The Story Of "I Shall Return": General Douglas MacArthur And The Ghosts Of Terowie

(The army staging camp, August 2007)
This is a tale of a once proud town that was host to one of the most important, and inspiring, moments of World War II. A town that was once referred to as the 'Hub of the North', a bustling little metropolis in the bush. A town that is now overlooked, forgotten and rapidly falling into ruin, buildings falling into dust and as devoid of people as any other little town in the outback.

Founded in the mid 1800s, Terowie is found roughly 200 kilometres from the heart of Adelaide and it can be found on most maps. Along with its sister city, Peterborough, Terowie was vital to the state in general. When the railroads were laid across the country two different gauges were laid, for reasons which still escape me. In order to cross the country there were certain locations where people would have to change trains. In South Australia Peterborough and Terowie served that service for rail that crossed the state coming from Northern Territory via Alice Springs. This rail change made Terowie both vital and vibrant and the town was able to sustain a healthy economy and generations prospered in the town.

(Rail at Terowie, circa 1942. A special platform was built south of the civilian passenger area to handle troop movements)

Due to the importance of Terowie as a rail centre it was selected as one of the major staging camps for both Australian and American troops during World War II. Its location well inland also helped its cause as the towns isolation made it virtually impervious to any serious attack. Despite a lack of communication between the armed forces and the town members itself, a staging camp was quickly set up on and around the showgrounds and soldiers rapidly moved in. Sadly all that remains of the camp now is the solidly built prison. Made of concrete and iron, the block is small and consists of six cells with iron bars, which were covered in inclement weather. The cells still remain cold and unforgiving, even in hot weather. It's near impossible to think what people would have felt at the height of summer and also in the depths of winter, sitting in the cells at night, freezing, looking at the stars above and listening to the footsteps on the cement floor as the guards kept patrol. Added to the oppressive nature of the cells it’s worth noting that during winter it gets so cold it often snows in Terowie. However the cells are all that remains of the army base, the rest is gone.

(Army trucks at the staging camp, circa 1942)

Soldiers found Terowie both accommodating and daunting at the same time. In the late 1980s Terowie historian Marina Gray printed two booklets about military life in Terowie, titled “I Remember” and “I Remember Too”. These booklets are essential reading for anyone who wishes to explore the era in detail in the words of those who were there. The numbers of eye witnesses to Terowie’s war years are reduced with each passing year, so booklets of this importance are well worth the effort to locate. Several things stand out in the reading of these accounts, the weather (heat and cold), the dust and the lack of proper sanitation. Terowie had a limited water supply at the time and as such bores had to be struck. The result was water that was so thick in consistency that it was all but useless. Even the simple task of daily washing became a chore and accounts show that many a soldier simply shaved their heads rather than face the problem of washing their hair. Other problems included a sever burr infestation on the grounds and a general discomfort. Despite being faced with such obstacles the bulk of the soldiers that came through the town remember it with a large degree of fondness.

Events in March 1942 secured Terowie’s place in history for all time. It began in Manila with the siege of Corregidor at the top of the Bataan Peninsula. General Douglas MacArthur had orders to leave the area before the Japanese forces over-run and captured the base there. Reluctantly MacArthur hatched a plan to flee via PT boats, which would take him to the island of Mindanao, from there he would fly into Darwin and then travel to Melbourne, via Adelaide, and establish a base there. The plan was fraught with danger from the start. The PT boats weren’t the best, condition wise, but they were all that were available. The waters were, for the most part, controlled by the Japanese, and the Japanese were aware that MacArthur would be attempting to flee; hence they were on full alert. Arriving safely in Mindanao, MacArthur’s party (which included his wife and young son) quickly moved to the Del Monte airfield where they awaited the arrival of the planes that would ferry them to Darwin. The transport provided were the equal of the boats, and it took 24 hours to prepare (and repair) the aircraft to the point where they would be suitable for their mission at hand. Due to space constrictions the bulk of MacArthur’s personal effects were left at Del Monte.

(Soldiers posing at Terowie, circa 1942)

After eight hours in the air the planes reached the outskirts of Darwin. In an amazing co-incidence Japanese bombers were raiding the city at the same time and managed to completely overlook MacArthur’s flight. The Japanese, in their zeal to bomb the city of Darwin into submission, missed the chance to eliminate their most hated foe. MacArthur’s flight was diverted to the airfield at Batchelor and from there he made his way to Alice Springs where he spent the night. Initially MacArthur demanded a motorcade from Batchelor to Alice Springs, but was soon convinced that such a mode of transport would be impossible. The party flew to Alice Springs and while there MacArthur made the decision that he would travel to Melbourne via rail and that members of his staff would fly ahead and establish his offices. The next day MacArthur boarded a specially prepared train and began his journey south. It is here that history diverts from events that happened and what has been recounted since.

MacArthur spent the bulk of his time on the train reportedly sleeping. His flight had been stressful and the chance to rest was an irresistible one. The train ride, although interrupted by stops to enable passengers to move between general and dining carriages, was, by large, uneventful. MacArthur formulated plans and prepared responses and speeches. Although MacArthur had made himself unavailable to the media and his itinerary was largely unknown, it was accepted that MacArthur would have to appear when at Terowie when he would be forced to change trains. The US Army staging post was also in the town and preparations were made for his arrival.

(General Douglas MacArthur, his wife Jean and son Arthur at Terowie, 20th March, 1942)

The Adelaide Advertiser reports that MacArthur arrived in Terowie at 2pm on the 20th of March, 1942. He disembarked from the train and was met by both civilians and military alike. MacArthur strode onto the station and began to inspect his troops. He saluted everyone and was greeted by Major Claude Rogers. At this point MacArthur was asked to say a few words. What followed has gone down into history books as one of the Generals most stirring comments ever. “The President of the United States ordered me to break through the Japanese lines and proceed from Corregidor to Australia for the purpose, as I understand it, of organizing the American offensive against Japan, a primary objective of which is the relief of the Philippines,” he stated. He then followed it with the one line that defined his war efforts in the Philippines and Australia. “I came through and I shall return.” This marked the first time that he said the phrase and it also marked the first time he had conducted anything that resembled a press conference in Australia. MacArthur then reboarded his train and made his way to Adelaide. Along the way he was given information as to the military status of Australia, which, due to the fact that the bulk of the nations armed forces were fighting in Europe, was bleak. From Adelaide MacArthur made his way to Melbourne and from there his trek in Australia is widely reported.

(Gen. MacArthur greeted at Terowie by Major Claude Rogers, C.O. Terowie Staging Camp)

History, both in print and in film, has largely ignored the significance of Terowie and attributed its finest, and most famous, moment to the larger cities of Adelaide and/or Melbourne where MacArthur gave variations on the same speech that he delivered in Terowie. In the exhaustive book American Caesar by William Manchester, the speech is credited to having first appeared in Adelaide, after being written down on the way to the city on the back of an envelope. In the movie, MacArthur, history is again altered as the speech is delivered for the first time in Melbourne, two days later. According to the reported accounts of the time, neither is accurate. Indeed in several books on MacArthur the speech isn’t credited to any town or city at all, and is just referenced as first appearing in Australia. There is an axiom that states ‘History is a lie agreed upon’, and in this case nothing could be both more accurate and yet further from the truth. Accepted history has MacArthur delivering the speech in Adelaide and/or Melbourne, this is true, to an extent, but it is not when the speech first appeared. Thus history, as recorded by both Manchester and authors that have followed, and Hollywood, have decided instead to present a lie as history.

(Terowie station, August 2007)

At its peak Terowie boasted a population of over 1,200 permanent residents, in recent times that number has fallen to less than 100. The reason for this decline can be traced directly to the standardisation of rail in Australia in the early 1960s. The gauges were altered so that there’d be the one rail gauge throughout the country, as a result rail no longer needed to stop and change at towns such as Terowie, they could travel directly through. The once impressive rail station, which at its peak stretched for five miles, has been reduced to a few crumbling buildings and a station which runs for a few metres at best. The tracks which hummed with action are now silent and rusting. The town, which was full of life, is now largely dead and is rife with problems.

(The plaque that stands where MacArthur gave his speech)

An anonymous source recently informed me that Terowie’s main downfall is ‘no services, no police, no Centrelink, no Work For The Dole scheme and property that can be purchased for less than $10,000, which is the average cost of a back injury payout, along with thousands of acres of scrub on the doorstep to establish a cannabis crop.’ Unfortunately in recent times an undesirable element has moved into the town and attempted to establish control using fear and intimidation. At times the local police have employed what is referred to as ‘unconventional tactics’ (also referred to as ‘good, old fashioned coppering’ in some circles) and as such regained control to a degree. Although there’s no great fear for a tourist being in Terowie after dark, it’s certainly not the most welcoming town and both residents and local authorities will inform you that it’s certainly not the place to leave the keys in your car and your wallet on the dashboard.

(The military prison cells, August 2007)

Terowie now consists of houses and shops that are empty and decrepit. The town is dying and sadly is forgotten by history. Other towns have been preserved with less historical importance, but Terowie is virtually already a ghost town. At night winds arsise, the chill sets in and the ghosts themselves come out to visit. The air becomes heavy and other than some very minor background noise the sky becomes clear and silent. On the one remaining platform there is a plaque that proudly states the town’s role in history, but outside of that plaque a casual visitor would be hard pressed to understand what makes the town so special. The plaque bears silent memory to a spot where a giant named MacArthur gave a speech that was heard around the world.


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