Appendix 3: Brisbane, 26th and 27th November 1942
SOME friction is probably inevitable when troops of an Allied contingent and local troops are on leave together, particularly in places where girls and drink abound. Generally American and Australian troops got on very well together, especially in the field, but there were a few regrettable periods when there was a good deal of ill-feeling in one city or another, and clashes occurred. Perhaps the most serious of these took place in Brisbane in November 1942. Because of its gravity it demanded analysis and action at the highest levels and produced a discussion of a recurrent problem that may possess lasting value.
On the night of 26th November there was a clash between American military police and Australian troops outside the American Post Exchange in Brisbane in the course of which an American military policeman fired several shots, wounding nine Australians, one fatally. Next evening between 8 p.m. and midnight four or five groups each of four to six Australian soldiers roamed the streets of Brisbane attacking American military police and, later, attacking other American troops and officers escorting girls. Eleven Americans including four officers were taken to hospitals and about ten were less severely injured. Next day Major-General Berryman, who was at Advanced Land Headquarters in Brisbane, brought into Brisbane more military police from First Army and some men of an Independent Company. General Blamey in New Guinea was informed, and he advised that, if the conditions persisted, focal areas should be picketed by troops brought from the 3rd Division, then at Mooloolah, and a curfew imposed on all troops. There were, of course, very few AIF units in south Queensland at the time; the Australians in Brisbane were almost entirely from base, training and militia units.
There were no disturbances on the 28th.
Berryman discussed the problem with Mr R. J. F. Boyer, then head of the American division of the Department of Information, and Boyer with Colonel Van S. Merle-Smith of American headquarters, and Mr Joseph Harsch, a correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor, and it was agreed that efforts should be made to educate the Australian troops “on the question of Australia’s present and future relationship with the United States”, preferably through the Army Education Service.
The problem was discussed at length in the Advanced LHQ Intelligence Summary of 4th December, when it was decided that factors contributing to the disturbances were (a) drunkenness, (b) the higher rates of pay and the smarter uniforms of the American Army, (c) discrimination in favour of Americans in shops and hotels and by taxi drivers, (d) the spectacle of American troops with Australian girls, particularly wives of absent soldiers, and the American custom of caressing girls in public, (e) the deliberate stirring up of trouble by certain civilians,
(f) boasting by some American troops, and their tendency to draw guns or knives in a quarrel, (g) the taunting of Australian militiamen by Americans. The summary added that the Americans, used to civil and military police who did not hesitate to display firearms and batons and use them in an emergency, considered the methods of the Australian civil and military police to be namby-pamby.1
The report concluded by urging that Australian soldiers should take every step to combat ill-feeling between the two armies. Copies of it were given to MacArthur’s headquarters and to Mr Curtin.
Relations between AIF and American formations in New Guinea and Australia at this time were generally remarkably cordial, but the problem of improving those relations continued to exercise Blamey. On 28th January 1943, he wrote to MacArthur proposing new measures. These would include the attachment of selected officers and non-commissioned officers from each force to units of the other, preferably at the rate of one officer per battalion and one NCO per company; the interchange of staff officers (a measure proposed earlier by Blamey but accepted “to a limited degree only” by MacArthur); a concerted but unobtrusive effort by the public relations sections of each army; lectures by good men chosen from each force. Blamey mentioned that interchange of officers and NCO’s had produced excellent results in 1914-18.2 He informed Curtin of his proposals.
MacArthur replied on 12th February, politely but definitely rejecting Blamey’s proposals.
I have given very careful consideration to your letter of January 28, 1943 (he wrote), with regard to the means for the development of the most friendly relations between members of the United States Army in Australia and the Australian Military Forces.
I am entirely in accord with your desire to take all practicable steps to develop the most friendly relations between the members of the American and Australian forces. I am inclined to believe, however, that the best results will be obtained by informal means, with each service working through its own channels to control the very small number of unruly individuals who create the difficulties and to counteract any tendency toward discord. I have observed that formal campaigns in such matters sometimes defeat their own purpose by being over-obvious and creating the impression that the situation is more serious than is really the case.
While I am fully in accord with your objective in proposing an extension of the interchange of personnel between the two forces, the situation in the American Forces is such that well qualified officers and non-commissioned officers cannot be spared from their essential duties of leading or training their units. It is felt that, in all probability, such is also the case in the Australian Forces.
My Public Relations Officer is already cooperating with your Director-General of Public Relations in an effort to promote harmonious relations between the forces. This effort, which must necessarily be unobtrusive, will be continued.
I am of the opinion that an effort to use talks by lecture teams as a means to improve relations may do more harm than good. The reaction of the American soldier to formal talks and lectures is not particularly favorable. He is quick to detect propaganda and inclined to resent it.
In conformity with the foregoing ideas, I suggest that the cooperative efforts of Public Relations officers be continued, but that the other measures suggested be deferred for the present. It is felt at General Headquarters that the recent battle experience of Australian and American forces serving together in New Guinea has practically accomplished the object in view and that further association in combat will undoubtedly eliminate all but minor misunderstandings between the two forces.
Blamey acknowledged this letter without comment and sent a copy to Curtin who also acknowledged it without comment.
Indeed, as mentioned earlier, MacArthur and his staff had made it evident from the outset that they did not wish the two forces to be closely integrated and particularly did not wish to have more than a minimum Australian liaison group at GHQ or in the field. At this stage another factor was probably present: the profound disappointment at the lack of success of the raw American regiments in New Guinea. MacArthur may have seen in Blamey’s proposal a suggestion that the Australians could teach the Americans their business.