Mentioning the War

Square Dancing at the Riverview Leave Area Brisbane, November 1943 (Wikimedia Commons)

War, war, what is it good for? Making movies, filling airtime on SBS before the weekend news, and museums apparently.

This week I visited the Macarthur Museum in Brisbane. No one in Brisbane has ever heard of it and it’s hidden away like something you can only find if you know someone who’ll give you the secret code word. Fortunately I do know someone. I can tell you (and won’t have to kill you afterwards) that it’s on the top floor of the MacArthur Chambers building on the corner of Edward and Queen streets. The secret to getting in is that you have to knock on the door. I’m not joking. You knock and the doors magically open. You are then directed to the lift, they wave a pass, and you ascend to the top floor.

Douglas MacArthur (Wikimedia Commons)

I don’t know much history and have never really known who Douglas MacArthur was. If a question at our weekly pub trivia was “Who said, ‘I shall return'”? I might have got it right. (It was him). The things I now know about MacArthur was that he was quite good looking when he was young and that he didn’t. Return that is.

If you’re the sort of person who loves war things then you’ll probably love the MacArthur Museum. I’m not into war. I even refuse to watch new movies that are set during any war because there’s enough violence happening in real time without using it for entertainment purposes. Turn on the news every night if you want some war footage. If you like it a bit graphic watch SBS. If you like it really graphic watch the French news; it has to be really bad for them to blur it.

The MacArthur museum is very well laid out and it’s fascinating to see what Brisbane looked like back when there were trams and everyone wore hats. MacArthur’s actual office is set up as it was when he used it. (It was so tempting to sit in his leather swivel chair and pick up the bakelite phone.)There were quirky things like the iron-on patches to reinforce the heels on your stockings, because it would cost too many clothing stamps to buy new ones if they wore through. It was also interesting to see the government controls imposed on everyone, even “youths and girls”, who from age 14 had to register for and carry an official identity card. Travel was restricted because of petrol rationing, the media was heavily censored, and people started growing vegetables to cope with food rationing. Sound familiar? I wonder if there were protests by people waving flags and frothing vitriol about conspiracy theories when they introduced these controls.

My parents were “in” the second world war. My father was a surveyor in the Australian Army and helped build the railway in Lebanon. My mother joined the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) not so much, she admitted, out of great patriotic feeling, but more to escape her small town and see the world, i.e. more of Queensland. One of her brothers was taken prisoner by the Japanese in Indonesia and subsequently beheaded, leaving behind a wife and three children. So there wasn’t the kind of wistful nostalgia about “the war” in our household that you tend to find in these museums.

There are souvenirs like uniforms and ration books, and pictures of people having a jolly time with the US servicemen, going to see American movies, and doing the jitterbug. There’s a picture of Hollywood star-of-the-day Gary Cooper when he visited Brisbane, with the caption quoting the report of the day saying he was even better looking in real life, and so cool that he was seen “even drinking a cup of coffee”. The people in the photos are almost always smiling as though it was all just a jolly fun adventure.

What I had never heard of was the Battle of Brisbane that occurred in November, 1942. It was not an official war battle but just the Australia servicemen getting fed up with the 80,000 American servicemen landing in Brisbane in their smarter uniforms, taking their women, getting paid a lot more, and not being subject to the same restrictions on food and everything else like the rest of Brisbane because they had their own supplies. Tensions bubbled over into a two-day riot and many soldiers were seriously injured, one Australian soldier fatally.

What they don’t show in these museums and memorials are the mutilated bodies, the mental and emotional scars, or the sheer terror people must have felt in Brisbane hearing Darwin had been bombed. Imagine that now! Imagine if all our phones suddenly pinged telling us a foreign country had just bombed Darwin.

What is the purpose of a war memorial or museum if not to ram home the fact that, like country music, war is awful? Someone I know once asked a group of us to think about the ways in which war had shaped us and our families. I’ve mentioned above how war personally affected my family. How has it affected you?

Photo by Ahmed akacha on

2 thoughts on “Mentioning the War

  1. My maternal grandfather fought in both world wars; his decision to fight in the second one contributed to the breakdown of his marriage to my grandma. She didn’t think he should fight again. My dad fought in the second world war in Palestine, Egypt and Papua New Guinea.


  2. Two of my uncles were in the Atlantic convoys In WW2 (Merchant Navy) and survived, one of them had a ‘nervous breakdown’ in the Fifties in the ‘Far East’ and was sent home- I suspect it was what we now know as PTSD. My grandfather rowed the Australian troops ashore at Gallipoli during WWI off the troop carriers. Bloody awful.


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