Recently a story came to light that a researcher in Queensland had uncovered documents that showed there had been a major mutiny amongst American soldiers stationed in Townsville during the Second World War. The mutiny was a very violent affair: black soldiers, fed up with constant racial abuse, turned machine guns and anti-aircraft guns on their comrades’ tents and held strong during an eight hour-siege that killed one person and injured many more.
The mutiny’s discovery was moment of felicity for the researcher, Ray Holyoak, who had been investigating the visit of Congressman (later President) Lyndon B Johnson to Townsville during 1942. As Townsville had a large American presence during the war there was quite a likelihood that the visit was just a routine affair but, as the documents show, it coincided with one of the worst uprisings in US military history.
Most interesting to me was the revelation that the documents confirmed local lore that told of an uprising amongst American soldiers stationed in Townsville during the war. The secretive nature of information collected by governments during wars means that it is easy for fascinating stories and events to be squirreled away and forgotten and without local legends to act as pointers for researchers luck quickly becomes the determining factor as to whether those stories and events will be lost forever.
A year or two ago I was given an essay to read: an auto-biographical account of Bryan Power’s childhood and adolescence in North Shore, Victoria during World War Two and the post-war years. Power discussed how the International Harvester tractor factory at North Shore had been taken over by the RAAF for war-time production of aircraft, a not unusual occurrence in industrial areas during the war. However, he went on to say that in 1942 the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) had taken control of the area, converted the paddocks into an airfield, brought in Kittyhawks and tested machine guns for the planes.
The conversions of factories in Geelong during the war is well known but, as I found out, the American base established at North Shore in 1942 is practically unheard of: when I first started looking for information about the assembly of Kittyhawks in North Shore there was a total dearth of information. There were a few articles from the Geelong Advertiser and other local papers about test flights and crashes during the war, information about a Spitfire base near Lara and a secret training base near Cressy but nothing mentioned North Shore or Kittyhawks.
Similarly, the RAAF Museum at Point Cook was unable to find out any extra information about an American base in North Shore, though they did confirm that the International Harvester factory had been used to assemble Fairey Battles and other equipment.
Finally I had a stroke of luck. On a whim I had emailed the American Air Force Historical Studies Office in Washington to ask whether they had any information about a training, testing or manufacturing base for Kittyhawks in North Shore and a few days later I received a reply with scans of documents containing information about the use of the International Harvester factory by the Americans.
From the documents I learned that on the 13th of January, 1942, the USS Mariposa and USS President Coolidge had departed San Francisco for Melbourne. They carried a cargo of 51 P-40Es (Kittyhawks), 19 P-39Ds and 200 tons of aircraft parts along with a number of units including the Fourth Air Depot Group (ADG) of the Fifth Air Force. An internal report on the Fourth Air Depot Group says that when the men arrived in early February they found a thriving and humming city in Melbourne were surprised to land at a spot that resembled so closely an up-to-date American city.
Some of the men in the Fourth ADG were sent to Laverton, others to Essendon or Broome and a few were sent to the International Harvester factory in Geelong where they started work assembling the aircraft that had been shipped with them. Though brief, the documents did confirm that the Americans had operated a base in North Shore.
A little while later I stumbled across an article written by Walt Cornell, an American who had served in the Fourth ADG during the war and briefly been posted to Geelong. The section on his time in Geelong is brief (he only spent two months at Geelong before being posted to Essendon) but it does corroborate Power’s essay and the documents from Washington.
Of particular interest is Cornell’s claim that relations between American servicemen and the locals had remained good even after a man had been shot as a suspected saboteur after being caught climbing on one of the planes at the base. Power’s essay also mentions a saboteur being shot at on the base but with one major difference: he says the only casualty was Phil Widman’s cow. It is quite possible that they are both describing the same event.
On a lighter note, Cornell also elaborates on a fairly euphemistic note in an internal report on the Fourth ADG. After detailing the arrival of the Fourth ADG in Melbourne and the various bases it was stationed at the report mentions that the men “had a troublesome time acquiring a taste for the Australian methods of preparing food.” Or, as Cornell put it, “I believe then was when I began developing a strong dislike for mutton and lamb; a dislike that grew to gagging proportions and has remained with me since.”