Where ‘Black Lives Mattered’ – 1942

Garbutt Airfield with Many Peaks Range and Magnetic Island in the background. Photo -www.ozatwar.com

By John Telfer

Our history contributor JOHN TELFER shares his latest look into the past in this week’s edition…

On May 25th 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, an African-American named George Floyd died at the hands of white police officers when being arrested. This action by these officers has set off a reaction by an organised anti-racism movement called ‘Black Lives Matter’ that has been sweeping the world since his untimely death. However, there are many Australians who do not know that something similar happened in Townsville, Australia, on 22 – 25th May, 1942, and was kept secret under war-time regulations, and possibly, for American–Australian relationships during World War 2 when the country was virtually under control by General Douglas MacArthur, Commander-in Chief of the South-Pacific region at the time.

In 1942, 600 African-American GI’s of the 96th Battalion United States Army Corps of Engineers arrived in Townsville to be a “supplementary labour” force. They were recruited under strict segregation policies that applied across the U.S. Military forces that only 7000 African-American troops could be stationed in Australia. Few African-American troops were assigned to combat duties so were mainly deployed for building air strips, catering, manual labour, as well as barracks for their own use. General Douglas MacArthur was well aware of Australia’s racial policy and was quoted that he “respected Australia’s racial views and would assign African-American troops to bases far from urban centres”.

When trouble between other troops and the African-American soldiers broke out in Townsville after they arrived, (there were about 50,000 Australian troops also stationed there), they were sent out to Kelso Field, about 60 kilometres from the city, and put to hard manual labour building an air strip with little training, and very little equipment. This caused low morale especially as they were under the control of white officers. Assigned to back-breaking labour and banned from leave in Townsville, the climate was ripe for rebellion. This reached a climax after seething tensions arose, when some were physically assaulted by a couple of particularly brutal white officers, and an African-American Sergeant died from a beating.

A group of African-American troops decided to take decisive action and kill the white unit commander, Captain Francis Williams, so they overpowered the machine gun posts at the airfield, then turned the guns on the officers’ tents killing at least one, but missed Captain Williams who took shelter in a weapon pit. The rebels held siege for nine hours until heavily armed Australian troops were sent to quell the riot and put up roadblocks to prevent 250 of the troops from marching on to the city, and to round up the rebels. There were reports that some of the rioters caused concern among the locals at Kelso. Also, unconfirmed reports stated that 19 were killed in the rebellion before order was restored. Judy Nunn in her book “Khaki Town” said that: “Even today, nobody knows how many were killed, what was done with their bodies, where they were taken, where they were buried”. A Times magazine journalist and war correspondent, Bob Sherrod, attempted to write up the riot after later talking to Australian army officers, but his report was suppressed under wartime regulations.

It was reported that U.S. President Roosevelt was so concerned about the riot that he sent a young Congressman, Lyndon B. Johnson (Later to became U.S. President) to investigate the Townsville situation and he, Johnson, apparently confiscated Sherrod’s article to hush up the riot and report back to Roosevelt. The Australian Government also made it top secret and did not want the story to be released using war-time regulations to suppress it.

Many Townsville locals did not mind the presence of the African-American soldiers in the city and found that they were polite and friendly, but once moved out to Kelso and put to the hard task of labour, the soldiers became very unsettled. Although the Townsville incident was hushed up and the story suppressed for nearly 70 years, it was not the first time in American military history that racial violence occurred because of the prejudice that continually occurred between African-American troops and their white officers.

In 1917 during World War 1, at Camp Logan in Houston, Texas, African-American troops and their white officers clashed in a violent riot that saw 19 African-Americans hanged, and 41 gaoled for life. No white officers, or enlisted men, were punished. In the Second World War a similar riot to that which occurred in Townsville broke out at Port Chicago, when African-American troops were forced to undertake the highly dangerous work of loading bombs and ammunition on board ships. This led to a mutiny when they refused to carry out the task with the result that 50 were convicted of mutiny and given 15 years hard labour. In December, 1944, at Agana, Guam, the fatal shooting of an African-American G.I. by drunken white Marines, saw another racial disturbance when African-Americans were gaoled, but no action taken over the death of the G.I. In 1945, at Freeman Air Force base in Indiana, 160 African-American officers were arrested after forcibly trying to integrate an all-white Officer’s Club. One was convicted, but it started a policy of at last integrating African-American officers in the United States Army.

In conclusion to this story, it is disturbing to know that the racial riots and prejudice that has occurred from the time that Lincoln abolished slavery, still runs deep in American society, with no real answers to solve this problem emerging over that time. However, rightly or wrongly, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement has started something that could be some small way of attempting to get changes in American society. The Townsville riot in 1942 saw the 96th Battalion African-American troops withdrawn by August 1942, but it was the White Australia policy from 1901 that existed then, that saw Australian politicians more concerned about the presence of African-American soldiers adhering to this insidious racial policy.