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Marines in Melbourne

Volume 6 Number 3 March 8 - April 12 2010

Studio photograph of US Marine Corporal Fred Balester, taken in 1942, from the Exhibition ‘Over-paid, over-sexed and over here: US Marines in Wartime Melbourne 1943’.
Studio photograph of US Marine Corporal Fred Balester, taken in 1942, from the Exhibition ‘Over-paid, over-sexed and over here: US Marines in Wartime Melbourne 1943’.

An exhibition at the Melbourne Town Hall tells how during WW2 the friendly invasion of Melbourne by US Marines recuperating after combat led to cultural changes and lasting relationships. By Katherine Smith.

The yearning of traumatised young soldiers for the comforts of home and hearth is one of the themes explored in a new exhibition documenting the presence in Melbourne during WW2 of servicemen from the United States First Marine Division.

The exhibition, currently on show at the City of Melbourne’s City Gallery, is based on research undertaken within the School of Historical Studies at the University of Melbourne by co-curators Professor Kate Darian-Smith and former postgraduate student Ms Rachel Jenzen. It tells of how, contrary to popular representations of American servicemen as “over-paid, over-sexed and over here”, many of the young soldiers who were stationed in Melbourne during WW2 for rest and rehabilitation were in fact little more than young boys. Away from home for the first time, they were eager for the comfort and reassurance of domestic life.

Rachel Jenzen, who, as part of her Master of Arts thesis in History, interviewed more than 60 US marines who had been stationed in Melbourne, says that for many, Melbourne was the biggest city they had ever seen. Having survived gruelling experiences as part of the Guadalcanal campaign, they were seeking nurture and support.

“A significant number of visiting marines struck up close friendships with local families and spent much of their leave enjoying the generous hospitality extended to them,” Ms Jenzen explains. “These friendships proved to be enlightening cross-cultural encounters for both parties and in many instances, endured for decades after the war.”

She says that just as many of the marines found comfort with ‘Melbourne Moms’, the young men also filled roles as substitute sons.

One of the most touching items on display is a letter to an Oklahoma mother, written by Doris MacKenzie of East St Kilda who had ‘adopted’ marine private Jack Callaghan, and cared for him as one of her own. She made him a cake for his birthday with “eighteen candles on it” and got up in the night to mix him honey and lemon when he had a cold.

One can only imagine the relief and gratitude that Jack’s mother in America must have experienced on reading the words written to her by a complete stranger on the other side of the world: “My dear Mrs Callaghan – You no doubt will be surprised to hear from me but I am writing to let you know where your son “Jack” is. I have had him staying with me and my family and I might tell you my dear that he is having a good rest and is looking wonderfully well.”

Professor Kate Darian-Smith, an expert on Australia during wartime, explains that the exhibition brings a new dimension to the myths and memories surrounding American servicemen.

“Although the Second World War launched close and long-standing military and economic ties between Australia and the US, the history of the American presence in wartime Melbourne – and particularly that of the US Marines, an elite volunteer corps – is little known. This exhibition addresses that gap, and presents new material about the US Marines and their memories and experiences of Melbourne.

“The American presence affected the lives of many Melbourne families, and in particular young women — a number of whom married marines and later travelled to the US as ‘war brides’. It also had a lasting impact on the servicemen themselves, with many recalling their time in Melbourne as the highlight of their wartime experiences,” Professor Darian-Smith explains.

As the curators write in the exhibition materials, the Guadalcanal campaign, a strategic victory over Japan in the Pacific theatre, took a horrific toll on the marines, with those who survived unwounded suffering from malaria, dengue fever, jungle rot, malnutrition and combat fatigue. After treatment at the 4th General Hospital (now the Royal Melbourne Hospital), the recovering young men “came to view Melbourne as a kind of paradise, representing the antithesis of war.”

The story of one young mother’s experience of a train load of young marines moving slowly through Newport Station showering cigarettes – the only things they had to give – on her two-year-old baby in his pram illustrates the joy the young men experienced at seeing something so normal, positive and familiar.

Other stories tell of the “coming of age” of many marines on St Kilda beach as they shared time with the young women of Melbourne, who were charmed by their American-style dating practices of dinner and dancing, and the gifts of beer, chocolate and nylons the marines had to offer – luxuries not readily available locally.

“The US Army was very progressive,” says Ms Jenzen, “in that they supplied the marines with education about STDs and unwanted pregnancy, gave them condoms, and perhaps an unwitting advantage over their Australian counterparts!”

“The marines’ charm and foreign appeal led to some ill-will between locals and the American visitors, which authorities handled by arranging a barbecue at the MCG, where the marines were stationed, to which local Australian soldiers were invited.”

Described as a “timely public relations event”, a marine’s own description paints a picture of a huge beer party, leaving diggers and marines next morning “laid out as far as the eye could see”, which health authorities today could not endorse but which eased tensions somewhat,” she says.

Exhibition dates: 17 February – 30 April, City Gallery, Melbourne Town Hall.

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