75 Years since the the Battle of Brisbane

Updated: Apr 26, 2019

Photo credit: Courier-Mail November 27, 1942, p. 2 (Cartoonist: Ian Gill)

November 24, 2017

The Battle of Brisbane may be a strange thing to 'commemorate', but its 75th anniversary this November 26-27 is noteworthy, especially to anyone with an interest in Brisbane's wartime history. I spent four years immersed in the subject while researching and writing my PhD novel 'Garrison Town' and the Battle of Brisbane -- or the 'Battle of the Canteens' as it was also known -- was a flashpoint moment in the city's wartime history. There are plenty of sites (see here and here, for example) that will tell you all you need to know about the 'battle' itself and the tensions between 'our diggers' and the (vast number of) American troops stationed in and around Brisbane at the time that led up to the night of November 26, 1942 (American Thanksgiving). There's also this excellent book by Peter A. Thompson and Robert Macklin on the subject, which I drew on quite extensively (along with Barry Ralph's They Passed this Way) to write a fictional account of the events of the night in which eight men were injured and one was killed. The extract below is from my doctoral novel 'Garrison Town' and is written from the perspective of a young women -- a Red Cross volunteer -- who witnesses the riot from a window in Terrica Place (since demolished), which was home to the American Red Cross Service Club. The building was diagonally across from the American PX in the Primac Building (still standing today), which was the focal point of the Battle of Brisbane.

Extract: 'White Powder' from Tales of a Garrison Town

‘Edith. Edith. You’re daydreaming.’

‘Sorry, Mrs Lambert.’

‘I need you to go to your station. I’ve put you on roast potatoes with Marjorie.’

‘Yes, Mrs Lambert.’

‘Edith. Your hair. Put the net over all of it, please.’

Edith liked her blue tunic with its Red Cross beneath the left lapel, but the outfit lost its charm when teamed with a hairnet, or at least how Mrs Lambert insisted it be worn. How was she supposed to smile and wish the men a happy Thanksgiving when she could barely make eye contact for the embarrassment?

In the ladies’ room she tried pinning the net so it sat flush with her hairline. It didn’t change the fact she looked like a pill. The lingering heat of early summer had left a sheen of sweat over her face and neck. There was only a damp, grubby hand towel by the basin that she had no intention of using on her face. Searching for a box of tissues, she pulled the blind away from the window and found instead a tin of talc on the windowsill. It was warm as a cup of tea. She shook it and sprinkled the powder down the length of each arm before rubbing it in, then dabbed some on her face and neck. She liked how it lightened her complexion. Just like Scarlett O’Hara, she thought, pinching her cheeks to add some colour. It dismayed her how easily her skin tanned, even in spring.

She returned the tin to its spot on the windowsill. It was still light outside. She peered through the grimy window that overlooked Creek Street with the silly notion that she might see Frank on his way to the PX canteen. He said he might come to the dance tonight if he could wrangle a leave pass, but she expected he would stay with his buddies from the 81st after their Thanksgiving lunch at the barracks. She didn’t want to go herself and wished now she hadn’t volunteered. It wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t have to dance with whoever asked, which meant putting up with a lot of left feet, some dubious body odour (they weren’t all smothered in cologne) and many an unwelcome hand on her derrière. At least dancing didn’t require a hairnet. Pretty is as pretty does, she could hear mother chime. Her sister had some other posh quote about vanity she’d forgotten.

Edith returned to find Mrs Lambert tapping her wrist, her caterpillar eyebrows so high they looked set to take flight. Edith squeezed in beside Marjorie and another girl who were both poised behind the serving counter with a set of tongs. Neither seemed to give a hoot how silly they looked. The aroma of roast turkey, vegetables and gravy was so heady you could almost see it. Her stomach rumbled like an army truck on a dirt road.

‘I’m starving, too,’ said Marjorie. ‘I hope there’s some leftovers.’

‘I hope so. Surely even MacArthur’s hoards can’t get through 250 turkeys in one sitting.’

‘I wouldn’t count on that, but I’m sure they’ll save us some. As long I can try the pumpkin pie, I’ll be happy. Have you seen it? It looks divine.’

The pumpkin pie didn’t sound that appetising to Edith—the plum pudding was more appealing—but Frank said it was his favourite dessert. If she was going to become an American then she supposed she’d better get used to their food.

Mrs Lambert opened the dining room doors with all the importance she believed the task required. Edith soon fell into a rhythm of issuing two potato halves apiece and forgot how ridiculous she assumed she looked.

They were alerted to the commotion at the intersection of Creek and Adelaide Streets by the explosive sound of glass breaking. By then dinner was winding down and most of the men had been served. Those who’d finished had either drifted downstairs to the new recreational room to await the start of the dance or had gone elsewhere for entertainment. Some had stayed in the dining room, groaning like contented lions, their ample bellies on display.

Edith returned from a trip to the kitchen to find everyone gathered at the large corner windows. The brownout curtains had been pulled open and the ceiling lights turned off so they could see out. She asked Marjorie what was going on. A skinny, hollow-cheeked sailor with a Brooklyn twang answered for her. ‘Some Aussies are trying to bust their way into the PX—a fair mob of them, maybe 200 or so. They’re in some kind of stand-off with our MPs by the looks. I’d put money on it being over cigarettes.’

‘Typical,’ said Edith to Marjorie. ‘They’re always bullying Americans for cigarettes. Frank and I were walking up Edward Street once and these three drunken Aussie louts stood right in our way and demanded Frank give—’

‘I think this is a little more serious than that, Edith.’ Marjorie walked off and started stacking the empty serving trays.

Edith would have followed to help take them away, but she was stung by Marjorie’s tone. She could probably go and have her dinner, though she’d lost her appetite. They were expected to go downstairs to the dance after they’d eaten, but no one else was going anywhere. Even Mrs Lambert had taken up a post near one of the windows.

The thud of rocks and whatever else was being hurled against windows and concrete was escalating, as was the hooting and shouting. She was now glad Frank hadn’t promised to come to the dance, even if she’d huffed a bit about it at the time. There was no way of warning him, but surely the police or more MPs were on their way and things would be under control soon. She needed, or wanted rather, to see for herself what was going on.

The lock on the bathroom window was thick with dust and felt rusted into place. She broke a nail trying to coax it open. It eventually gave and she thrust the window up as high it would go. Harsh noises tumbled in like the low thunder of an approaching storm, interjected with broad, nasal howls of ‘come out and fight you bastards’. In the dwindling twilight she could see clearly enough the crowd intent on storming the PX canteen on the ground floor of the Primary building. She couldn’t have said how many men there were, it could have been 500 or a thousand, perhaps more, all shouting and pelting the building with rocks, sticks and bottles. Some were smashing windows with uprooted parking signs. There was no traffic and even the trams had stopped running along the street.

The focal point of the riot was on the Creek Street entrance to the canteen. It was cordoned off all the way around to Adelaide Street by a small squad of MPs who were holding the mob at bay with batons. She saw the MP closest to the corner take half a brick to his face. He buckled like a ragdoll and was dragged into the crowd.

Edith was stunned breathless. She’d never seen such unflinching brutality. She couldn’t watch any more. With her back to the wall, she inched her way down until she was sitting on the floor tiles. Her hands were shaking.

She was eleven when her father had ignited in a way that made her guts feel like they were going to slither right out of her. He’d been fixing the car when he erupted without warning and threw his tools at the brick fence. He then kicked one of the tyres over and over again while shouting words that would have earned her a mouthful of soap if she’d so much as thought them. When he saw her sitting on the front steps he yelled at her to go inside. That evening, he drew her into his arms and kissed her on the forehead, but said nothing about it.

The men were so angry. And in some abstract way she knew she was part of the reason. She thought she understood something about how the world worked then, or how men made it work, and perhaps why wars happened at all. It was more confronting than if they’d all been standing out there naked.

‘Edith. Are you in here?’ The hinges creaked as Marjorie opened the door. ‘There you are. We’ve been looking for you. Are you alright? You’re as white as a sheet.’

‘Am I?’

‘Why did you run off like that?’

Edith twisted the hem of dress at her knees and shook her head. ‘Have you seen what’s going on out there?’

‘Yes, I know. It’s pretty scary. That’s why I came to find you. The American provost station rang. Some soldiers are coming to escort women from the area. They’re not sure when they’ll get here though, so we need—’

She was cut off by the sound of gunshots, three of them. Edith’s heart set off like a greyhound. She sprung up to look out the window while Marjorie ran the length of the stalls to huddle in beside her. It was darker now and the scene was too chaotic to get any idea of how many had been injured or even killed. The centre of the action had moved around to the Adelaide Street entrance. From amidst the fray one man scrambled to his feet; they saw a flash of his rifle as he brought the butt down on another man’s head who tried to get in his way. The man with the shotgun sprinted towards the entrance of the PX and was pulled inside. Another MP standing guard by the door was yanked away instead to bear a barrage of fists and boots. Edith looked away.

‘Holy Mary, Mother of God,’ said Marjorie. ‘The world’s gone mad. Do you suppose that’s what it’s like on a real battlefield?’

‘They’re animals,’ replied Edith with a viciousness that surprised her. Up until now she’d felt sorry for the Aussies with their scruffy uniforms and miserly paychecks and their awkwardness around women, but right now she hated them. She was more determined than ever that Frank should ask her to marry him so she’d never ever have to marry one of them.

‘Something’s come over them, I’ll say that much. But don’t be too hard on them. They’ve been in some of the fiercest fighting of the war. And I’m not saying those MPs deserve to be hurt like that, but they don’t do themselves any favours the way they lord about the place giving orders and throwing their weight around. And one of them did just fire off a shotgun.’ Marjorie placed a hand on Edith’s shoulder. ‘We should probably head back to the dining room,’ she said, though she made no effort to leave.

They stayed to watch the ambulances wade through a dark swamp of olive drab. The men moved like carp around them. There was a strange lull as the medics loaded up the wounded and injured from both sides. As they left, the waning fat-bellied moon appeared above the silhouette of the Adelaide Street skyline. The madding crowd did not disperse, but instead drew more angry men into its ranks like fresh wood nourishing a bonfire. The humid night, heavy with dust and noise, felt peppered with gunpowder.

‘Edith, I think we should go. I just hope we haven’t missed our chance to get out of here.’

‘Yes, alright.’

‘We’d better close the window and pull the blind down.’

Edith gave the window a good yank, but it wouldn’t budge. It would be easier if she could press down on it. She asked Marjorie to pass over the chair by the door. As she went to step up on the seat her elbow swung out and knocked the talcum powder out the window. The lid fell off on its way down. The tin landed on the sheet metal awning one floor below with a resounding bang. A diaphanous cloud of white powder expanded into the strained night air. Their initial shock and disbelief—mirrored in each other’s wide-eyed, hand-over-mouth expressions—quickly turned into rib-pinching peals of laughter.

#battleofbrisbane #wartimebrisbane #brisbaneww2 #garrisontown #writing

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