THERE was a time when we would blithely say “And in the words of General MacArthur, I shall return” without having a clue about who he was or to where he planned to return.
Today it became clear why such an expression should leave its mark on Australian kids decades later, as the great American general was based in Brisbane from July 1942 until November 1944 and it was here that he established his command centre for the war in the Pacific.
The general’s rooms are now a museum on the 8th floor of the 10-storey MacArthur Building, then known as the AMP building, at the end of the Queen Street Mall where it meets Edward Street.
Apart from an easily-missed heritage information sign on one corner, and a brass plaque, there is little to announce that this inner city building housed an integral part of the war effort.
It was built in 1934 for the Australian Mutual Provident Society and renamed to honour its wartime role.
It’s said the defence forces chose it for its location, appointments (which are grand) and solid construction.
The roof is of two sections of reinforced concrete each 30cm thick.
The building is in the English renaissance style and can also claim to being the site where, for the first time in Australia, the builder supervised construction with an architect in his employ as technical advisor. Traditionally the designing architect supervised construction.
It is concrete over a steel frame with a face of red and grey granite and Helidon freestone.
Distinctive features are its great bronze doors and windows, paired Tuscan columns and pilasters and marble statuary over the entrance.
Now, back to Macarthur. Great secrecy surrounded his move to Brisbane and while the people of Brisbane might have seen him ducking out for lunch (he really did) with his wife and son Arthur (Arthur MacArthur, really!) the official news only said he was “somewhere in Australia”.
The plaque sums it up: “In this building General Dough MacArthur Supreme Commander Allied Forces South West Pacific established his headquarters on 21st July 1942 and here he formulated the initial plans which led to final victory over the Japanese forces on 15th August, 1945.
“The forces under his command comprised Navy, Army and Air personnel of Great Britain, United States of America, Australia, New Zealand and Netherlands East Indies”.
The museum on the 8th floor today houses MacArthur’s office faithfully restored to its original splendour, the table around which the war plans were made and, what makes it really special, easy to follow displays of what World War II meant to the people of Brisbane.
As well as MacArthur and the war effort, topics covered include the war brides; the so-called Brisbane War, a night when the Aussie boys took on the Yankee soldiers who were taking their women; schools that closed until slit trenches were built around playgrounds to make them safe from air attack; rail transport and even how Vegemite was sent to the troops to keep them strong.
Brisbane’s population jumped from 350,000 to 750,000 in the space of a year as all the troops arrived in town.
In all, it’s absolutely fascinating. Once those lift doors open on the 8th floor it’s like stepping back into another time.
The museum is open 10am to 3pm Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday and is excellent value for $6 adults entry.
Access is via the MacArthur Chambers Apartments in Edward Street, which look like an excellent place to stay – in a style of which the general would no doubt approve.