Brisbane at War

A look the impacts of the war on Brisbane

Image: Air raid shelters down Elizabeth Street, Brisbane, 1942 [SLQ 166469]

Brisbane was home to fewer than 350,000 people in 1941. Over the next three years the city itself had reached over 700,000 with up to one million U.S. military personnel passing through the city en route to the Pacific War. By mid-1943, nearly 100,000 US troops were stationed around the city. The strains on transport, hotels and food supplies were unprecedented. Suddenly, many of the freedoms which Brisbane people took for granted had vanished. In daily life, from shopping to schooling, winning the war came first.

It began on 22 December 1941 when a US naval convoy arrived at Brett’s Wharf, escorted by the heavy cruiser USS Pensacola. Although the USS Pensacola did not actually birth in Brisbane, the convoy’s troops were billeted at Eagle Farm. Over the following years, Sandgate, Petrie and Strathpine housed major air force bases and warships and submarines crowded the banks of the Brisbane River at New Farm. Australian and American troops poured in from southern States, filling camps in and around Brisbane along with British, Dutch, and Filipino troops. City offices and university buildings at St Lucia became military headquarters. Private homes, schools and other buildings were taken over for military use. To meet the perceived threat from Japanese carrier aircraft, the Brisbane City Council began the construction of over 200 surface shelters. These concrete and sandbagged boxes were designed to be used after the war was over and changed the face of the city.

Sandbagged Entrances
Sandbagged Entrances

Office buildings had taped windows and sandbagged entrances, water mains filled with salty river water for fighting fires ran from North Quay along Ann and Elizabeth Streets. Lights were turned off for each night’s ‘brown-out’. Brisbane had become the Command Centre for one of the largest wartime campaigns in history.

Gas and electricity companies, Police, Ambulance, even the Salvation Army, Fire Brigade and Boy Scouts formed a civil defence network. Junior police officers at a Roma Street Control Centre co-ordinated the many civil defenders, amongst them Air Raid Wardens. Fears of an air raid on Brisbane lasted for a long time after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Inside the MacArthur Museum you will see our newsreel and displays that depict life on the home front and the transformation of a 'country town' into a focal point in the war against the Axis Powers.

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