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MacArthur in Brisbane

Full biography of Douglas MacArthur

Arrival in Brisbane

MacArthur’s arrival in Australia in March 1942 after a harrowing escape from the Philippines through the Japanese forces made headlines around the world. When he came into Melbourne he was greeted by political leaders, reporters and an enthusiastic public. In contrast, when he moved his GHQ (General Headquarters) to Brisbane in July, he arrived without fanfare.

According to Australian Army Intelligence documents, "Among the security problems which faced Military Intelligence in Northern Command was that of ensuring secrecy with regard to the arrival of General Douglas MacArthur in Brisbane. Owing to the number of US personnel arriving in Brisbane and the requisition of office accommodation, it had not been possible to hide indefinitely from the public that GHQ was about to be established in Brisbane. For obvious reasons, however, it was imperative that the date of arrival of General MacArthur should remain a close secret. To this end Military Intelligence was responsible for starting a whispering campaign to the effect that General MacArthur had already arrived in Brisbane. The rumour spread like wildfire and long before General MacArthur arrived, there were thousands of people in Brisbane who were quite satisfied that they had seen him, and were broadcasting to their friends details of his appearance and his habits, and his place of residence. This whispering campaign was so effective that when, in due course, General MacArthur did arrive in Brisbane not one civilian was in the vicinity of the railway station and the passage of his car from the station to his Headquarters and thence to his place of residence attracted little public attention."

Only  his aide, General Sutherland met him at South Brisbane Interstate Railway Station and escorted him to Lennon's Hotel, on George Street where he, his wife, and four year old son would live in apartments on the top floor.  His arrival was never reported in The Courier-Mail.  Some of the photos taken that day were published in the US with captions indicating that was their arrival in Australia.  This upset Mrs. MacArthur because they were wearing their best clothes, newly acquired during their stay in Melbourne, and led to some of the spiteful innuendos that they had brought masses of personal possessions while allowing hundreds of Americans to be captured in the Philippines.

Home in Lennon's Hotel








Hotel plan and photo from the MacArthur family album 
MacArthur Memorial Archives, Norfolk VA

The family occupied the top floor apartments.  His wife had one apartment, he had another so she wouldn't be disturbed when late night conferences were required.  His son and the Chinese amah, Ah Cheu shared a third.

In the hotel, Mrs MacArthur entertained visiting dignitaries, including the wife of the President of the US, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Hollywood stars who had come out to entertain the troops. The MacArthurs had been caught up in a social whirl in Melbourne, and they wanted to be sure it didn’t happen again in Brisbane. In Victoria, having accepted one invitation meant they had to accept all the others to avoid offending; in Brisbane they were seldom seen at private parties and when they went, they’d accept a drink, hold it for awhile, leave it on a convenient table and disappear early in the evening. Drink waiters in the know would prepare a glass of water with a lemon twist and serve it to Mrs. MacArthur as a "martini".  They often showed films in their apartments and tended to socialize mainly with the American officers who served in GHQ. When Mrs MacArthur went out, she was generally escorted by Col. Sid Huff.

Young Arthur MacArthur, born in 1938, played in the grounds of the neighbouring Supreme Court with his Filipino Chinese amah, Ah Cheu. The fact that General MacArthur had brought her with them from the Philippines upset many people.  Some thought he should have left her and given the room to an American nurse.  Others were upset at this flouting of the White Australia Policy.  The MacArthurs felt she was part of their family.

Arthur had one or two young friends. He enjoyed playing music. His mother recalled in an interview that she had enrolled him in a school "out of town" but as she was driving away, an air raid siren sounded and she went back to get Arthur.  After his traumatic experiences on Correigidor, he was likely to be more upset than most by the sounds. The General was 58 when Arthur, his only child, was born.  He doted on him and loved to give him gifts. 

MacArthur usually went home to Lennon's for lunch to see his wife and son if he wasn't too busy.  Mrs MacArthur had always had servants and took the time to learn to cook while she was here as the General soon tired of hotel food.  She wrote home to a dear friend in Tennessee and asked for a recipe for a tuna sandwich, never identifying where she was, referring to it always as "this place where I am."

The secrecy that surrounded MacArthur’s move to Brisbane was enforced in the newspapers of the day. This meant that while ordinary Brisbane people might see the General as he left his hotel for his office, when they read the official news released by his headquarters, it would be datelined: SOMEWHERE IN AUSTRALIA

Offices in the AMP Building 

General Douglas MacArthur occupied the AMP building (now MacArthur Chambers) offices from 20 July 1942 to November 1944. His offices were on the eighth floor, now the Museum.  The advance party had chosen the building because

‘This is the largest and most modern office building, and in the center of town...The offices are good-sized, the building is well run and the offices are served by a battery of three elevators...The second and third floors have air-raid blast walls in the passage-ways, and are fitted to have the tenants of the building gather in those passage-ways for protection. The building is located on the busiest intersection in the center of the town.’

--Excerpt from a report by Brigadier General R.J. Marshall recommending the AMP building as the Command Post in Brisbane, 18 June 1942.

AMP Building on VJ Day 1945

AMP building on VJ Day, State Library of Victoria photo from The Argus

Brisbane saw the presence of the MacArthurs as something like a Royal tour and lined up each day to catch a glimpse of the family coming in and out of Lennon's hotel, or the General’s Wolseley car with distinctive four star license plate and American flag. Occasionally he would visit the Land Forces HQ at St Lucia or the submarine base at New Farm, but most commonly people came to see him,

Command meant not only oversight of battles in Papua-New Guinea but also regular briefings for the Australian Government in Canberra, co-ordination with the US Government, the US Navy’s Pacific Command in Hawaii, and struggles with superiors in Washington.

In the US, as in Britain, strategists focused first on the war against Hitler, fought out in Europe and Africa. MacArthur had to take on Washington in order to get resources to defend Australia and turn back the Japanese advance. His determination in this battle won him great respect in Australia’s highest military and political circles.


The General arriving at his office
MacArthur Memorial Archives

In the basement was installed Sigsaly, the most advanced speech encryption device of the times, permitting him to confer by telephone with Washington DC in complete security.  Others were in London, Algiers, Hawaii,  California, Guam and later in Paris (after its liberation) and in Frankfurt and Berlin (after VE Day). The Brisbane Sigsaly was moved to a 250-ton ship, OL-31. This floating version accompanied General MacArthur in his island hopping campaign in the Pacific, and would have been a key facility if an invasion of Japan had been necessary.  After the war, the Sigsaly machines were broken up

As Australian and US troops won campaign victories throughout 1943-1944, MacArthur spent more time in the New Guinea war zone. His staff continued to work from the AMP building in Brisbane until shortly before MacArthur’s successful return to the Philippines in 1944.  


Link to full biography of Douglas MacArthur in the Australian Dictionary of Biography