The 738th American MP Battalion was surrounded. Unaccustomed to being in the midst of fighting, the scattered remnants of the unit grabbed any weapon they could in a vain attempt to defend a Red Cross Service Station and PX against hundreds of enemy troops. A handful of shotguns were distributed to go with the MP’s standard issue Smith & Wesson Victory Revolver. They knew reinforcements weren’t coming – thousands of American & Allied troops were engaged in street-by-street fighting. The 738th left their defensive positions in the Red Cross building and meant the enemy head on in hand-to-hand fighting on November 26th, 1942.
The battlefield wasn’t in the sands of North Africa, nor the jungles of New Guinea, but the streets of Brisbane, Australia. And for two nights, the opponents weren’t the Axis powers. For two nights in 1942, America and Australia went to war.
The phrase “they’re overpaid, oversexed, and over here” has usually been attributed to British attitudes about the influx of American servicemen in World War II. Yet the same was said by many an Australian as the Yanks came marching in by the thousands.
Over one million American soldiers would pass through Australia from 1942 until the end of the Pacific War, increasing the overall population of the country by 10%. Nearly overnight, Australian cities on the populous eastern coast found themselves overrun with American servicemen. Brisbane was among the worst affected. By the end of 1942, the city of 300,000 now had to provide food and utilities for a population of over 600,000 – the difference all made up in U.S. GI’s. The sewers and electrical grid couldn’t possibly adapt quickly enough. For many Aussies, the Yanks brought brownouts, garbage in the streets, and increased crime and prostitution – not protection from the Japanese.
Much like in England, the GIs also brought a considerably higher paycheck than their Allied counterparts, a fact that chaffed relations largely because American servicemen could afford to woo the locals with chocolates and silk stockings – luxuries in wartime. Over 12,000 Australians married American GIs during the course of the war, but it wasn’t a lifetime of companionship that Australian troops were searching for when they grumbled that the ladies of Brisbane preferred the handsome foreigners who could buy otherwise limited goods at American PXs. Compounding the Aussie’s frustrations were that the Yanks hadn’t just taken all the girls, but all the booze. Alcohol shortages were so common that hotels became limited to two one-hour long servings each day – leading to binge drinking among civilians and servicemen of both countries.
Actions on the frontlines hardened attitudes as well. The brutal Buna-Gona campaign in New Guinea was being waged at the same time with Allied forces counter-attacking well-fortified Japanese defense in the thick New Guinea jungle. The percentage of casualties at Buna exceeded the better known Battle of Guadalcanal 3-to-1 and the brunt of the fighting was being borne by Australian troops. That fact mattered little to General Douglas MacArthur, who reported on “U.S. victories” at Buna-Gona while setbacks were attributed to the Australians. Aussies who had fought and bled in hard-won victories returned to Brisbane unable to get a date or a drink while reading that nearly non-existent American forces had won the day.
By the end of November, 20 brawls a night between Aussies and Yanks were being broken up, mostly by American MPs. Not only would the MPs usually believe their fellow Americans, getting them out of trouble, but the MPs quickly developed a reputation as violent and arrogant. More and more Australians took to mob justice when they felt wronged. 20 Australian civilians jumped a group of American submariners just nights before November 26th, beating them mercilessly.
With this backdrop, it was somewhat surprising that what touched off two nights of intense rioting started with Australian servicemen trying to defend an American from an American MP.
Private James Stein of the U.S. 404th Signal Company had been abusing the limited alcohol policies of Brisbane, and like many soldiers was trying to get to a new bar that would soon be open for one-hour only. Clearly drunk, Stein found himself in front of an MP demanding to see a leave pass. The MP’s verbal abuse caused several Australian soldiers that Stein had been talking with to engage the MP, trying to get him to lay off a drunk but not AWOL Stein. The MP’s response was to lift his baton as if to strike one of the Aussies. One of the Aussies struck first instead. A melee ensued as more MPs, Australian and American soldiers ran to the fight outside the American PX. News of the initial fight spread, starting new brawls. By 8pm – just an hour after the first fists were thrown – over 5,000 people, civilian and military, were engaged in a series of battles across Brisbane.
The fights quickly became more than drunken brawls. Guns and grenades were passed about on both sides. Shots were fired by MPs and Aussies. One correspondent called Brisbane “the most furious battle I ever saw during the war.” By night’s end, at least one Australian soldier was confirmed dead – shot by an American MP – and dozens more were seriously injured by gunshot, stabbing or clubbing.
The passage of a day did little to calm matters. 500-600 Australian troops surrounded the PX the next night, eager to get revenge. The MPs were better prepared, armed with machine guns and rifles. What started as a mob turned into a battle line as both sides took up defensive positions and prepared to assault the other. Australian MPs sent to break up the crowd took off their armbands and joined instead. With neither side willing to make a move, elements of the Australian mob moved elsewhere, assaulting Americans around the city. Unconfirmed reports suggested that several Americans were killed that night, either shot or beaten to death by the Australian mob.
The fighting was almost entirely ignored by the wartime press. Other than a brief bulletin mentioning an incident that left one dead and six wounded, media both in Australia and the U.S. were censored to prevent news of the incident from spreading. If the censorship was designed to cool tensions, it backfired. Brisbane sources spread rumors of absurd levels of violence, including a suggestion that 15 Australian servicemen had been shot by Americans with machine guns – their bodies stacked like cordwood outside a Post Office. Although that report is almost certainly false, the true number of dead or wounded has never been released.
Few were punished for the fighting. Units on both sides involved were transferred out of the city. The MP responsible for killing an Australian was acquitted. And despite five convictions on the Australian side, only one served any jail time – for a total of six months. The incident was pushed down the memory hole and forgotten.
Other “battles” would occur in Australia and New Zealand. A similar fight, named the Battle of Manners Street in Wellington, New Zealand had over 1,000 participants in 1943. And much like the Battle of Brisbane, the fight was blacked out by the media.