1942 • Hello, major

trades hall 1912 CROPPED

Sydney Trades Hall

This episode takes place in two buildings, two unequal centres of power, in 1942. They were the Sydney Trades Hall, at a time of burgeoning confidence among the Australian labour movement, and the Grace Building, built by the retail company Grace Brothers, and occupied during the war by the Australian and United States military, including military intelligence.

Each of these buildings is now to some degree a museum of itself. Some of the Trades Hall’s rooms have been let to private companies. Originally named the Trades Hall and Literary Institute, its beautiful library has been preserved. There is also a display of union banners, showing details of factory life in the last two centuries.

ironworkers banner 650

But Room 62, the seat of Progress in 1942, has apparently disappeared. A vast atrium takes its place. Signs in the passageways still claim it for the Glass Bottle Workers. Less well known, this tiny room of lining boards and frosted glass also had a brief but fierce role in keeping radical thought alive when the Communist Party’s newspapers were banned in 1940–42.

Room 62

In the 1920s Room 62 was occupied by the Glass Bottle Workers’ union (above left); from 1940 to 1942 the leftist weekly Progress was edited by communists in this room (right). 

Grace_Building AG Foster NLA via wiki CROPPED

A. G. Foster, “Grace Building” (“between 1920 and 1945”) National Library of Australia.

Meanwhile, the Grace Building was in 1942 requisitioned under the Commonwealth government’s security powers; part of the building (possibly including the basement) became the headquarters of the US military under General Macarthur for the duration of the war. The building has also been recently “restored”— to serve as a luxury hotel. Signs in the foyer explain the building rather like those small placards (telling us what to think and feel) placed next to paintings in a public art gallery.

The episode “Hello, major” is about certain telephone conversations between these two buildings; a Communist in one, a military spy in the other:

The Major’s voice slips down the tower’s hidden shafts, sinks below the asphalt, concrete, macadam, wooden blocks and gravel and then tunnels through a mile of Sydney’s soft Triassic sandstone, to leap up outraged at the back of Sussex Street, Room Sixty-Two, and into Bill Wood’s ear and brain, “Get off the line! Get off the line.” This line has better things to do. “Damn it, man, this is a silent number. A state secret. It’s an offence to know it, let alone to call it,” says the Major, standing now beside the window, staring down into the terra-cotta guttering right beside him, where he sees that dandelions are growing—thriving.
.     “Making any progress?” Bill asks inconsequentially.
.     “You can’t phone here,” the Major says again.
.     “I thought we’d have a little chat. Let’s take the opportunity,” Bill suggests. “Anything you’d like to know? You choose the topic—anything at all. What better time than now?” A more efficient use of the Department’s time than to wait for hours, days or weeks for treachery to show its hand.
.     A pause. The Major breathing.
.     “You do know, don’t you,” Bill says, his voice gentler, “that we’re comrades now? Moscow’s in the war on your side, Major. They have informed your section?” [RED, page 219]

While Australia’s Military Intelligence continued to treat Progress as an enemy publication, General Macarthur was singing the praises of the Communist-led People’s Defence Army, which Progress supported, on one occasion by quoting Macarthur himself.

42-05-08 macarthur on peoples defence CROPPED

Progress, 8 May 1942

Thanks to Neale Towart and colleagues at Sydney Trades Hall for assistance in preparing this note.