Tensions run high during war. In 1942, the American and Australian soldiers allied to fight the Japanese were as tense as ever. The stakes were high for both nations, but higher for the Aussies. In the early days of the war, an Allied victory was anything but assured and Australia faced the real possibility of a Japanese invasion. No one knows how “The Battle of Brisbane” started, but it sure relieved some of that tension.
At 6:50 p.m. on Nov. 26, 1942, the pubs in Australia’s third-largest city were closed and the streets flooded with allied soldiers. Private James R. Stein of the U.S. Army stopped on the corner of Adelaide and Creek Street to talk to three Australian troops when a U.S. MP stopped Pvt. Stein and asked for his leave pass. Growing more impatient as Stein fumbled through his pockets, the MP demanded he hurry up. Stein’s three Aussie friends told the MP to cool it.
An exchange occurred, but nobody knows exactly the order in which it happened.
Amidst some shouts and curses, the MP raised his baton, which drew a response of shoving and flying fists. Passing Australians stopped to help their fellow troops as more American MPs ran to the scene. Alarm bells and whistles began to go off, blanketing the shouts and the punches.
Outnumbered, the Americans retreated to a nearby Base Exchange, but were followed by the Aussies, who hurled rocks, sticks, bottles, and even a street sign. The MPs set up a perimeter outside the building and, by the time MP Lt. Lester Duffin arrived on the scene an hour later, 100 Australians were fighting to get through the cordon.
The Australians moved to break into the American Red Cross building adjacent to the opposite corner as the fighting spread to other streets in the area. A little over an hour after Pvt. Stein was fumbling for his leave pass, an estimated 2,000 to 5,000 GIs were in the streets of the city.
American troops were ordered back to their barracks and ships as picket guards stopped an Australian truck in the area carrying some firepower — Owen submachine guns and grenades. But despite everyone’s best effort, an American did get a shotgun into the melee and it quickly went off, killing an Australian and wounding many others on both sides.
Fights raged in canteens around the city throughout the night, but the main fighting was finally quelled by 10 p.m. that evening. There were sporadic confrontations throughout the city in the following days, but none rivaled the size, anger, and violence of the first night of what came to be known as “The Battle of Brisbane.”
News of the brawl never reached the U.S. due to military censorship, but the legend only grew in the following days, as the stories of those involved in the fighting were exaggerated and began to spread. Up to one million Americans served in Australia during World War II and weren’t always appreciated by the locals.
Americans were said to be aggressive with Australian women, and Australian troops were annoyed that American troops were better paid, equipped, and fed — not to mention that U.S. troops had access to cheap cigarettes, liquor, and other luxury items that Aussies couldn’t even get. The whole situation was a powder keg waiting to explode — and it did.