- by Graham Holton
- The Guardian
- Issue #2044
An African American engineers’ unit of the US Army on parade during WW2. Photo: National Archives – www.archives.gov
There has long been a rumour in Queensland that dozens of African American troops were killed by their white officers during World War II, but their mass graves had never been found.
In 2012 the documentary evidence was uncovered by Ray Holyoak of James Cook University, Cairns. These documents explain why US congressman, Lyndon B Johnson (later president), visited Townsville on 6th June,1942.
Holyoak told AM Radio: “For 70 years there’s been a rumour in Townsville that there was a mutiny among African American servicemen. In the last year and a half, I’ve found the primary documentation evidence.” The papers were found in the Queensland Police and Townsville Brigade archives.
During World War II, Prime Minister John Curtin appealed to the US to help Australia as “the only white man’s territory south of the Equator,” but the Australian War Cabinet opposed African American troops entering the country.
They relented after US political pressure. The first significant contingent of Black troops arrived in Melbourne in late January 1942. The War Cabinet overruled customs officials, who had refused their entry, as they were needed to build airstrips. On 27th February 1942, two more African American labour battalions disembarked in Melbourne. LD Causey, the US Naval Attaché in Melbourne, testified to the strength of “the doctrines of racial superiority” in Australia.
On 11th March, under orders from President Franklin D Roosevelt, General Douglas MacArthur left Corregidor, Philippines for Australia. MacArthur announced that he supported the Australian decision that no more African American soldiers would be allowed into the country. Units already in Australia would be sent to the French colony of New Caledonia or to the British colony of India.
“I will do everything possible to prevent friction or resentment on the part of the Australian government and people at the presence of American colored troops … Their policy of exclusion against everyone except the white race, known locally as the ‘White Australia’ plan is universally supported here.”
African American units, based in New Guinea and the Melanesian Islands to protect Australia from a Japanese Imperial Forces invasion, were forbidden to have their R & R (Rest and Recreation) in Australia. White American soldiers had R & R in Brisbane, Sydney, or Melbourne. More than 10,000 African American troops were based in Queensland. Clashes between Black and white US troops occurred in Brisbane, Ipswich, Torrens Creek, Ingham, and Mt Isa in Queensland.
African American units were under the command of white officers, who were disliked because of their racist attitudes. Despite the US-Australia agreement, 600 African-American troops of the 96th Engineers General Services Regiment Battalion were building the Upper Ross Airfield outside Townsville. On April 15, 250 men of the Battalion were involved in a fight. They were rounded up by white soldiers with fixed bayonets and loaded guns.
On Saturday night May 22, shots were heard by local farmers coming from the African-American camp. Black soldiers had rioted after a Black sergeant was killed by a white US officer. The leaders of “A” and “C” Companies fired heavy machine guns at the white officers’ tents. In the eight-hour battle that followed, more than 700 rounds were fired. Officially, one person was killed and dozens injured. As 19 coffins were ordered to bury the dead, it suggests that 19 African American soldiers were killed.
The entry in the 29th Australian Infantry Brigade War Diary No. 6 for 23rd May 1942, read: “0205: Message from Div that 500 US tps. from an Engr unit were in revolt at Junc. of FIVE HEAD and ROSS CKS. They were armed and a rep. from Div. had gone out to contact them. 0225: Message that trouble had been settled.”
Australian troops set up a roadblock to stop the rebellion spreading to Townsville. The report on the incident by Time magazine journalist Robert Sherrod, was handed to Lyndon B Johnson, when he arrived in Townsville for three days. The news of the rebellion was never published in the US press due to censorship.
In a separate incident, at the mining town of Mt Isa, 73 Black soldiers died after drinking alcohol boiled in disused cyanide (a deadly poison) drums from the mines. The 73 coffins were loaded on a train and sent to the US Military Cemetery in Townsville. Little else is known about the incident. Cyanide is an acute toxin that is used in the extraction of copper, lead, zinc, and silver. The drums should have borne a warning of its poison content, which suggests that the poisoning was deliberate.
Plantation and sheep station owners had often used poisons, such as arsenic and strychnine, to kill off the local Indigenous populations in Queensland. In 1896, a number of Aboriginals in Lakeland Downs, Queensland were murdered by a Scottish colonist after they stole his supplies. He gave them flour laced with arsenic. Mass poisoning of Aboriginals continued up until recently throughout Australia.
On 17th February 1945 General Douglas MacArthur made the following statement to the African American press, on the character of: “the negro soldiers in the Southwest Pacific Area … Their service has been magnificent. Their patience, their fortitude, their courage, and their complete devotion to their country mark them as belonging to the nation’s noblest citizens.”
How truthful was this statement? MacArthur believed that Blacks were inferior to Whites and should only do low skilled jobs and serve in segregated units. We can judge what General MacArthur really thought of the US Black troops who died on Australian soil at the hands of White US servicemen.