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During WW2 prisoners serving long sentences were sent to either Brisbane Prison or Stuart Prison near Townsville. Rockhampton Prison was closed as a conventional prison during WW2 and was handed over as a Police Prison to hold prisoners sentenced to up to one months gaol. Staffing at Stuart Prison was increased by 20 personnel during WW2. From the start of the war in 1939, prisoner numbers declined from about 80 to 90 to an all-time low of 38 prisoners in early 1940.

With the imminent entry of Italy into WW2, some Italian prisoners were deported. Just after Italy entered the war, the Italian ship Romolo was set on fire and scuttled by its crew. This followed a pursuit by the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMAS Manoora and its interception 220 miles south west of Nauru island. The survivors were picked up by HMAS Manoora and taken to Townsville.

The ship's complement of passengers and crew were initially held at Stuart Prison. They marched into the prison in their white uniforms, four abreast with the ships band playing. The new prisoners were kept in "B" Wing. There was a lot of overcrowding in their prison wing and the prison doors were left open. They stayed at Stuart Prison for about 5 days before they were sent to Internment Camps in the south.

Many Italians in north Queensland were taken into custody and were held in Stuart Prison until they could be moved south to Internment Camps. This again caused major overcrowding at the prison. An area that was designed to carry 160 prisoners was holding as many as 700 prisoners.

Staffing was also an issue. Overnight from 5.00 pm till 6.30 am, one single prison officer was left in charge of the prison. A small number of AIF personnel were stationed inside the prison to assist with guard duties. One of these soldiers of Italian extraction had the unfortunate occasion to have to guard his Italian parents who had been interned. His brother was also serving overseas in the AIF at that time.

After Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor, more Italians and now Japanese were temporarily held at the Stuart Prison before being transported south to Internment Camps.

Authorities in Townsville were looking for a safe storage site for basic food supplies for ready access in case of a Japanese attack. It was decided to use one of the cell blocks at Stuart Prison to store large supplies of flour. Within a few days trucks loaded with bags of flour were unloaded at the Prison by prisoners. The flour had arrived at the nearby Partington Railway siding. This left only 2 prison wings available to hold prisoners.

As the Japanese moved southwards towards Australia, many of the wardens evacuated their families to southern Queensland. Prison staff were most upset one day, when a general order was posted on the Prison Notice Board indicating that in the event of a successful enemy invasion, the staff were to report for duty as usual and wait for the new enemy administration to make their intentions known. The notice was ripped off the Notice Board and promptly destroyed.

In mid 1942, some of the Warden's families returned to Townsville only to find that it was very difficult to find suitable accommodation. 

The Americans had commandeered a house at Stuart and had turned it into a Brothel for the exclusive use of their coloured troops. Some of these coloured troops would have been from the nearby U.S. Army's "Koala" Ordnance Service Center at Stuart, located where the Stuart Cement Works were built after the war. Many of the locals complained about the goings on in this house, but they were ignored by the Authorities.

The Madam of the brothel wore two large automatic pistols strapped around her waist. She carried her money in a leather bag which she hung around her neck. On occasions, she would use her pistols, one in each hand,  to remove an unruly client from the premises. Occasionally she would fire a couple of shots into the air to achieve the desired result. She would then march up and down the street outside the brothel until the last customers had left. Roy Stephenson, a warder at the Stuart Prison and author of the book "Nor Iron Bars a Cage", had the unfortunate luck of living next door to this Brothel.

The Japanese carried out their first bombing raid on Townsville on the evening of 25/26 July 1942 when two Emily flying boats dropped fifteen 250 kg bombs near the Townsville wharves where three vessels were berthed. A small group of prison guards were were playing a game of cards at home at the time of the raid. They heard some loud bumps in the distance and felt the ground shake slightly. At the time they had no idea that Townsville had been attacked by the Japanese. They heard about it in the news the next morning.

Slit trenches were hurriedly dug in back yards for use during any further alerts. Off-duty warders were instructed to report for duty at the prison should they hear an air raid alert. The next alert was raised on the evening of 27/28 July 1942, at about 2.45am when a single Kawanishi H8K1 Emily Flying Boat dropped eight bombs from 15,000 feet in an area about 1.5 kms from Garbutt airfield near the foothills of Many Peaks Range. Roy Stephenson took his wife and child to their slit trench in the back yard and then rode his bicycle across the rea of the Prison Reserve to report for duty. When he arrived, the other staff members were standing in the compound looking at the cells where the prisoners were shouting out "Let us out you bloody murderers".

More alerts occurred over the following weeks. There was one more Japanese bombing raid on Townsville on the evening of 28/29 July 1942 when a single Japanese Emily flying boat dumped seven bombs into Cleveland Bay, between the shore and Magnetic Island. As the number of alerts continued the warders became reluctant to leave their families at home alone during the alert. Eventually the need to report to duty during an alert was revoked.

One morning the Prison Superintendent arrived with a Colonel Patterson, the American Provost Marshal. The warders were advised that some troublesome prisoners from the Garbutt Stockade were to be transferred to the Stuart Prison until their charges were heard. They were described as being violent and bad medicine.

A few hours later, a number of white and coloured American military prisoners arrived at the gaol. Some of the prisoners were due to be executed, others were scheduled to be court marshalled and some others were due to be transferred to Fort Leavenworth in the States. Many hundreds of these prisoners were processed through Stuart Prison over a period of time. The white and the coloured prisoners were kept separated at the request of the American authorities. The Australian warders got on quite well with the majority of these prisoners who seemed to have an intense hatred for the American Army. Almost to a man they would tell the Australian warders that they had no quarrel with them and that they would not give them any trouble.

One night at about 6.00pm when Roy Stephenson was on duty at the prison, he was instructed by the Superintendent to ready twelve cells for some American prisoners who were about to arrive. Some time later, the bell at the front gate sounded. Twelve American prisoners were unloaded outside the main gate from a large US Army truck. There were two Military jeeps behind the truck complete with a total of six MP's carrying sub machine guns. The prisoners were all shackled to a heavy chain. When they were unloaded they were immediately surrounded by the MP's who pointed their machine guns at the shackled prisoners.

As they were about to approach the inner gates, Roy Stephenson ordered the American MP's to leave their weapons in the prison armoury before entering the compound area. He indicated that this was a prison regulation. The American MP's refused the request claiming that these prisoners were the worst lot they had ever encountered. Stephenson allowed the prisoners inside the inner prison gate leaving the MP's stranded between the inner and outer gates. The Prison Superintendent approached the MP's and after a few brief words he approached Stephenson, who told the Superintendent what had happened. The Superintendent then berated the American MP's for not observing prison regulations and lawful orders give by a prison warder.

The American Major then entered the prison alone and handed the Warrants to Stephenson covering the detention of the twelve prisoners. Stephenson then asked the Major to remove the shackles from the prisoners. The Major told him that his men would refuse to follow this request. The Prison Superintendent then instructed the Major to give the keys to Stephenson and told Stephenson to unshackle the men. Stephenson read the warrant to each man, and requested their acknowledgment that they were the person described. Stephenson then searched each prisoner after he was unshackled.

Stephenson was then instructed by the Superintendent to take the prisoners to their cells. The American Major then asked where the other Prison Warders were. The Major almost fell over when he was told that Stephenson was the only Warder on duty at that time. The Major then requested that Stephenson not move out of sight of the prisoners. The Superintendent ordered Stephenson to continue to take the prisoners to their cells.

Stephenson asked the prisoners if they had been fed. Each prisoner then received a dinner and a mug of coffee from the cook. The prisoners had remained silent throughout the process of being released, fed and taken to their cells. Once inside his cell, one of them said to Stephenson, "You and your chief put those bastards back on their ass, we won't forget." These twelve men were extremely well behaved during their stay at the prison. The Americans were totally perplexed by this response from these "troublesome" prisoners.

Roy Stephenson was firmly of the belief that the incidence of rebellious behaviour in Army Detention Centres during the war, was the fact that the enforcement of Army discipline meant that harsh measures were adopted against the prisoners collectively. The Service mentality would not allow prisoners to be treated as individuals. If one or two prisoners stepped out of line, all of the prisoners were punished.

One of the benefits of having American Military prisoners at Stuart Prison was the ready availability of Lucky Strike and Camel cigarettes. The use of Stuart Prison as an auxiliary of the Garbutt Stockade was eventually discontinued and the troublesome prisoners were flown direct to the USA.

Roy Stephenson applied to transfer to Boggo Road Gaol in Brisbane after spending 4 years at Stuart Prison.


Boggo Road Gaol, Brisbane


Garbutt Stockade


Warwick Detention Barracks

Grovely Detention Barracks



"Nor Iron Bars a Cage"
by J. R. Stephenson


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This page first produced 20 November 2003

This page last updated 25 January 2020