Khaki Town by Australian author Judy Nunn had an interesting byline that had me throw caution to the wind and spend $1 at a charity store. Bargain! It said:
“ inspired by a true wartime story that has remained a well-kept secret for over seventy years”.
Historical fiction I read this in a single sitting under the comfort of ceiling fans and followed up with a little research. This is what I discovered:
Back in 2012 an Australian historian, Ray Holyoak, from James Cook University, was researching why US congressman Lyndon B Johnson visited Townsville for three days back in 1942.
During World War II, Townsville was a crucial base for campaigns into the Pacific, including the Battle of the Coral Sea. To this day it remains a garrison town.
About 600 African-American troops were brought to the city to help build airfields and bridges. These troops, from the 96th Battalion, US Army Corps of Engineers, were stationed at a base on the city’s western outskirts. Two white USA officers handed out serial abuse in the form of racial taunts and violence which resulted in a large-scale siege lasting eight hours.
Holyoak uncovered several documents hidden in the archives of the Queensland Police and Townsville Brigade from the night of 22nd May, 1942, confirming that the soldiers took to machine guns and anti-aircraft weapons and fired into tents where their white counterparts were drinking. More than 700 rounds were fired.
At least one person was killed and dozens severely injured, and Australian troops were called in to roadblock the rioters. ( I suspect alcohol may have played a part which would account for so many lousy shots).
Mr Holyoak also discovered a report written by Robert Sherrod, a US journalist who was embedded with the troops which never made it to the press, but was handed to Lyndon B Johnson at a Townsville hotel and eventually filed away into the National Archives and Records Administration.
For political reasons this incident was hushed up.
Khaki Town is based on these events though very much embellished and personalised with stories about the troops and their interaction with the citizens of Townsville, as well as the relationships between white Australians and aboriginals.
The author also includes a tale of coffins containing the bodies of African Americans on a train from Mt Isa, west of Townsville, which I confirmed here:
“Sister Eileen Richardson recalls the Americans arrived in Mount Isa and took over Hilton Hall which was owned by Mount Isa Mines, which became the 17th Station Hospital. She remembers a tragic incident where 73 Negro soldiers died after drinking a home brew which was made in disused cyanide drums, which were probably surplus from the mines. The cyanide would have seeped into the inside seams of the drums. The 73 coffins were loaded on a train and sent to Townsville possibly to the US Military Cemetery in Townsville.”
Khaki Town also covers the anti American sentiment by the Aussie soldiers who declared the yanks to be “ over paid, over sexed, and over here”. Apparently, American troops were also known as paw paws – “green on the outside and yellow on the inside” – which I had never previously heard
The racism in this novel is ugly and Australia is hardly as pure as the driven snow with its White Australia Policy. Regardless, a good read that opened my eyes to an interesting facet of our history. I look forward to reading Holyoaks further research.
LBJ visited Australia during his presidency in 1966. My ex, a Townsville lad, to this day argues that the biggest thing ever to happen in FNQ was the visit for a day to Townsville by the President, beaten only in popularity by a visit from Elvis Presley’s car. It’s that kind of town.