THE BATTLE OF BRISBANE - 26 & 27 NOVEMBER 1942

 

There have been many stories about the infamous "Battle of Brisbane" where many Australian and American troops fought it out in the central business district of Brisbane during World War 2 on the evenings of the 26th and 27th November 1942. The varying stories probably pertain to how it started, how many persons were involved, and perhaps who won the fight!

The following version of the Battle of Brisbane is based on the excellent book "They Passed This Way" by Barry Ralph:-

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Brisbane

Just before noon on 26 November 1942 an American MP tried to stop a fight in Albert Street. An Australian soldier was hit on the head with an MP's baton and more Aussie soldiers became involved in the incident. It was a short but violent brawl. Nothing like what was about to happen later that day.

The pubs closed at 6.50pm and the streets were cluttered with service personnel. Private James R. Stein (Service No. 36504556) of the 404th Signal Company of the US Army had been drinking in the Australian Army canteen. He left the Australian canteen and started to walk towards the American PX canteen (Postal Exchange) which was about 50 yards up the street on the corner of Creek and Adelaide Streets. This building was still in existence in the year 2000. Private Stein had been indulging himself on the Australian XXXX beer. He meet up with 3 Aussie soldiers who had also had also been drinking. They started to chat.

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Map of the "Battle of Brisbane"

As they were talking, along came Private Anthony E. O'Sullivan of the 814th MP Company, who challenged Private Stein for his leave pass. While Stein was fidgeting around to find his leave pass, the MP became impatient and asked Stein to hurry up as he did not have all night. At this point in time his new-found Aussie mates had a go at the MP and told the MP to take it easy and leave Stein alone.

After some cursing, etc, a baton was raised and arms and legs started to fly in all directions. More Aussie soldiers and even a few civilians came out of the dark to look after their mates. More MP's arrived on the scene from the American PX canteen after whistles were blown to attract attention to the disturbance. The MP's were outnumbered and they retreated towards the PX. Private Stein ran and stumbled in to the PX also. Private O'Sullivan however had to be carried into the PX.

By this time there were alarms bells ringing and the milling crowd outside the PX were throwing bottles, rocks and sticks at the PX building. A parking sign was thrown through a window.

1st Lieutenant Lester Duffin of the 814th MP Company arrived on the scene at 7.15pm. He saw about 100 Australian soldiers trying to break through a makeshift cordon around the PX door. Police Inspector Charles Price arrived on the scene as the crowd continued to grow. The American Red Cross Club was also apparently under siege. The American Red Cross building was located in Terrica House diagonally opposite the PX building and has since been demolished and replaced.


"We Did" 77th Seabees

The Brisbane American Red Cross Service Club

Captain Robert M. White, an American Liaison Officer observed the fight from the balcony of the nearby Gresham Hotel. He could see Queensland Policemen and US MP's barricading the doors to the American PX canteen.

War Correspondent, John Hinde, was also on a balcony overlooking the "Battle of Brisbane". He was probably staying in the Gresham Hotel. He stated "The most furious battle I ever saw during the war was that night in Brisbane. It was like a civil war."

 


State Library of Queensland - Negative No. 12979

Gresham Hotel in about 1913. The hotel was demolished in 1974

Sporadic fights spread into other streets in the city area.  On American GI, who had just been to the Wintergarden picture theatre had to vacate a Brisbane tram headed to New Farm to avoid a violent battle between some Australian and American soldiers.

Women workers in the city area were escorted from the area by soldiers with fixed bayonets. The Tivoli Theatre was closed by the MP's and patrons ordered back to barracks and their ships.

Back in the PX canteen, Private Stein tried unsuccessfully to retrieve his Leave Pass from the prostrate Private O'Sullivan. He was given a baton and told to help protect the PX.

By 8pm between 2,000 to 5,000 people were involved in the disturbance which continued to rage. A picket sentry, Duncan Caporn detained a small truck driven by an Australian Officer and three soldiers. The truck contained 4 Owen sub-machine guns and several boxes of ammunition and some hand grenades.

The Local Brisbane Fire Brigade arrived but did not use their hoses to quell the disturbance. The American authorities were later to criticise them for not taking this action. Some Australian MP's removed their arm bands and joined in the disturbance.

The 738th MP Battalion started to arm their MP's with 12-gauge Stevens pump-action shotguns. One of these persons was Private Norbert Grant of "C" Company. Grant and Mercier elbowed their way to the front of the PX.

Someone in the crowd saw that Grant had a gun and suddenly he was accosted by people trying to get the gun off him. He jabbed one Aussie soldier with the shotgun. Another soldier grabbed the gun and someone else had him around the neck. The shotgun discharged. In all 3 shots were fired.

The death and injuries as a result of these 3 shots were as follows:-

1.    The first shot hit Gunner Edward Sidney Webster (QX5862) from the 2/2nd Anti-Tank Regiment in the chest killing him immediately.

2.    Private Kenneth Henkel was also hit in the cheek and forearm.

3.    Private Ian Tieman fell to the ground with a chest wound.

4.    Private Frank Corrie was hit in the thigh.

5.    18 year old Walter Maidment was also wounded.

6.    Private Richard Ledson (35 years old) had a compound fracture of the left ankle and was wounded in the left thigh and left hand.

7.    Sapper De Vosso was wounded in the thigh.

8.    Civilian Joseph Hanlon (38 year old) was wounded in the leg.

After a momentary silence, Private Grant then scrambled towards the PX canteen. On his way he broke the butt of the shotgun over an Australian's head. Another casualty was American soldier, Private Joseph Hoffman, who was one of the guards at the front of the PX. He received a fractured skull.

Other battles raged in the various Canteens around Brisbane. (The Battle of the Canteens!)

By 10pm the city had quietened down. The ground floor of the American PX was demolished.

 


State Library of Queensland - Image number: 106429

Repairing broken windows at the American canteen, Brisbane, 28 November 1942

The final toll was as follows:-

- 1 Australian killed
- 8 minor gunshot wounds
- 6 baton injuries
- 100's with black eyes, split lips, swollen cheeks, broken noses and various abrasions

The Chief Censor's Office in Brisbane ordered that "No cabling or broadcasting of details of tonight's Brisbane servicemen's riot. Background for censors only: one Australian killed, six wounded". The Brisbane Courier Mail had a heavily censored article the next day about a disturbance in which one person was killed and several wounded. It did not give any idea of nationalities involved or any specific details of the disturbance.

Robert Bolton of the 911st Signal Company was in Townsville when "The Battle of Brisbane" took place. He only heard rumours about the "Battle of Brisbane", some of which were pretty horrendous. The only thing Robert knew officially, was, as part of his company's censorship arrangements, they were to allow no mention of it whatsoever in mail going back to the States. Robert believes that no mention of it was ever made in the US newspapers. Nobody that Robert subsequently spoke to about it in the USA had ever heard of it.

In the following days, many exaggerated stories circulated about the so called "Battle of Brisbane". Some version had up to 15 Aussies being killed with machine guns.

On the following night, the 27 November 1942, a crowd had gathered outside the American Red Cross building. The PX building was under heavy security following the previous night's disturbance. Some hand grenades had been confiscated by some NCO's in the crowd. Heavily armed American MP's were located on the first floor of the Red Cross building. The crowd moved to the corner of Queen and Edward Streets outside of General Douglas MacArthur's headquarters. They shouted abuse towards the building, but MacArthur was apparently in New Guinea at the time. He had travelled to Port Moresby in early November 1942.

Warrant Officer Bill Bentson witnessed both nights of the "Battle of Brisbane". He was walking towards the AMP building on the first night and saw the disturbance. He ran down a lane and made it up to the 6th Floor of the AMP building. He could see a crowd of 500 to 600 Australian servicemen at the intersection of Queen and Adelaide streets. They had formed 3 circles in the street and were passing American soldiers over their heads into the centre of the circles were they would be punched and kicked.

Bentson saw some Aussie soldiers armed with MP batons encounter about 20 US Provosts in Queen Street. The Americans lined the ram tracks and drew their 45 calibre handguns. An Australian Officer persuaded the the American commander to take his men away from the area in a truck.

Two other American MP's were caught in the open and attacked.

An American Officer and his Australian wife were walking towards a restaurant after the evening session at the Metro to watch "Mrs. Miniver", when they were set upon by about 10 Australian military personnel. They heard shouts of "There's a bloody Yank - kill him" The lady was knocked over twice. The crowd kept yelling "Kill him - kick him, kick his brains out." The couple were fortunate enough to escape into a pharmacy run by C.A. "Big Bill" Edwards. He was just closing his shop at the time.

During a Television documentary some 45 years later, "Big Bill" reported " This young couple fell through the door, chased by hordes of Aussie soldiers. I closed the wire grille door after them. "Give us the bastard, Bill, he killed our mate." I told them that he didn't kill anyone, and if they found the one who did, I would kill him for them. After a while they broke up and left".

21 Americans were injured on the second night of the "Battle of Brisbane". 11 of these had to be hospitalised. The numbers included 8 MP's and 4 officers.

Many plans were adopted to ensure that peace would prevail in Brisbane after this second night of unrest. The Units involved in the disturbance were relocated out of Brisbane, the MP's strength was increased, the Australian canteen was closed and the American PX was relocated.

There were many investigations into the cause of the disturbance and many a discussion on how to ease the tensions and avoid a similar event. Besides the obvious effect of the liquor imbibed on the night of the disturbance, the other main contributing factors that seem to have raised the deep-seated frustration amongst the Australian servicemen were:-

- American pay levels compared to the Australians
- smarter American uniforms compared to the Australians
- shops and hotels favouring the well-paid Americans
- Americans pinching their Aussie girls (and in some cases their wives)
- and the Americans' custom of caressing girls in public

Private Norbert Grant was court-marshalled for manslaughter on 27 February 1943 but found not guilty, on the grounds of self-defence. Five Australians were convicted for assault as a result of the "Battle of Brisbane" with one person being jailed for 6 months.

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The photographs on this page were kindly sent to me by Barry Ralph.

Click on the photos to enlarge them.

 


 

The circumstances leading up to the death of the member are contained in a report by Capt L. M. Barnes, A/A.P.M. Queensland L. of C. Area. The following are extracts from the report:-

"At approx. 1910 hours on 26 November, 1942, a disturbance commenced outside the Allied Canteen. This started through a U.S. M.P. taking a leave pass from a U.S. soldier, and half drunken Australian soldiers from the Allied Canteen resenting the action. Australian soldiers were immediately advised by Aust. M.P.'s that the affair had nothing to do with them and to keep out of it. Within a minute a large number of Aust. soldiers chased all U.S. M.P.'s down towards U.S. Canteen and by this time about 300 soldiers would be involved; the number quickly grew until there were over 1000 soldiers trying to get at the U.S. M.P.'s. The Aust. M.P.'s had quickly formed a semi-circle around the door of the U.S. P.X. to hold the crowd back and behind this semi-circle on steps of  U.S. Canteen was a double line of U.S. M.P.'s with batons drawn. The Aust. M.P.'s held out against the pressure put on them. Civil Police were quickly on the scene (approx. 100) and did a splendid job holding the crowd back from the windows, and assisting Aust. M.P.'s. During this time sticks were thrown at the P.X. windows breaking several and one man responsible was arrested later by Aust. M.P.  In all four arrests were made.

At approx. 1950 hours 3 shots were fired by a U.S. M.P. who tried, with another, to get through the crowd to reinforce the U.S. in the P.X. One of these was carrying a riot gun (scatter gun) and on seeing this Aust. soldiers spread out but surrounded these 2 M.P.'s The one with the gun was pointing it and swinging round. In a few minutes 3 shots were fired causing casualties as per attached list, showing G.S.W. There is a very serious antagonism against U.S. M.P.'s carrying and using batons, and carrying firearms, and the limited number of Aust. M.P. are quite inadequate to keep Aust. soldiers from attacking them. The feeling is so intense that it will not abate until troops at present in Brisbane area are moved to another area well away from the city. This feeling appears to be on both sides. The U.S. Provost attitude "We'll give them fight if they want it", and the Aust. soldiers are the same.

U.S. M.P. do not understand Aust. Soldiers or they would refrain from using batons and drawing firearms and whilst this practice lasts serious trouble will continue, and, in any case now, the feeling now existing will not easily be got rid off."

 

A report on the circumstances was also made by Sgt. G.V. Canning, 6th Div. Provost Corps, and is as follows:-

"On or about 8:30 p.m. November 26th 1942, I was on duty in the American Post Exchange on Adelaide and Creek Streets, Brisbane, when I saw two American soldiers into the crowd. One of these men had a revolver and the other a riot gun and I heard one of the Australian soldiers say ' take the gun off him'. The American Military Policeman said 'Stand back or I'll shoot you'. He repeated this two or three times and then walked to the wall and stood with his back to it. An Aust. Soldier brushed past me and approached the American Military Policemen and I said to this Aust. soldier 'Get out of the way'. I now know this soldier to be Pte. E.S. Webster, QX. 5862, 2nd Anti-Tank Btn. (deceased). The American Military Policeman also said 'Stand back or I'll shoot you'.

I grabbed Webster by the shoulder and at the same time he grabbed at the American Military Policeman's gun and had a hold on the gun when one shot was fired and Webster fell to the ground. after this I heard two other shots as Australian soldiers came in towards the Canteen."

 


 

One theory supported by Brian Ogden, a Brisbane Historical Walking Tour Guide (Ph. 07-3217 3673 for bookings), is that it was all started when some concerned Australian troops came across a very drunk US soldier in the city area. They decided they should hand this fellow over to the safekeeping of the US Military Police. Unfortunately, as the story goes, the MP's bashed the American soldier. The Australian soldiers who had always had some concern for the welfare of this young American soldier took exception to this harsh treatment and took steps to protect their unknown American friend. This started the large fight that sprawled through the city streets for quite some time.

Brian Ogden tells the story that General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of the South West Pacific Area (SWPA), heard the commotion in the streets below from his 8th floor office in the AMP building on the corner of Queen and Edward Streets. It is reported that he mistook the brawling for cheers of adulation from his adoring troops and the local inhabitants. He apparently went to the window and acknowledged the assumed adulation. He suddenly became aware of the real events that were unfolding in the streets below him. 

In fact General Douglas MacArthur had actually left Brisbane at 8:35am on Friday 6 November 1942 on his way to Port Moresby. He did not return to Brisbane until Saturday 9 January 1943 arriving in Brisbane at 4:00pm. These facts are based on entries from General MacArthur's Office Diary, GHQ, SWPA.

 


 

Jo Rose a filmmaker with Film Australia, contacted me in November 2000. Jo grew up in Brisbane and was particularly interested in the Battle of Brisbane. Jo remembers from childhood and conversations with ex-servicemen, stories of the "Brisbane Line". Jo is really interested in getting more information about this but has found it difficult to find.

Jo Rose
Film Australia
Australian Biography 8
101 Eton Rd
Lindfield NSW
Australia 2070
Tele: 02 9413 8623

 

Were you there when the "Battle of Brisbane" happened?

If you were, I'd like to hear your story so that I can place it on this home page.

 

REFERENCE BOOK
"They Passed This Way"

by Barry Ralph

 

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This page first produced 1 July 2000

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