Decades on, the “Battle of Brisbane” remains a low point in US-Australian history

An aerial view of Brisbane today. Source: QLD Archives

Almost 74 years ago this month, one of the strangest events in US-Australian history took place during the height of the second World War. With the battle for the Pacific hotting up, thousands of American servicemen were stationed along the east coast of Australia, with a large number based in the Queensland capital of Brisbane.

However, despite being close allies, the local Brisbanites grew to resent the presence of the American soldiers. In wartime Australia, the general public were on strict food rations, and obtaining items such as cigarettes and chocolates became challenging. The US soldiers had access to all these commodities through their bases, and also enjoyed superior rations compared to the Australian soldiers.

Added to that, the Americans were paid far more than their local counterparts, and this may have played some part in their success with the local women in Brisbane – over 12,000 Australian women ended up marrying servicemen from the United States by the end of the war.

As a US army sergeant said at the time:

The Americans had the chocolates, the ice-cream, the silk stockings and the dollars. They were able to show the girls a good time, and the Australians became very resentful about the fact that they’d lost control of their own city.

Against this backdrop, the so called “Battle of Brisbane” becomes more understandable. Tempers flared up on the evening of November 26, 1942, after a US soldier was questioned by an MP. The soldier, Private Stein, had a number of Australian friends who were out drinking with him that night, and they took offence at the MP’s questioning.

An argument developed, and the MP took out a baton to try and take control of the situation. It had the opposite effect, with the Australian soldiers and a number of civilians starting to fight. It didn’t take long for the fight to draw in a great deal of other onlookers, both Australian and American, many of whom had also been out drinking.

By 8PM that night, it is believed that somewhere between 2,000 to 5,000 men were fighting throughout central Brisbane. Military and police authorities were summoned and barricades were assembled, but they did little to stop the fights that were spreading throughout the city. The fire brigade were even dispatched to try and help control the crowds, but with little effect.

Later that night, a tragedy occurred when an Australian soldier – Private Edward Webster – was killed after a shotgun was discharged near an American base. The exact circumstances of his death have never been made clear, but the general consensus is that it was a tragic accident after an American serviceman produced the weapon.

As the news of Private Webster’s death began to circulate, the violence began to draw to a close – but it would flare up again the following night. Crowds of angry locals surrounded the headquarters of US General Douglas Macarthur and began protesting at the death of Private Webster.

For the second straight night, fights broke out between locals and US servicemen, although thankfully there would be no repeat of the fatality from the previous night. It later emerged that Macarthur hadn’t even been in the country at the time. News of the riots were suppressed by the Australian and American media, although that didn’t stop smaller riots breaking out in other parts of Australia in the following months.

Even today, seven decades since the “Battle of Brisbane”, it remains a seldom discussed point in the history of US Australian relations. To this day, nobody has ever been charged in connection with Private Webster’s death.