Queensland in 1942
The Menzies government committed Australia to war against Nazi Germany in September 1939, however, it was not until the simultaneous Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and Malaya in December 1941 that the Second World War became a frightening reality for most Australians. Just before Christmas, the Pensacola convoy arrived. These ships had been sent to reinforce MacArthur in the Philippines, but were diverted to Brisbane after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Manila, Hong Kong and Malaya. The men disembarked at Brett's Wharf and marched up to make their camp in the Eagle Farm Race Course. They were the first of what would become a flood of US soldiers and sailors to arrive in Queensland.
At this time, three of the four Australian Divisions – the 6th, 7th and 9th- were serving overseas in Europe and the Middle East, while the 8th went into captivity after the fall of Singapore and the Netherlands East Indies (modern Indonesia) in February and March of 1942. This left Australia relatively unprotected. Brisbanites turned out to wave to the convoy and many came to the racecourse to offer hospitality, grateful for this sign that help would come.
In March 1942, the almost miraculous escape from the besieged Philippines of General MacArthur, his wife and young son, and their arrival in Australia was headline news around the world. The General arrived to take command of the Allied forces, believing that while he was under siege, the US had been building up an army in Australia. He was shocked to learn he'd left behind more men in the Philippines than he had to command here. The decision to concentrate on Europe first and the loss of available transport at Pearl Harbor had made the Pacific a lower priority for the US.
The first Japanese attacks on the Australian mainland had occurred when the Japanese launched two raids on Darwin on 19th February, killing 243 people and wounding between three and four hundred. A similar attack was on the way when MacArthur arrived, causing them to divert to Bachelor Field and then fly on to Alice Springs.
The Allied success in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, prevented a direct Japanese naval assault on Port Moresby, but the arrival of three Japanese midget submarines in Sydney Harbour the following month raised more tensions in Australia.
The destruction of four Japanese aircraft carriers and a heavy cruiser at the Battle of Midway 2 days later (4th -7th June, 1942) inflicted irreparable damage on the Imperial Japanese Navy. Military historian John Keegan has commented that it was ‘the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare’. It was not immediately apparent however, that this was a major turning point in the Pacific War.
Japanese bombing raids on Darwin, Broome and Wyndham in Western Australia, and on the army base at Townsville and other areas of north Queensland continued for the next two years, with loss of life and destruction of war supplies and shipping.
On the home front, the end of 1941 saw Australians swing into urgent recognition that their very existence was under threat. Prime Minister John Curtin's dramatic appeal in a Melbourne Herald article of 26 December 1941 proclaimed: ‘Without any inhibitions of any kind I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.’ This appeal recognised Australia's desperate position, and a vast community feeling of ‘all in’ helped mobilise large sections of the population.
Nearly 100 000 men joined the expanded Volunteer Defence Corps. A National Women’s Employment Board was set up and more than 800 000 women moved into the workforce in defence-related roles as well as non-combatant positions in all three Services. In July the Women’s Land Army was formed. In 1942 schools along the eastern seaboard were closed for several months, and could not re-open until slit trenches were dug. Many private schools were evacuated westward.
Australia had Militia divisions available for defence, and these were called upon to fight in New Guinea on the Kokoda Trail, along with troops called home from the Mediterranean and North Africa by Prime Minister Curtin. Using Australia as a base, US, Australian and other Allied troops gradually repelled the Japanese advance. In July 1942, General MacArthur moved his GHQ to Brisbane and by the end of the year the threat of a full-scale Japanese invasion of Australia had receded.