Travel Story Rationing and weddings: When the war came to Brisbane

Photo of Gemma Nisbet

An intriguing museum remembers the ways World War II transformed life in Queensland's capital city.

On December 22, 1941, a US naval convoy arrived at Bretts Wharf, in the Brisbane suburb of Hamilton. Up to 4600 troops disembarked and set up camp at the nearby Eagle Farm racecourse. These were the first of hundreds of thousands of US military personnel to pass through Brisbane during World War II, when the Queensland capital became the headquarters of US General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Allied Commander of the South West Pacific Area.

MacArthur arrived in Australia in March 1942, initially basing himself in Melbourne before moving north to Brisbane and setting up in offices in the AMP Building, said to be “the largest and most modern office building” in the city centre at the time.

Today, the heritage-listed building is known as MacArthur Chambers and houses an Apple Store, a luxury apartment hotel and the MacArthur Museum, which not only preserves the general’s restored office but tells the story of Brisbane during World War II.

The effect of the war on local life was profound. There was, for starters, the impact of the arrival of large numbers of people in a city with a reputation as “a big country town” and a population of fewer than 350,000 in 1941. Over the coming years, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops passed through Brisbane, with Americans prominent among them. The population is said to have surged past half a million people, and by mid-1943, there were nearly 100,000 US troops in the city. 

The museum’s exhibits detail how bomb shelters cropped up around Brisbane, office windows were taped up and lights switched off at night for what was known as the brownout.

Travel was restricted, censorship enforced and pub opening hours severely curtailed. Food, clothing and petrol were rationed and schools closed for months, reopening only after they could dig enough trenches to provide protection in case of an air raid.

Given the number of troops in town, Brisbane residents were exposed to US popular culture in new ways. Museum exhibits describe how the Americans “brought jitterbugging to the dance halls and gridiron football to the sports fields”. 

The welcome from Queenslanders seems to have been warm but tensions did emerge, stemming partly from the segregation of African-American troops within the US military and partly because American servicemen tended to be better paid than their Australian counterparts and popular with local young women — as the contemporary complaint went, the Americans were “overpaid, oversexed and over here”. 

The situation sometimes boiled over, notably during the so-called Battle of Brisbane in November 1942, when many people were injured and one Australian serviceman died during two nights of rioting. 

The museum also tells the stories of some of the 7000 Queensland women who married US servicemen during the war, even displaying the wedding dress worn by one such bride.

Other period objects range from brochures and maps given to US troops on their arrival in Brisbane to acquaint them with the city, to contemporary advertising and children’s toys, to the conference table used by MacArthur and his staff. The showpiece is MacArthur’s wood-panelled office, complete with a picture of George Washington and a neatly folded US flag.

Fact File

Disclaimer

Gemma Nisbet visited Brisbane as a guest of Airtrain and Choice Hotels.

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