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December 27, 2019

Terowie, SA: "I Shall Return"


Near ghost town where, in 1942, General Douglas MacArthur made his famous "I shall return" speech

Words: Bruce Elder / AussieTowns  - Images: Roderick Eime

There was a time when the population of Terowie was over 2,000. Today, with a population of around 200, it is a tiny township on the edge of becoming a ghost town. The reason: Terowie came into existence as part of the railway network which was built in South Australia in the late 19th century. With three different railway gauges meeting at the town it was vital to an economy driven by rail.

Then, in the 1970s, the rail was reduced to a single line and there was no need for Terowie. The town collapsed and was designated an historic town because of its large number of well preserved 19th century buildings. Today there are old stores and shops reminding visitors that, back in the 1880s, it was a vibrant and important railway town.


In 1966 the last regular passenger rail service left Terowie.

On the railway station platform at Terowie, on the 20 March, 1942, one of the most famous speeches/statements of World War II was made.

It was here, for the first time, that General Douglas MacArthur declared “I Shall Return”. He would go on to say it over and over again until, eventually, he did return to the Philippines to drive the Japanese out of that country and to help win the war in the Pacific.

The context was strange. MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in the South West Pacific, had escaped from Corregidor in the Philippines by PT boat, reached Mindanao, had flown to Batchelor Airfield south of Darwin, flew to Alice Springs and that was where he had caught a train.
The general, Mrs MacArthur and son

He was travelling south to Adelaide, and then on to Melbourne, with his wife and support staff on a personal train (such are the luxuries of a Supreme Commander) which comprised a steam engine, bogie van, dining car, two sleeping cars plus brake van. 

While changing trains in Terowie, MacArthur stood on the railway platform – I love the description from one of the newspapers at the time – “The tough tall guy, with a whisky bottle at his belt, a tame flying fortress, and a legendary habit of shooting his way through red tape” made his speech regarding the Battle of the Philippines in which he said: "I came out of Bataan and I shall return". 

It was the first time he said it and it became a legendary observation about the war in the Pacific. 

It was as memorable for people in Australia and the United States as any of Churchill’s speeches about Europe. A blunt “we shall never surrender”. 

It is also worth remembering that this statement of resolve and determination was said at a time when the Japanese were making impressive headway in the movement to the south. They had forced MacArthur to flee from the Philippines and the plane he was flying in could not land in Darwin because the town was being bombed by the Japanese. “I shall return” was determination against powerful evidence of imminent defeat.

The ever-reliable Monument Australia website (there is a monument to the event on the Terowie platform) records: “Douglas MacArthur arrived at Terowie Railway Station and much to MacArthur’s surprise his "secret" arrival in Terowie was not so secret. A huge cheer went up from the locals who had gathered when he left the train.

“General MacArthur responded by striding towards an opening between a line of railway carriages and saluted the people of Terowie on the other side of the carriages and some passengers on a nearby train. MacArthur was dressed in a loose hanging jacket and slacks and wore no decorations or insignia except for a laurel wreathed peak on his cap and another emblem.

“On being asked if he would reach the United States he said:- "The President of the United States ordered me to break through the Japanese lines and proceed to Corregidor to Australia for the purpose, as I understand it, of organising an American offensive against Japan, the primary purpose of which is the relief of the Philippines. I came out of Bataan and I shall return". 

The sleeping carriage NRC36 where MacArthur was resting when he got to Terowie is now in the Pichi Richi Railway Preservation society collection at Quorn, just north of Terowie.


There are groups of shops, now disused, on the main street some of which have remained untouched since they were built in the 1880s. Of particular interest are those now used as the Terowie Tea Rooms.

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