Last week I was thrilled to return face-to-face with our Pioneers after almost a year apart. Although we were not permitted to meet indoors, we sat under the tree out the front of Murray Haven and Barham’s stunning autumn weather did not disappoint; so much so in fact that it was cool drinks on offer in place of the usual hot cuppa.
Today’s discussion topic was wartime and what our Pioneers’ memories are of such time with family members heading off to the unknown, and the uncertainty of ever seeing them again.
Our group today has some new faces which was lovely to see, because new faces mean new stories and more memories to share – oh how I have missed this part of my job.
Ron, one of our new Pioneers was merely a baby when his father went away to war.
“I was a year old, so I don’t remember much about it, but he was away for five years in all.”
As Jack finishes his sentence, I can see his mind wondering as he looks beyond the trees as though he is seeing the memory of his father in the distance. I can tell he will have more to say but for now he is happy pondering.
“I can remember being at a friend’s house when Chamberlain announced there would be a second world war,” David begins, “I remember mothers crying in the street. Everyone was gathered around the radio for the updates.”
Betty – “My father served in New Guinea. He wanted to go because he didn’t want to get the white feather.”
Rita is smiling, so softly spoken, I lean nearer to her to hear her comments.
“I remember my father coming back from time to time. My parents had a post office and it was my mother’s job to pass on the message to families if their loved ones had been killed.”
For the most part, each of our Pioneers recall that there was a sense of ‘soldiering on’ when war broke out. It was certainly a stoic generation, with no time for complaining or extreme sadness. Life was tough, bloody tough in fact, but so many were in the same situation.
“That was a big reason for women entering the workforce,” Betty remembers. “When the men went away there were a lot of jobs to be filled and in those days, there was no such thing as pensions or that sort of thing so the women would take over a lot of the jobs.”
Marie – “My mum had to go to work when my father was at war. I would go with her with a pillow and a doll and I would sleep next to her while she worked. The boys would have to leave school early so they could help run the house. Children had to grow up quickly back then to survive. It’s just the way it was. The girls would do the cooking and cleaning while mothers went to work.”
Ron is back, just as I thought he would be.
“My grandfather and uncle also went to war but never returned. I was just a little fella of course but I remember my mother being very brave, she just took the whole thing on the chin as there was nothing she could do about it. We used to take the radio into town to charge it up at the garage.”
Something that I find fascinating during our discussion is how money was of no value during wartime. Not that many had it, but if you happened to have cash it would not be used in exchange for goods. This is when rations and coupons were used. The coupons were used for anything from basic grocery items such as bread, milk and butter, to petrol and gas, and material to make your own clothes.
Jack offers his recollection.
“My father was a VDC which was sort of like Legacy. He looked after the town’s wellbeing and was also part of the marching band that would try to bring cheer to the community. I remember the coupons, and parachute material being a well utilised item back then.”
Rita continues – “That was how they made a lot of bridal gowns back then as there was no other material to use. Silk was first class. I remember my mother buying a parachute to make clothes with.”
Marie tells a gorgeous story of fond memories from wartime which makes us all smile.
“What I remember most about Dad being away was being allowed to do things we wouldn’t normally do when he was home. The best thing was being allowed to eat crumpets by the fire, but if Dad was home, we’d have to eat them at the table!”
Jack – “The Land Army girls would be making masks or picking fruit. Life was pretty busy during the war. I remember the Bob and Dolly Dyer and Jack Davey radio shows that would have a program to keep people entertained.”
Ron – “Yes, that’s right!”
Jack – “Petrol tanks were never full either. Those were the days of Plume Petrol, Golden Fleece and COR Petroleum.”
Marie – “A lot of people wrote letters home and the letters were censored so as not to give much away about what they were doing.”
Betty – “Yes, there would be bits actually cut out of it so there were big holes in the letters. The newspapers never wrote where the photos were taken from the war.”
Jack – “No, they just wrote ‘somewhere in…”
For all the hardship and uncertainty families endured during the war, there was also the moment when there was a declaration that the war was over. Everyone in the group remembers this time in particular.
David – “Things were still tight when the war was over. There was still a shortage of supplies and people were still using coupons. You were grateful if you walked into a shop and they had what you wanted. I still feel that way now.”
Betty – “Well after the war there was the Depression, and the men came back hoping to go back to their jobs but a lot of people had gone out of business.”
Marie – “I can remember the teacher called assembly saying that the war was over.”
Jack – “There were people dancing in the street in celebration.”
Thankful that the war was over, for those fortunate to have had their loved ones return it was a case of just carrying on as normal with what resources they had – each other.
Communities leaned on one another, surviving through a ‘barter system’, trading eggs for milk or fruit for vegetables, that sort of thing. Then there were those who had to carry on minus a father, husband, sibling or grandparent. You were considered privileged to have employment, no matter what it was. With the sole wage earner now gone, every-one banded together and made ends meet one way or another. However, one thing remained the same in many households regardless of whether or not they had suffered loss. The experience of war was never to be talked about.
Thankfully, these days people are far more open and comfortable talking about their experiences and, with a range of resources in terms of counselling and financial support, there is always someone either in person or at the other end of the line to offer their support and assistance.
It’s hard to imagine what families went through during the war, let alone the soldiers themselves.
Uncertainty, fear, resistance, fortitude, just a few words that come to mind but I’m probably nowhere near close to what they experienced. What I do know is that as the granddaughter of two World War II veterans and the daughter of a Vietnam veteran, I am beyond grateful to the service they and their comrades gave to our country, and I will be honoured to acknowledge them on Anzac Day on Sunday.
Thank you to our Pioneers at Murray Haven once again for sharing their amazing stories with me. I am so proud to have you back in The Bridge.
This article appeared in The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper, 22 April 2021.