WWII American Servicemen in Australia: The known and unknown
Following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 December 1941, America entered World War Two. American servicemen arrived in Brisbane by the end of December. They were largely concentrated near Brisbane, Rockhampton and Townsville, and Queensland became an important base for American forces during the War in the Pacific.
‘Over-sexed, over-paid and over here’
American soldiers were much more popular with Australian women than were Australian soldiers. They had smarter, sharper uniforms, smoother chat and deeper pockets with which to attract and entertain Australian girls. Nylon stockings, chocolates and cigarettes were a few luxury items unavailable to Australian soldiers, which Americans could easily afford and access. Conflict followed.
Clashes between the two groups of servicemen spilled over in a violent two-day (26 and 27 November, 1942) riot, known as the Battle of Brisbane, involving servicemen and civilians, which left one Australian soldier dead, and hundreds of Australians and US servicemen injured. Details, however, were kept secret from the public.
What happened when US servicemen were killed?
The Queensland Registry’s index to deaths for WWII is available on microform and online, but it does not include records of American servicemen who died in military-related events in Queensland.
Despite the pervasive American presence in Brisbane, there was no record in the Queensland Registry indexes, or in the newspapers, of the name of any American who died. See, for example, the following crash report.
Recently, an client from the United States asked us for information about why the accident occurred, and focused attention on its cause and the details of the unlucky pilot. The client knew much more about the individual than is available in newspapers or in other Australian records. He had been able to access a confidential file in the US Veteran’s service records, which provided full name, injury details and the place of burial during the war (Ipswich), as well as information about his identification tags. A more detailed analysis of the accident, which he sought, was not available to him either in the US or, as it turns out, in Australia. At the end of the war, American war dead were disinterred from United States war graves in Queensland and returned to their homeland for re-burial. Unfortunately, 80 per cent of veterans’ records, stored in St Louis, were destroyed during a fire, mostly by the sprinkler system, but our client was lucky and able to get the relevant personal confidential file there.
Finding sources on Americans in Queensland
The MacArthur Museum Brisbane provides links to records of US servicemen in Australia during the war. The US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) holds draft records of US servicemen, which were held separately from veterans’ records. See also the NARA guide, Finding information on personal participation in World War II.
State Library holds an interesting range of material covering this formative period, including photographs, documents, books and objects, covering everything from racecourses, dancing and baseball, to the conflicts that arose between American and Australian servicemen. Check in our One Search catalogue using terms such as ‘Americans Queensland’.
State Library blogs also feature vignettes of Americans in Queensland during the war. In the search box of the Conversation hub, use terms such as ‘World War II’ or ‘Americans’. The blog, Baseball downunder features a collection item from the period.
This is an American baseball that was used by some American servicemen stationed in North Queensland during World War Two. It was used in a game held in Townsville on Christmas Day 1942, and was signed by a number of the participants.
The Australian War Memorial provides some interesting background to the Americans in Australia, but the National Archives holds a wider range of material, such as occasional shipping records, including those related to immigration. Locating them, however, is often like finding a needle in a haystack.
For many people the role of the Americans in Queensland was very much appreciated. They offered security in the Pacific War, an opportunity for fun, and the experience of American consumerism. The American Command kept control of records concerning American military in Queensland, so there are records we cannot find in Australia, if at all.
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