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Published December 5th 2019
Historical fiction about an event hushed up for 70 years
Published by William Heinemann in 2019[/I]
KhakiTown by Australian author Judy Nunn has an interesting byline : "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 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 in 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 into roadblock the rioters.
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. The event was hushed up for political reasons.
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.
Khaki Town also covers the anti-American sentiment by the Aussie soldiers who declared the yanks to be "overpaid, oversexed, 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.
Nunn has successfully recreated a sense of the events from all those years ago and in doing so has highlighted a situation that may never otherwise have been exposed to the general public.