In 1942, Lockheed’s production lines in Burbank, California were operating at full stretch, turning out P-38 twin-engine fighters for deployment in the Pacific. Before the aircraft could engage the Japanese, however, they first had to survive an encounter with another enemy: the stevedores who controlled Australian ports.

Hundreds of thousands of Australians were in uniform and the country felt threatened by invasion. At the Breakfast Creek docks in Brisbane, however, the unionized workforce went to war with U.S. Military Police who were supervising the transfer of supplies.

The laborers, known in the Australian vernacular as wharfies, took umbrage when M.P.s searched their lunch bags and recovered more than 800 cartons of cigarettes. Brigadier-General Elliott R. Thorpe, who was stationed in General Douglas MacArthur’s Pacific headquarters, recalls what happened next:

As a...

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