The Guardian • Issue #2055

US Military Build-up in Australia

What Can We Expect?

Talisman Sabre war games in Queensland – June 2005.

Talisman Sabre war games in Queensland – June 2005. Photo: CPA

In the upcoming Exercise Talisman Sabre war games, between the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and United States military, an expected 30,000 military personnel will participate in the largest exercise in Australia-US history. It is in preparation for future conflicts in the Russia-Ukraine War and with China over Taiwan. The war games are part of the US military upgrade of Australian defence bases, following the AUKUS agreement in September 2021, overseen by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. The US Under Secretary of Defense, Dr Mara E. Karlin, said there will be “rotational fighter and bomber aircraft deployments … ground forces training and increased logistics cooperation.” Karlin said Australian bases will now include logistics facilities, fuel storage, munitions storage, and airfield upgrades.

As the number of US military in Australia grows, during war games and stationed in bases, how will Australian troops react to US arrogance and cultural imperialism? Australians take pride in their history and culture. Once again it will be Australia versus the USA on Australian soil. Historically, US military personnel do not conform to local behaviour, customs and food. Instead troops are made to feel that they are on US soil. They expect everyone to conform to them. The only correct way is the American way, in politics, religion, food, or speech. Such cultural arrogance has resulted in numerous conflicts around the world.

The US has access to its facilities and training areas across Australia. This includes the surveillance base at Pine Gap; Naval Communication Station Harold E. Holt; the Robertson Barracks army base for the 1st Armored Regiment; and the Australian Defence Satellite Communications Station that intercepts communications from regional satellites. The US agreement with the Australian government allows US personnel, paid in US dollars, to not pay Australian income taxes. At Pine Gap, only one in ten of the personnel are Australian citizens, the others are US citizens. Australia pays $12 million per annum towards the running of the facility.

In preparation for Talisman Sabre, Australian troops have been ordered not to use Australian slang, while the US soldiers are stationed here, so as to not confuse them. No training will be given to US troops on Australian customs and expressions.

In World War II racism was a major issue with US troops in Australia. More than 10,000 African American troops were based in Queensland. From anecdotal evidence, Black troops found their white officers extremely racist, but the local Australians treated them like human beings. In April 1942 some 600 African-American troops of the 96th Engineers General Services Regiment Battalion in Townsville rioted after a white officer killed a Black sergeant. A and C Companies fired heavy machine guns at the white officers’ tents. In the 8-hour battle that followed, more than 700 rounds were fired. Officially 19 were killed, though locals remember the figure as nearer 100. In a separate incident at Mt Isa, 73 Black soldiers mysteriously died after drinking alcohol boiled in disused cyanide drums from the mines. There was no investigation into their deaths.

These incidents were covered up by General Douglas MacArthur, who believed Blacks were inferior to whites. They served in segregated units and were only given menial jobs. The famous general had an unsavoury history, different from the heroic image portrayed in the US press. On 28th July 1932, MacArthur, as chief of staff of the Army, personally led a cavalry attack on unarmed World War I veterans protesting living conditions. In World War II he was evacuated from the Philippines, leaving behind his troops to suffer brutal treatment under the Japanese Imperial forces. For this he received the Medal of Honor. In the Korean War MacArthur was in charge of the US troops until he was dismissed by President Harry S Truman in 1951 for insubordination.

Over one million US servicemen were based in Australia. In November 1942 a riot broke out in Brisbane, Queensland, between US military personnel and Australian troops, later called the Battle of Brisbane. Brisbane then had a population of 330,000, plus 80,000 US troops. The conflict began with US personnel being better paid than the Australian military and US military uniforms being more appealing to women than Australian uniforms. The US Army provided silk stockings, chocolate, and army rations to American troops, who handed them out to Australian women. Black troops were forced to stay in South Brisbane and were severely beaten by US Military Police (MPs) if seen north of the Brisbane River. As Black Americans were liked by Australian troops, witnessing such vicious racism only added to the resentment. In the first night of the riot, one Australian serviceman was killed, eight people suffered gunshot wounds and several hundred people were injured. On the second night, eight US MPs, one serviceman and four American officers were hospitalised, with countless others injured. No US personnel were prosecuted. Similar riots broke out in Melbourne in 1942, Bondi in 1943, Perth and Fremantle in 1944. There were other riots in Townsville, Rockhampton, and Mount Isa in Queensland.

The US military insisted that its personnel be tried by US military courts and not by local courts, a denial of national sovereignty. Edward Leonski, a US soldier, was a serial killer who strangled three women to death in Melbourne in 1942. Leonski confessed to the crimes and was convicted and sentenced to death at a US general court-martial on 17th July 1942. General MacArthur personally signed the execution order and Leonski was hanged at HM Prison Pentridge, Melbourne on 9th November.

With more than 800 US military bases around the world, conflict between US troops and locals are not infrequent. In 2022, on the 50th anniversary of the return of the island group into Japanese control, after 27 years of American rule, The governor of Okinawa asked the Japanese government to reduce the US military presence on the island. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida insisted that the US military presence be maintained. Japanese missile defence and the amphibious capabilities on Ishigaki, Miyako, and Yonaguni are important because of the island’s proximity to Taiwan. Sexual assaults and crimes are major complaints against the US military. In 1996 the base was almost closed after the 1995 rape of a schoolgirl by three US military personnel, which led to massive anti-US demonstrations. Okinawan authorities continue to face denials by the US in criminal and environmental investigations.

Up to 1999 the Panama Canal Zone held massive US military bases protecting shipping in the Canal. The Zone was far richer than nearby Panama City. It was not just the difference in obvious wealth, but the perceived lack of sovereignty of the Panamanian people, that caused frequent anti-US feelings. In 1963, President John F Kennedy agreed to allow the Panamanian flag to fly alongside the US flag at all non-military sites in the Canal Zone. When this agreement was annulled after his assassination, 200 students demonstrated at Balboa High School, carrying their school’s Panamanian flag and a sign proclaiming their country’s sovereignty over the US Canal Zone. A scuffle broke out and the Panamanian flag was torn up, resulting in an angry crowd of 30,000 Panamanians crossing into the Canal Zone. Demonstrations then spread to Colon, at the opposite end of the Canal. Fifteen Panamanians were killed by the US military, their deaths are remembered in Martyrs’ Day, 9th January. The incident led to the 1977 signing of the Torrijos–Carter Treaties, which dissolved the Canal Zone in 1979 and transferred full control of the canal to the Panamanian government on 31st December 1999.

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