Darrel Palm (second from left) around the time of his shoeshine career in Rockhampton's US army barracks
Darrel Palm (second from left) around the time of his shoeshine career in Rockhampton's US army barracks Jann Houley

Shoeshine boy looks back on World War II with the Yanks

AS US forces swarm into Central Queensland as part of the eighth Talisman Sabre training activities, Darrel Palm vividly remembers when 60,000 troops were camped here for a far graver reason.

Mr Palm was a six-year-old skipping school in Rockhampton when his shoe-shining prowess was spotted by two of the highest-awarded American Generals during World War II.

"It was only half days at Allenstown School during the war, but I just didn't go at all,” he said.

Mr Darrel Palm with Cordelia at his South Rockhampton home
TIMES GONE BY: Darrel Palm with Cordelia at his South Rockhampton home Jann Houley

"The one time I remember turning up at school was because the entertainer Tex Morton and his sister Dorrie were in town.

"The only way you could get into the Allenstown Picture Show was with a teacher so I went that one time and paid my sixpence.”

Instead, the young Darrel would run the long way from his Oswald St home in Port Curtis up around The Range down to the showgrounds, in order not to bump into any of his teachers who would alert his mother he was skipping school.

"There were American camps all up through the Berserkers and out bush, but the main staging post was at the Rockhampton Showgrounds,” he said.

"There were tents as far as the eye could see, and lots of people coming and going.”

Darrel Plam (second from left) around the time of his shoeshine career in Rockhampton's US army barracks
Darrel Palm (second from left) around the time of his shoeshine career in Rockhampton's US army barracks

He was among dozens of local children odd-jobbing to the American soldiers for pennies in 1942 when he caught the eye of two imposing figures.

"They said, 'We've been watching you, you're the best, you're in charge of shoe-shining from now on',” Mr Palm said.

The men, he realised later, were Supreme Commander of the Southwest Pacific, Douglas MacArthur, and Commanding General of the newly formed Eighth US Army, Robert Eichelberger.

MacArthur escaped the Japanese invasion of the Philippines to Australia where he gave his famous "I Shall Return” speech. He later oversaw the Japanese surrender in 1945.

Monday to Friday, the young Darrel worked the showgrounds until three or four in the afternoon, after which he would grab a loaf of bread from Smith's bakery on his way home.

"Mum never knew what I was doing,” he said.

His father was busy travelling up and down the coast with an International Harvester company which Mr Palm was to later take over.

"The Americans didn't know the value of Australian money so one day I'd get a halfpenny, the next I'd get two bob,” he said.

"The best day I earned about a pound.”

Darrel Palm (on right) during his union days in Rockhampton
Darrel Palm (on right) during his union days in Rockhampton

Sundays, after the ubiquitous roast lunch, he held down a permanent shoeshine site beside what is now the Botanic gardens kiosk.

"When the officers were in the camp they wore brown boots but on the weekends, when they were 'walking out', they wore brown dress shoes,” he said.

His kit contained brown shoe polish, a sock, a brush and the traditional "spit” polish.

So what does a six-year old boy spend his pocket money on during World War II in Rockhampton?

"Comic books,” Mr Palm said.

"Comic books and pigeons.”

He cut the birds' feathers so they couldn't fly away and roosted them in the mango trees outside his house in Port Curtis.

By the time their feathers grew back, they'd turned into homing pigeons, which guaranteed him some sneaky repeat business.

"The worst day was my brother and I sold some birds to North Rockhampton, we rode out all that way on my bike with the pigeons under my shirt,” he said.

"Only they never flew home, so we had to go out and buy some more.”

His younger brother, who went on to join the shire council at Dingo, was among the thousands of boys around Australia ordered to leave their families and evacuate to the country.

Darrel Palm receives an Australia agricultural award in America in the 1970s
Darrel Palm receives an Australia agricultural award in America in the 1970s

During the days when most men were away, and at home mothers relied on ration cards, Mr Palm found another bonus to working for the Americans.

"If I was working close enough to the mess tent, the boys from Texas would hand me a dixie (an aluminium tray) and tell me to get in line.

"And they'd load my shirt up with fruit ... it meant I couldn't run home as fast but there was no fruit available during the war unless you grew it in your backyard.”

The Palms moved to Maroochydore in 1944, and Mr Palm ended up at Brisbane Boys College for nine years.

He continued the family's harvester company, first in Dalby then back in Rockhampton, where he played cricket, tennis and squash.

His two children attended the Rockhampton Grammar School where he served on the board.

Mr Palm wants the people of Rockhampton to know how much they owe the American armed forces.

"I know otherwise educated people will tell you Americans weren't here in the war, that the Americans didn't go near Papua New Guinea,” he said.

"There's been a major attempt to cut them out of our region's history.”

He said he doubts many Australians still remember the Brisbane Line, a defence proposal to concede the northern portion of Australia in the event of a Japanese invasion.

"Rockhampton was given away,” he said.

Mr Plam (second from right) at his brother's wedding
Mr Palm (second from right) at his brother's wedding

"When MacArthur escaped the Philippines and took a train from Perth to Melbourne, Curtin (Australia's PM) handed him the defence of all this area.”

Mr Palm said he has no sympathy for the people around Shoalwater Bay whose properties have been "grabbed” for the bilateral combined Australian and US training facilities' expansion.

"It's like this business with coal, not only Adani but Palmer and Rinehart's mines in Western Australia,” he said.

"There's billions of dollars at stake so someone has to stand aside.”

"It's not just the Americans, it's Singapore and the rest of Australia ... when there's millions of dollars on offer from these soldiers visiting the region for their training, it's time for someone to make way.”