A black chapter in American history in Australia

African-American soldiers in Townsville in WWII

“And so, sir, in the lonelier and perhaps even more disheartening moments which come to any national leader, I hope there will be a corner of your mind and heart which takes cheer from the fact that you have an admiring friend, a staunch friend that will be all the way with LBJ.”

That was Prime Minister Harold Holt in a speech at the White House in July, 1966, telling the President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson, that America had a friend in Australia. “All the way with LBJ” was also the Democratic Party’s campaign slogan in 1964 when Johnson was re-elected president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963.

Harold Holt had met Lyndon Johnson in Melbourne in June 1942, when the then US Congressman was on a flying visit for President Franklin D. Roosevelt to see how the war effort was going in Australia. It was a flight that nearly ended his life when the B-17 Bomber he was travelling on had to make an emergency landing in the central Queensland desert.

But the big war story in Queensland that year occurred in the city of Townsville the previous month. LBJ was briefed in Sydney by US Time and Life correspondent, Bob Sherrod, about a mutiny by African American troops in Townsville in May 1942 when they turned their machineguns on their white officers.  Six hundred black GIs seized their base after racial incidents, including the reported killing of a black sergeant by a white officer. You’ve probably read about this in The Weekend Australian (http://bit.ly/yAMr0o) or heard about it or watched it on the ABC (http://bit.ly/xS5K5k ). But at the time, the story was censored, as it was considered too hot to handle by LBJ.

It was all about racial friction, which had been brewing for months in the city where the African Americans from the US 96th Engineers battalion had been building airfields and barracks and “bridges” with the local women. Commenting on Sherrod’s report, Congressman Johnson said the black troops should have never been sent to Australia: “There are no women here for them, and some ugly situations have resulted.”  (There’s a very good version of events on Peter Dunn’s Australia @ War website http://bit.ly/AanNHS ).

Johnson, who as President of the United States, twisted the arms of southern Congressmen to help pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964, was singing a different tune in 1942 when he said no more black servicemen should be sent to Australia “or into any area where there are no women to accept them.”

All this information comes from Johnson’s papers in the LBJ Presidential Library, sent to Townsville-based researcher Ray Holyoak, who’s writing a postgraduate study on African Americans in north Queensland during World War II ( Here’s a link to Ray’s details: http://bit.ly/AsveJc ).

It’s a fascinating story, but to me, the most interesting reaction comes from the American journalist, Bob Sherrod, in his comments about Australia and its soldiers and its willingness to fight in the war in the Pacific. Our Diggers showed extraordinary courage as prisoners of war in the Pacific and as soldiers driving the Japanese forces out of Malaya, Burma, the Solomons, and New Guinea, to name just a few, yet this is what Sherrod wrote to Johnson after their briefing: “The country in which we are building our last ditch in the Pacific is disappointing. It not only lacks resources. It lacks leaders and it lacks intelligence.

“Australia has no ideology. Its only heroes are Ned Kelly, the bandit, and Don Bradman, the cricketer — crime and cricket. The national motto, so far as I have been able to determine, is f–k-all.” (http://bit.ly/yY6HLm )

Sherrod obviously was unable to understand that “f—k-all” was a motto that meant Australians would just get on with the job, and move in where others feared to tread. But he really got it wrong when he went on to say we were a country without heroes: “I can’t imagine America without its Washington, its Lincoln and its Lee. But here, actually, is a country without a hero. Most Australians suffer from inferiority complexes, especially since the Americans arrived — and I must say that the hundred thousand or more Americans over here contain an astonishingly high proportion of gentlemen.

“The Australians continually refer to the ‘flower of American manhood’ in apologising for Australian troops by comparison, but I like to believe the Americans who are over here are just average.”

If he really knew Australians, he would have known that the “flower of American manhood” was meant to take the mickey out of American troops (and American journalists silly enough to believe  Australians would use the term to praise the Yankee soldiers). Okay, Australians occasionally suffer from inferiority complexes, but most Aussies are just being humble, and don’t take themselves as seriously as Americans.

And Australia has its World War II heroes: George Robert Smith, a Prisoner of War at Changi for three years – shown on the TV news this week commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore and just one of the more than 22 thousand PoWs of the Japanese; Weary Dunlop, the famous surgeon of the Burma-Thailand railway;  and Flight Lt William Ellis Newton, a Victoria Cross winner in New Guinea – just one of the 20 Australian VC recipients in WWII.  There are, of course, many more Australian heroes.

Twenty four years after their first meeting, LBJ visited Australia in October 1966 to thank Prime Minister HoIt for contributing Australian troops to Vietnam. I wonder if the PM asked LBJ if he still believed Australians had no heroes, except Ned Kelly and Don Bradman. According to historian Ray Holyoak, the Congressman appropriated Sherrod’s briefing to impress President Roosevelt.

Given the protests against the war in Australia in 1966, I doubt that Prime Minister Holt asked his “staunch friend” President Johnson anything controversial, let alone anything about a censored report that didn’t see the light of day until last week.

In December 1967, the President flew to Australia to attend the funeral of Harold Holt after he disappeared in the sea off the family home at Portsea, Victoria. The Washington Post News Service reported that Mr Johnson called on Mrs Holt shortly after he arrived in Melbourne “to express his deep sorrow over the loss of the foreign statesman probably closer to the President than any other.”

It’s a shame Harold Holt didn’t ask his mate, Lyndon Baines Johnson, whether racism was still a problem in the US Armed Forces in Vietnam. He could have inquired about the process of “fragging,” as described in the superb Vietnam war novel, Matterhorn, by highly decorated US marine, Karl Marlantes: “Murdering someone, usually an unpopular officer or sergeant, by throwing a fragmentation grenade into his living quarters or fighting hole.”

One of the characters in Matterhorn is Henry, a black radical, who wants to kill a white officer, and berates a black moderate, China: “If you really workin’ revolution, then you better start here. You frag the mother f-cker. That way we teach those f-ckin’ bigots that payback start right away. They gonna f-ck with us, we gonna f-ck with them worse.”

The mutiny of African-American GIs in Townsville in 1942 would have been no surprise to black US Marines in Vietnam or any recent war. I’m looking forward to Ray Holyoak’s study on African Americans in north Queensland during World War II. It’s likely to teach us a lot about Australia as well as America.

2 thoughts on “A black chapter in American history in Australia

  1. As I understood it, Johnson supported civil rights not from any liberal, humanist tendency, not from sympathy with the plight of blacks, but because he saw the civil rights issue – the race issue – as a constraint on the South’s development. He wanted to remove a yoke, not to “free” the blacks.

    • Paul, As always, thanks for your comments. LBJ indeed voted against civil rights legislation when he first entered Congress, but by 1957 when he was Senate majority leader, civil rights had become a major issue, and he didn’t want a campaign against civil rights for blacks to threaten his leadership. There’s a very good assessment of LBJ’s stance on civil rights in Stephen B. Oates’ biography of Martin Luther King, Jnr, Let the Trumpet Sound: “Johnson was no white supremacist … He understood the discrepancy between segregation and the American dream. He reminded himself that he was a Roosevelt Democrat with a deep well of sympathy for poor people — and that must include Negro people. He concluded that the ‘Senate simply had to act, the Democratic Party simply had to act, and I simply had to act; the issue could wait no longer.’ On the Senate floor, this tall, jug-eared man, speaking in his south-Texas drawl, threw his enormous parliamentary talents behind the 1957 civil-rights bill and got it enacted.” And in his first presidential address to Congress on November 27, 1963, five days after the assassination of JFK, Johnson said: “No memorial oration or eulopgy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.” And Martin Luther King, the great civil rights leader, believed him and he and other black leaders were in the White House when LBJ signed the bill on July 2, 1964. But King always had his reservations about LBJ because of his massive ego. Here’s Oates again: “… King confided in his staff that one thing about Johnson troubled him. When you went to see Kennedy, King said, he listened to you for an hour and asked questions. ‘When you went to see Lyndon Johnson, he talked for an hour’.” And I can’t resist this quote from the King biography. Congressman Emanuel Celler of Brooklyn said he heard Johnson say once that “he wanted men around him who were loyal enough to kiss his ass in Macy’s window and say it smelled like a rose.” I hope no Australian politician finds this quote, I can see them using it in Parliament and just changing Macy’s to Myer’s!

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