A mutiny against racism

February 15, 2012

Australian socialist Tom O’Lincoln, author of Australia's Pacific War: Challenging a National Myth, tells the story of an unknown episode from the Second World War.

SENSATIONAL ACCOUNTS, long hidden, have brought to light the story of a dramatic mutiny by African American U.S. troops stationed in the Australian city of Townsville during the Second World War.

The story reminds us of one of the war's most loathsome features--institutionalized racism--but also of Black soldiers' courageous willingness to resist.

Newly released documents from the papers of President Lyndon Johnson reveal that Johnson, as a young congressman, took back a report to Washington written for him by journalist Robert Sherrod that described how 600 African American GIs had seized their base in May 1942 and tried to kill their white officers with machine gun fire.

The report called this "one of the biggest stories of the war which can't be written, shouldn't be written"--and that's how Washington treated it.

Contemporary references to the mutiny uncovered by the Australian media differ on the outcome. Some report that no one was killed; others one; still others put the number of dead at 19. According to reports, once the mutiny was quelled, the soldiers were rushed out of Australia to New Guinea--then the front lines in the battle against Japanese forces.

A battalion of African American army engineers preparing to ship out during the Second World War
A battalion of African American army engineers preparing to ship out during the Second World War

The revelations say a lot about the depths of racism and systematic discrimination in both the U.S. and Australia.

When President Franklin Roosevelt sent U.S. troops to Australia as part of the war effort against Japan, the Australian government of Prime Minister John Curtin was delighted...until it realized that some of the soldiers were Black. This clashed with the decades-old White Australia Policy that imposed racist restrictions on who could enter the country.

The Australian authorities tried to exclude the African Americans at first, then settled for plans by the Allied Supreme Commander, U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, to keep the soldiers segregated, as in the U.S. south. The Curtin government glibly told the public what good fighters the Black soldiers were. But they underestimated how determined these soldiers were to fight for their rights.

They had to be, because for all the talk about a war for freedom, the U.S. in the era before the civil rights movement was thoroughly racist--especially in the South, where the apartheid system of Jim Crow reined. Left-wing writer Mickey Z. gives some feel for the injustices behind the U.S. war effort with his description of the better-known Port Chicago mutiny:

In 1944 at Port Chicago, military cargo ships were being loaded when the bombs exploded, vaporizing the ships along with much of the town...A total of 320 stevedores were killed; 202 were Black Navy enlistees. Since no whites shared in the task of loading bombs at Port Chicago, the 258 surviving Blacks refused to return to the treacherous task, declaring that they were merely "munitions fodder."

Punishment was swift and severe. Fifty Blacks were convicted of mutiny and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The remaining 208 were dishonorably discharged. All 258, however, promptly vanished from the official record.

Likewise, the Townsville events were kept quiet for 70 years--although if Roosevelt knew thanks to Johnson's report, Australia's John Curtin probably did as well.

THE MUTINEERS who tried to kill their commander were provoked by reports that a Black sergeant had perished at the hands of a white officer. But the background to these events, little of which appeared in last week's media reports in Australia, was systematic, daily discrimination enforced by both governments.

When large-scale brawls broke out between Black and white U.S. troops in Brisbane during March 1942, Col. C.H. Barnwell Jr. reported that the fighting was caused by white GIs' resentment of Blacks frequenting certain dance halls and ice rinks, and their associating with white women on Brisbane streets.

In the aftermath, Gen. MacArthur sought to defuse the situation at Black GIs' expense. Where possible, he sent African-Americans--some 10,000 in all--to remote northern areas like Mount Isa and Cape York. Commanders tried to keep the Black soldiers out of larger population centers, and in Brisbane and Ipswich, where that wasn't possible, Blacks and whites were segregated in designated zones. "The color line was rigidly enforced by U.S. Provost Marshals in exactly the same way as if they were serving in Mississippi or Alabama," write two historians.

White U.S. troops didn't mix socially with their Black counterparts--that was an unwritten law, according to the Australian Assistant Adjutant General. And he was quite prepared to apply the same logic to his own army, issuing a confidential directive saying it was undesirable for Australian troops to fraternize or drink with African American soldiers.

Of course, the Australian state had long imposed apartheid-style oppression, similar to the U.S., against its own Black people. The two systems of discrimination mirrored and reinforced each other.

Aborigines' League leader William Cooper had passed judgment on the Australian war effort in 1939: "[T]he Aborigine now has no status, no rights, no land...he has no country and nothing to fight for but the privilege of defending the land which was taken from him by the white race without compensation or even kindness." Torres Strait Islander soldiers waged a four-month strike demanding equal pay with whites.

Despite--or because--of the systematic segregation, another series of brawls broke out between Black and white Americans in September 1942, one of them occurring after white GIs entered a segregated Black zone on the south bank of the Brisbane River. It was common for white Americans to cross the Victoria Bridge to South Brisbane, sometimes armed with knives, but it was much more dangerous for Black GIs to cross the bridge heading north.

Military police shot one person dead at the Anzac Square monument, near the flame commemorating soldiers fallen in the First World War--presumably fighting for "freedom."

Some Australians challenged the discrimination. The secretary of the Ipswich Trades and Labour Council wrote: 'As the black-skinned soldiers are members of the working class, are here to defend Australia and defeat fascism, we urge that our Army Authorities not be allowed to succumb to such racial superiority theories, which are fascist in character." Members of the United Associations of Women pointedly invited Black GIs to their homes, to which the authorities reacted harshly, as leading feminist Jessie Street recalled:

[A]ctivities became more organized, with dance parties arranged for them. When U.S. army officers started visiting these homes to advise that these mixed social activities were to cease, the host families refused to be ordered about what they could do in their own homes. The U.S. authorities then declared these houses brothels, and off-limits to Negro soldiers.

In the Australian press coverage, it was hard to find a comment about the presence of Blacks that didn't play on stereotypes. The comic strip Bluey and Curley, for example, pictured them as looking more like large soldier ants than human beings; and in the cartoons where they appeared, a type of idiocy or childishness was implied.

Readers were quite capable of opposing racial prejudice, however. When "Seven White Women of Australia" wrote to the Brisbane Courier Mail criticizing mixed-race relationships in the U.S., letters poured in from Brisbane readers defending African Americans, one describing the offending letter as fascist dirt and another suggesting its authors move to Nazi Germany.

BECAUSE AMERICAN authorities demanded segregated recreational facilities, the Red Cross established the Doctor Carver club in Brisbane for Blacks only. Aborigines visited, but any white woman who came to the dances there later experienced an interrogation by the vice squad. The staff was also subjected to intrusive questioning by the police.

Racial and sexual politics intersected in many ways--for example, there was the familiar paranoia about alleged sex crimes committed by Black GIs. As one scholar writes:

Walter Luszki's study of the trial and execution of six Black GIs in Papua for the rape of two white nurses in Port Moresby argues that such convictions occurred because of racial and sexual hysteria. As defense counsel, he believed that two of the men executed were innocent. Black GIs were executed if convicted of sexual offences against white women. Four men were executed in Papua, having been convicted of the rape of a white female Red Cross worker in Townsville in 1944. More lenient sentences were given if the victim was an Aboriginal woman.

There was an obstacle to executing the four in Townsville--Queensland had abolished the death penalty. That's why Papua was used--an imperialist outrage in an imperialist war.

The treatment of Aborigines was so bad that authorities feared they might be driven to collaborate with the Japanese. To prevent this, some white officials forcibly moved Aboriginal clans. Failing that, they turned to strict control measures. In Western Australia, Moore River Native Settlement became a center of repression. The Special Mobile Force at Moora north of Perth rounded up all unemployed Aborigines from the Midlands and interned them.

The Western Australian commissioner of "native affairs," Frank Bray, expressed pride in such measures. He said that apart from Germany, he doubted that any other country had adopted anything like them to manage forced labor.

Three years previously, William Cooper had accused the Western Australian government of "out-Hitlering Hitler" in its treatment of indigenous people. Here was Commissioner Bray practically saying the same.

Who says the Second World War was a war against fascism?

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