.

“Severe riots occurred up to mid-1944 in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne. Brawls and scuffles were repeated daily wherever Australian and U.S. military and naval forces came into contact.”

It’s a fascinating chapter in Australian history and yet, at the time, it went largely unreported due to military censorship.

More than 70 years later, the Battle of Brisbane remains largely forgotten, a tiny blip in a war that tore apart the world and took the lives of millions.

Images: Sunday Truth, Brisbane/State Library of Queensland

Discuss this article

Newsletter

Never miss a Nat Geo moment

Your email address
Submit