PostHeaderIcon WOMEN IN WAR

I was eleven when the Second World War began in 1939, and seventeen when it ended in 1945. A lot happened to me during those six years.
My father had left the dairy farm at Buccan three years earlier and settled at the Dunellan Estate, now Greenslopes, in Brisbane. A clever young man, he had worked to get his credentials, and was just establishing himself in the building industry. When war was declared, we feared that he would be called up in the army, as he was an officer in the Army Reserve.
When he was newly married with a young babe, Dad was the only Queenslander selected to attend the military college at Duntroon. He declined reluctantly, as this was a big honour, but he was needed to run the farm that his parents and grandparents had established through dint of very hard work since 1884. The army did not give up easily, and one day, at about milking time, a Major in a staff car arrived to try to convince young Harry that the army was the place for him. The officer had not bargained on my grandmother.
This was 1924, and the horrors of the Great War were still fresh in the minds of most. Dad explained gently and reasonably why he could not accept the position, but the Major persisted. ‘No!’ said Harry’s mother, ‘you get someone else to go!’
‘But it’s your son that we want, Mrs Wendt,’ he replied, ‘he’s the type we need, a good style of fellow, intelligent and smart...’
‘No, no...I’m afraid not...you get someone else to be your cannon fodder! Not my son!’ And that was that. The chap who went in Dad’s place became a Major-General.
As the war darkened in those first couple of years, all available men were called up to explain why they should not be conscripted into the services. Dad was ready to go, but the authorities thought otherwise, and drafted him into the Civil Construction Corps. He was more valuable to his country as a builder than a soldier.
Australia’s position was perilous in 1942, when the advancing Japanese army seemed to sweep all before it. Singapore had fallen, and it was a relief to many when America entered the war after the attack on Honolulu. Thousands of American troops were sent over here, and that meant that Army camps must be built, and quickly! My father was one of those who built Camp Cable, between Logan Village and Tamborine. The 32nd US Infantry Division was housed there, mainly in tents, but offices, hospitals, canteens, latrines and recreational halls and the like were timber constructions.
This left my mother and her three girls at home. Every person was called on to do her bit for the war effort. I won a scholarship to the Brisbane Girls’ Grammar School when I was fourteen. Joan worked at an essential service, the South Brisbane Gas Company, and was ‘man-powered’ into remaining there, unable to leave. Daphne, aged six, was at Greenslopes State School, three blocks from our home. We had no car, Dad taking the little Vauxhall to Camp Cable with him. Then the unthinkable happened---Brisbane had an air raid alert!
Two Japanese planes came down as far as Gympie. The sirens sounded and everyone headed for their places of safety. We had zigzag trenches at school, and all homes had some sort of air raid shelter. We shared a proper dugout with protective roof with our neighbours. It was scary at school, crouching in those damp, open trenches, not knowing what to expect next, until the wail of the ‘all clear’ went some hours later. After the second alert, all schools in the metropolitan area were closed.
My mother decided that I, being considered a ‘bright’ pupil, should go to boarding school in the country. Along with a lot of other girls, I boarded a train for Warwick, to join the rest of the boarders at St Catharine’s C of E School, where I remained for six months. I then resumed my education at Girls’ Grammar until I completed my Junior Examination at the end of 1943, when I was still fifteen. I won an extension scholarship, but it was decided that I should leave school to be part of the ‘war effort.’ Besides, money was tight at home with my father away, just on the meagre wages of the CCC.
The stay-at-home mothers were not exempt from wartime duties. Everyone who was able was expected to volunteer. Mum did something called ‘plane spotting’. It was hush-hush, and she told us little. But we gathered that at this place in town they knew every plane that passed over, and as it did these women would stick berry pins or similar into the big maps to mark the position of the plane. We knew better than to ask her for more information.
Most women were fund raisers of some sort. There were stalls in the city’s streets selling wares of all kind to provide comfort funds for the troops. We were all knitting socks and balaclavas for servicemen in the European Zone. A lot of young women who were not in the armed services, joined the Land Army, growing the crops needed for our food. Women took over the men’s jobs and became ‘postmen’, taxi drivers, tram conductresses and factory workers. There were aluminium drives to gather metal to make warplanes. Mr Marshall Palmer who owned the Hollywood Theatre at Greenslopes, announced there would be free admission to the Saturday Matinee to all those who brought an item of aluminium. I forgot the old saucepan that my mother had given to me, but my friend Dulcie had two saucepan lids, gave me one, and we both saw the ‘pictures’ for nothing.
Brisbane was a garrison town. I believe there were more than 100,000 American servicemen stationed there... Army, Navy, Air Corps, even Marines. The few Australian army personnel who came through our city did not like much the ‘Yanks.’ They referred to them as being ‘overfed, overpaid, oversexed, and over here.’ But the Japanese had come within thirty miles (about 48 ks) of Port Moresby. Our poor young lads in the Citizens Military Force had done their best to halt the enemy, but it was the US Infantry from Camp Cable that greatly turned the tide in the Buna Sananander Campaign, along with the valiant Aussies recalled from the Middle East to go almost immediately to New Guinea to reclaim the Owen Stanley Range...the Kokodo Track.
It was up to the women, the mothers, the householders to make some of these soldiers welcome, to give them a taste of home that they surely missed. When Dad was still at home, early in the war, the USS Houston and another ship paid a visit. There was a great parade, and we all went and waved our flags. My father invited two of the sailors to come home to dinner that night, to our great glee. They were charming, grateful young men who sang as I played the popular songs on the piano. Dad drove them back to their ship, and that was the last we heard of them. But many years later, on reading an account of the infamous Burmese railway on which starving prisoners-of-war were mercilessly worked, I saw that there were present also some survivors from the ‘Houston’, which had been sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea, off Townsville.
When building the camp near Logan Village, Dad would come home every second week-end if possible. He would bring two soldier friends with him in his little car, and they would sleep on stretchers on the closed-in verandah, Mum making them very welcome. They were always a little older than most, around thirty- --old enough I suppose, to not make passes at my sister or me. Some were married and would show us photos of their family. On Saturday night, they went to the dance at the City Hall. Joan, who was two years older than I, would go and Mum would chaperone. At long last I was allowed to go also. I think I was perhaps the only Grammar girl who would go dancing at the weekend!
My mother never complained of tiredness, although it must have been an exhausting time, catering for the sudden influx of guests at the weekend. To remain cheerful was paramount, because there was sadness all around as news came through of losses at sea, on the ground...and those personal losses that cut so deep.
When I left school and was seeking my first job, I was directed to the US Army, which was in need of workers. They paid well, but worked us hard. They expected a high standard, and we worked six eight hour days a week, plus shift work. I initially worked in the Army Post Office in the old School of Arts next to the dry dock at South Brisbane. Our shifts were 7am till 3pm, 3pm till 11pm. Only soldiers were required to work the 11pm till 6am shift.
During my eighteen months at the Post Office, there was an unsolved murder of a young woman, Betty Shanks, on the North side of Brisbane. When I was on the late shift, my worried mother would get out of bed and don Dad’s great coat over her pyjamas, cram one of his felt hats on her head and wait for me at the tram stop, a couple of blocks away. She was concerned for herself as well I suppose, and hoped she looked like a man in the ill-lit street. It was a comfort to me, because I was always worried that I might miss the tram, which was the last one for the night to that destination.
I had another problem. I was short-sighted, but would not wear my spectacles, considering them too ugly to be seen on my nose at any time. There was no prospect of obtaining new, pretty glasses, not in wartime! I just put those horn-rims in their case and pretended I could see as well as the other girls. I think my mother presumed my eyesight had improved, and besides, she and Dad had the war to think about. But my job was sorting mail!
I was confronted with all these pigeon holes with the name of each state in the US on them, and a whole row at the bottom labelled with the names of the major cities, New York, Chicago etc. Altogether there were fifty-six holes, and it was slow going for me for a while. Our output in letters was weighed, and mine was not good. I was warned I should lift my game or be dismissed. It was natural that I should memorise the position of the boxes, and in time I became one of the quickest at sorting mail, because I had no need to look at the labels; I just knew where the particular pigeon hole was. I was still only fifteen. I confided in one girl, Bunny, that I was short-sighted and could not see the name on the trams, and she would wait until my tram came along before catching her own. If perchance I was alone, I would feign an American accent, wait until the tram had stopped, and ask the conductor if this tram went to Greenslopes?
Easter arrived and Bunny and I had four days off work. Mum and Aunty Lil decided they would take us camping...to Coolangatta. They arranged for a friend with a truck to take them, an old borrowed tent and my young sister to the campsite behind the shops, near the old train line. Bunny and I were to travel by bus. It was heavenly, a break from the war; sun, surf and skating! Bananas were in season, and we lived on fresh bread spread with condensed milk and sliced banana. Delicious and easy. Clothing was rationed, and I had no swimsuit. Cotton tablecloths were available at times with no coupons needed. A pale blue and white flowered one became, for me, a two-piece swimsuit that was quite presentable.
We two went roller skating at the rink near Kirra beach, and there I met and skated with a young American sailor who asked me to the ‘movies.’ ‘Definitely not!’ my mother said, and he took Bunny instead. A romance blossomed, they married, had four children, returned to Australia where he became very well known as a respected potter...Carl McConnell.
Most of us smoked cigarettes. It was the fashion of the day, and how I regret it. But cigarettes were hard to come by. However, there was a system operating at my work by which my mother would make a rich fruit cake in return for a carton of Lucky Strikes, or Pall Malls, or Marlboros...whatever. I was the go-between, and had my contact at the Post Office, a studious young soldier who did not smoke, but who received his ration from the PX as did all the others. I was very popular at home when I arrived with my booty, and a very happy GI enjoyed his home-baked cakes.
The Japanese were gradually pushed back from New Guinea, and General MacArthur eventually returned to the Philippines, which he had vowed to do. The Post Office was relocated first to Townsville, and then to headquarters with the General. I was transferred to the Adjutant-General’s Department when a lot of the girls were dismissed. I was taken in a staff car to Victoria Park, to a Quonset hut, number Four. There I was shown a huge pile of books and papers, and dozens of shelves. ‘We want you to sort this lot out,’ announced the Sergeant who had brought me there.
I became, at sixteen, a librarian. I was in charge of all the Field Manuals and Technical Manuals for the US Army in the South West Pacific Area. Requisitions would come to me from all areas for varied information...from how to service an army truck, or a gun...to how to cook for 600 men...whatever was required; I would find and send the number of publications that was asked for. It was a responsible job that I enjoyed. I remained there until the war was almost over.
I had not long turned sixteen when my father returned home, still with the CCC, but now working at a motor pool at Virginia in Brisbane. Camp Cable was followed by a big army camp at Wallangarra, but this being now completed, Dad was happy to come home and work the usual hours. He had a particular friend, Slim, from Idaho, whom he would bring home for dinner regularly. Slim was a bit of a rough diamond, a man’s man who didn’t take much notice of us girls...he was too old anyway at twenty-nine. He was Dad’s buddy after all, and the two men would spend their leisure time chatting away. One night, he asked Mum and Dad if he could he bring his ‘kid brother’ to our home, as the latter was in Brisbane. He had been in the army hospital at Goodna suffering from typhus, was now on leave before returning to his unit at the front. ‘Of course, Slim, bring him over tomorrow,’ was the inevitable answer.
They arrived with Dad, and we were surprised at how different they were. The younger man was twenty-three, tall like his brother, but fair with clean-cut features, and gentle mannered. He fitted into our family very well. My mother would bid me play the piano as she prepared dinner, and he would follow into the lounge room and stand behind me as I played, sometimes singing softly along with me. He would sort through my sheet music, and request various songs. He told me about his life in America, six feet of snow in the Rockies, his mother, and how he was going to be a PT instructor when he returned.
‘How would you like to come dancing with me one night?’ he asked me after a time. ‘To the Officers’ Club in Queen Street? You would enjoy the music. They have a live army band.’
‘You’ll have to ask Mum,’ I replied, really thrilled at the prospect. And he did. I can still hear him saying, ‘Agatha, would it be all right if I took Doreen dancing one night?’¬¬ Mum said she would ask Dad, and they both agreed it would be okay if Joan went also.
‘Sure,’ he replied, ‘I have a very nice friend who is very lonely, who would love to come along. He’s a First Lieutenant in the Air Corps, from Iowa. I met him in the hospital.’ And that’s how it started. When I was on early shift, Joan and I would dress up in our best dresses and high heels and meet this handsome pair in Queen Street. We always went to the Officers’ Club where we met other men and army nurses, and danced the night away. I only danced with him, and he seemed to have eyes only for me. The ride home in the taxi, Joan and I on their laps, was one big cuddle.
The two men then took to visiting our home without Slim, and everyone became very fond of them. We knew it would ultimately end when they were well enough to return to their units. And it did. My boy was the first to leave, then the other soon after. My world seemed to end. But soon I had a letter from him, telling me how pretty I was, and that he was hungry. Could Agatha bake a cake and send it up? Mum and I got to work, cooked a big rich fruit cake in a Willow tin, wrapped and sewed it in calico on which we wrote his name and address. I posted it myself at work, knowing it would take some time to get to him. More letters followed, but no mention yet of the cake’s arrival. Then a worrying letter arrived from one of our friends, an Army Nurse who had also returned to the front.
Peggy wrote to my mother that she had seen ‘Junior’ as she called my boyfriend, but now she supposed the only time she would see him would be drinking beer with St Peter, or shovelling coal. We knew, of course we knew, but we did not want to believe the implication. Definitely not. We were all in denial, hoping he had been returned home or similar. We knew there was never to be given out any information in letters. All servicemen’s letters were censored, and often large tracts were cut out that might inform the enemy in any way, but Peggy was an officer, whose letters were not censored, but who knew how much she could, or could not say. They could not reveal where they were, but we knew the ‘push’ was in Dutch New Guinea, that they were in the vicinity of Hollandia on the North coast. And my quest began.
Because I worked for the US Army, I had friends who worked in the Directory. I had once worked there myself, and knew the huge number of personal cards involved, one for each serviceman, all in alphabetical order. I asked one particular friend to look out for relevant information on my boy. Sure enough in a couple of weeks, she came to me with his card, stamped with a large DECEASED in red. I am afraid I was not stoical at all. I collapsed and was taken home in a staff car. We were all devastated, but were reminded that this was war.
Joan received a letter from her friend, also in the same area, who said he had visited his mate’s grave and said prayers for all of us. Sadly, this man also lost his life when his plane went down on the way to Luzon. And there were others. Sometimes the burden of grief just cannot get any worse, you almost become deadened to the pain.
My father’s cousin had three sons away with the AIF, fighting in New Guinea, leaving only herself and her aging husband to run the farm. Two of the boys were killed in action. To its credit, the army found the other son and sent him back to the mainland¬¬¬¬. The mother wore, until her death, a double medallion holding their photos.
There was jubilation when the war ended, but for those who had lost loved ones, it was difficult to celebrate.¬¬ For women, life had changed. They had won independence and were now standing on their own two feet. The men returning home after long absences needed the strength of their women to sustain them in their re-establishment.
There is a ‘post script’ to this story...
In 1991, I travelled to America with a friend for the wedding of my nephew in Washington DC. We decided to take a 30day Greyhound pass to journey across the US, taking in Idaho on the way. I had written to my lad’s mother for years until she died; then to his sister for a while. I wrote again, after years, and received an excited answer. She would meet me in Pocatello and take us home to Idaho Falls where we would stay for a few days. Sadly, Slim had died a week before my letter arrived. It was a poignant visit indeed, but one day she said, ‘Doreen, can you throw some light on a fruit cake that Mother kept in a tin for years? She would not let anyone touch it. We believe it came home with our young brother’s personal effects.’ So I told her the story.

Doreen Wendt-Weir
14 Main Street, North Tamborine Q 4272
Phone 5545 2100 doreenwendtweir@gmail.com sexinyourseventies.com