American Involvement in Australia During WWII
March 14, 2003
War started in Australia on September 1, 1939, with the British declaring war on Germany. As Australia was bound up with England in the British Commonwealth along with countries such as Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa, they were officially at war. The Australian homeland, however, did not fully mobilize for war until December 7, 1941, when the Japanese launched a surprise attack on the Unites State’s fleet based in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Soon after, the Australian port city of Darwin was attacked by planes of the Japanese empire, precipitating their active involvement in the hostilities which had overtaken the rest of the world. The Australians and the US would forge a strong partnership, both militarily and culturally, as the war progressed.
As the war continued, the Australian government shifted from a subservient vassal state of England, and transferred its allegiance to the United States. After the war, it set out on its own course, and tried to assert its identity in the new, post war world. For a country with a prewar population of just over 700,000, the war was traumatic. Over 10,000 woman left with American servicemen, one million of whom eventually passed through the country. The change was not easy, as evidenced by the riots known as The Battle of Brisbane, which resulted in the death of one and the wounding of several. Americans were loud, drank too much, partied too much, and were over-sexed, according to the Australians. Many resented the intrusion, but were powerless to prevent it.
Americans changed the Australian culture, bringing more “American Style Life” to the continent than war materials. Before the war, the British had dominated Australia, economically as well as culturally. Australians imported various forms of American music, prior to the war, but jazz, swing, jive, and the blues only flourished when the Americans came. Nightclubs popped up everywhere the troops did, along with many women, who hoped for a better life with the servicemen. Hollywood continued to dominate the film industry, but its hold on the entertainment industry began to falter as the Australians began to take control of their own movie making. During the late 1930s, attendance at sporting events and theater rose dramatically, as people tried to enjoy life as much as they could before the impending war struck. Americans introduced baseball to the land down under, though it did not stick as most preferred cricket, soccer, and the homegrown “Australian Rules Football.” In addition to their culture, Americans brought nylon stockings, as well as the first serial killer in Australia, a US serviceman in Melbourne.
American goods poured into Australia, and one man came who would be just as important to the war, and Australia, as the war material. His name was General Douglas MacArthur. As the commander of all the troops in the SWPA (South West Pacific Area), he often appeared to locals to have more control over their country than Prime Minister John Curtin. MacArthur’s brash style made him popular with his troops, and his brilliant delaying techniques in the Philippines made Australians happy to have him, even if they considered it be a dubious honor.
MacArthur, born in 1880 to an aristocratic family, entered West Point, the US Military Academy, in 1899. He came to Australia in 1942, and set up the SWPA. Earlier, the US, Great Britain, Holland, and Australia had established the ABDA (American-British-Dutch-Australian) joint command in December 1941. The organization proved to be unwieldy, and was disbanded on February 25, 1942. When MacArthur took over, he assumed control over all Australian forces, including the air force, army, merchant marine, and the navy over which he had control with Admiral Nimitz. MacArthur planned his island-hopping campaign from the relatively safe city of Brisbane. He had virtual control over the wartime government, and Australians commanders were forced to listen to him, except when his war-planners put their troops in excessive risk. Even then, they only had the right of appeal to their government, though nothing was guaranteed.
The SWPA was comprised of the 6th and 7th Australian divisions, together with the 41st and 32nd US divisions. The RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) relied upon American aircraft, and earned 23 United States Awards. With most of Australia’s merchant marine devastated by German and Japanese submarines, General MacArthur had to rely on Liberty Ships, crewed by Americans, to transport his men and material. The Air Observer Corps kept track of US fighter, bomber, and transport aircraft. On Jan 15, 1942, ATC (Air Transport Command) aircraft began to fly the 7800 mile route from the west coast to Australia. This enabled the US to bring in much needed supplies in days, instead of the weeks that it took on ships.
Nimitz used Australian ships in the Battle of Coral Sea, and they provided support for American landings in the Philippines, the Solomons, Guadacanal, and New Britain. Australian planes provided top cover for landings at Hollandia, Wadke, and Biak, and mined the ports in Guadacanal, using US made Catalinas. RAAF Mobile Works Units deployed with US troops when they landed at Aitape, and they built an airfield there in just 42 hours, a full day ahead of the schedule set by American planners. Aging Brewster Buffaloes were used in the Malaysian campaign. The RAAF used B-24 Liberators, Vengeance dive bombers, P-40 Kittyhawks, and A-20 Bostons in their fight against the Japanese. Australian airlines also flew American planes, including the Lockheed Electra, Lodestar, and 14, along with the popular workhorse of the war, the Douglas DC-3 Dakota. ANA (Australian National Airlines) used sixteen planes on loan from the United States Army.
After the Japanese took control of the island of Timor in early 1942, Australian troops were landed to help the locals fight a commando war against the invaders. In 1943, the commandos were forced to pull out, and made their escape on the American submarine Gudgeon. On Portuguese Timor, US made Hudson bombers supplied commandos, and bombed the town of Dili, and as well as other targets, in order to help the Australians disrupt Japanese lines of communication, and generally harass the conquerors.
Australian production of aircraft began in 1936 when the Air Board Technical Commission toured the United States, and acquired a license to build the NA-16, from North American. From this plane, the CAC (Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation) developed the Wirraway, which they used disastrously as a fighter against the Japanese. The NA-16 has been designed as a trainer, and was no match for the speedy Zeros which the Japanese sent to combat the slow and ungainly Wirraways. Later in the war, the CAC licensed the P-51 Mustang, also from North American, and built 18 out of the 350 ordered. Testing began in May of 1945, but by then the war was nearly over, and the order was canceled.
Australian built DeHavilland Mosquitoes used Packard built Merlin engines, while Pratt and Whitney licensed the Wasp and Twin Wasp engines to the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation, which built all 680 and 870 ordered, respectively. Several other American-made engines were tested and ordered, but the war’s close precluded their being built.
The war proved to be a two way street, with American troops using Australia as a base, and more importantly, as a surrogate home. The Australian government relied on American aid to help it defend itself from the Japanese. Since the war, the two countries have been allied in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and elsewhere.
In conclusion, the war provided a jump start to US-Australian relations, and let them grow to understand each other, if not love each other. Americans came in, prepared to take over, but left impressed by Australian courage. The Australian government weaned itself from the British, and came into its own on the world stage.
Dear, I.C.B. ed. The Oxford Companion to World War II. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.
Rigge, Simon. War in the Outposts. Chicago: Time Life, 1980.
Taylor, Michael J.H. ed. Jane’s Encyclopedia of Aviation. New York: Random, 1993.
Jane’ s Fighting Aircraft of World War II. London: Random, 2001.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
American Involvement in Australia During WWII