Australia and the US were allies during the Second World War, though that wasn’t always apparent in the relationship between GIs and Diggers.
This is the story of one especially bitter encounter.
It was not only in wartime Britain that American GIs were regarded as ‘overpaid, oversexed and over here’. Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, is situated on the coast of the south-eastern edge of the state.
In 1942, following his escape from the Philippines, General Douglas Macarthur set up a headquarters in the city and tens of thousands of US troops were camped close by, swelling the population of the 300,000 or so Australian inhabitants of the Greater Brisbane district.
With their smart walking-out uniforms, their movie-star accents, their better pay and their access to various luxuries, they were a hit with many young women: at least that was how the ‘Diggers’ saw it.
In addition, while the Australians were not known for treating aboriginals particularly well, they took exception to the segregation and the denigration that white GIs inflicted on their black brothers in arms.
The situation became explosive when Macarthur made some critical remarks about the fighting capacity of the Australians; and when the first US units engaged alongside Australians in New Guinea performed poorly, the Australian soldiers’ hostility intensified.
Australian troops in both world wars had a reputation, not always deserved, for disliking rules and spit and polish, for showing disrespect to any officer that they considered pompous and inefficient and for behaving generally in a disorderly fashion.
They had little time for military police (MPs) and in Brisbane they were particularly hostile to the US version – ‘Snow Drops’, after their white helmets or, to the Diggers, just ‘provo [provost] bastards’.
On Thanksgiving Day, 26 November, an American private was invited to have a ‘comrade-in-arms’ drink with some Australians. He had already had one or two.
As the group walked towards a pub in the city centre they were stopped by two US MPs who demanded to see the GI’s pass and ordered him to do up his shirt buttons. The Diggers demanded that ‘their mate’ be left alone.
One of the MPs struck an Australian with his baton, which was the cue for the Diggers to turn on the MPs, punching and lashing out with their brass-buckled webbing belts.
The MPs were chased to the American PX (Post Exchange, a retail store somewhat similar to the British NAAFI) in Creek Street and a stand-off developed as the Diggers, whose numbers rapidly grew to, perhaps, 500, demanded that the ‘provo bastard’ who had hit their mate be handed over to them.
As it became clear that no one was going to be handed over to face the crowd the situation began to calm down. At this point a US army weapons carrier drove up, containing two MPs, one of whom was waving a riot gun, essentially a 12-gauge shotgun.
The Australians demanded that he put the gun down. An Australian gunner, Edward Webster, who had already seen action in the North African campaign, seized the barrel and the gun went off, mortally wounding him. It is unclear whether the MP had deliberately pulled the trigger, but another two shots were fired, with the pellets wounding another seven Diggers and an Australian civilian.
After the initial shock of the shooting of Gunner Webster, the Battle of Brisbane began, spreading out from Creek Street and making it dangerous to be seen anywhere in the city in a US army uniform. Estimates vary widely about the numbers involved in the fighting, from 2,000 to 4,000.
Eleven GIs were seriously injured, one with a fractured skull. Australian MPs appear to have been reluctant to get involved; there were 110 of them in the city, as opposed to 800 of the US Provost Corps. A picket of Australian signallers was deployed, with unloaded rifles, to try to bring the situation under control.
Later, Australian troops, including men from Webster’s anti-tank unit, were ordered on to the streets with loaded weapons to bring some order. No further shots were fired and eventually the fighting appears to have run out of steam.
Three Australians were eventually prosecuted as ring-leaders of the trouble. All three were found guilty and jailed for a few months.