Guest blogger: Dr Judith Powell - 2017 Q Anzac 100 Fellow.
During the Second World War, tens of thousands of foreign troops were stationed in Australia, arrived in Australia on leave, or passed through on redeployment. By the middle of 1943, 67% of all American troops in Australia were stationed in Queensland.
In March 1942 an American soldier was arrested by Australian police and General George Brett asked for his return. This brought to the fore the issue of how crimes committed by foreign troops on Australian soil were to be dealt with, and in May 1942 National Security (Allied Forces) regulations were adopted. These amounted to full extra-territorial jurisdiction, meaning that “where any member of the United States Forces in Australia is arrested or detained on a charge of having committed an offence against the Commonwealth, the appropriate officer of the United States Forces shall be notified and, if he so requests, the member shall be handed over to him and shall thereupon cease to be subject to the jurisdiction of the criminal courts in Australia.”1
In other words, foreign soldiers who committed crimes in Australia were subject not to the courts of Australia but to their own country’s military courts. Although local police investigated crimes committed by foreign troops, once arrested, those charged were no longer the responsibility of the Australian criminal justice system. Two judicial systems therefore operated side by side and not always in accord.
Military Police fulfill the role of law enforcement officers in the armed forces. In 1944 a special Criminal Investigation Command (CIC) was established in the US Army as a branch of the Provost Marshal General’s Office. Investigators attached to this command were charged with investigating crimes committed by American troops and with preparing reports for American courts-martial.
Ervin Task, a technical sergeant attached to the CIC, was based in the Provost Marshall’s Office at the South Brisbane Town Hall next to Base Headquarters at Somerville House. Recently, files he maintained during his years in Brisbane have been presented to the State Library of Queensland and, together with police files in Queensland State Archives, provide an insight into life in wartime Brisbane.
Sergeant Task investigated everything from murders and assault to larceny and impersonating an officer. He was responsible for tracking down soldiers who’d absconded and investigating the doping of gasoline. Sometimes he worked alongside Queensland Police. Crime increased during the war; street brawls and knifings were common. In October 1942 over a thousand American soldiers were arrested in Brisbane in just one month.2
But dealing with criminal cases didn’t rate high in US Command - there was, after all, a war to be fought. A 1943 memo admonished officers to resort to court martial only as a last resort, to use the lowest type of punishment available and only when absolutely necessary. There is evidence that military officials often spirited suspects or offenders out of the country to unnamed ‘battle fields’ rather than face pressure for a court martial from Australian authorities. Knowing they would probably be protected, even if they committed crimes, surely emboldened some soldiers.
It is impossible to know the effect this had on local police but it must have been frustrating. Criminal activity during the war years increased significantly and although not all perpetrators were foreign soldiers, many were. Without any possibility of obtaining a conviction in a local court, police may well have become cynical about the very crimes they were investigating and it is possible that the war and the crimes associated with that period - the growth in the blackmarket, widespread gambling and sly grog shops, the unofficial acceptance of prostitution, above all the money to made from all of these activities - all contributed to an environment where police corruption developed.
Of particular interest to Queensland historians is the fact that one of the murders Ervin Task documented - the murder of American soldier Robert Norwood, whose body was found near the South Brisbane cemetery - was also investigated by Queensland Senior Sergeant Frank Bischof of the CIB.3 Frank Bischof served as Police Commissioner from 1958 until his retirement in 1969. Although never charged with official misconduct, it is generally agreed that he was notoriously corrupt and that his oversight contributed to the police corruption in Queensland documented in Matt Condon’s Three Crooked Kings trilogy.
The Ervin Task papers at the State Library of Queensland offer an insight into the criminal activities perpetrated by American servicemen in wartime Brisbane. Together with files in Queensland State Archives and the Police Museum, they may also help to explain the rise of corruption in the Queensland Police Force during and after World War Two.
Police team investigating the murder of Betty Shanks, Brisbane, 1952. Detective Inspector Frank Bischof confers with investigators at the scene of the crime. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image 199192
Dr Judith Powell
Further reading from Dr Judith Powell:
- McKerrow, John, The American Occupation of Australia 1941-45: A Marriage of Necessity, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2013, p. 18.
- McKerrow, p.193