Remember when the Japanese submarines invaded Sydney Harbour? That’s when we realised that the war was indeed on our doorstep. Many of us were motivated to take some positive action and I decided to join the WAAF. The application was submitted and I was called up for medical assessment. That’s when my secret shame was revealed, for I am COLOUR BLIND. This defect is so unusual in women that the young male doctor deemed me a “female monstrosity”. I would never pilot an aircraft.
Fortunately my ambitions were more modest and I was allowed to join up as a trainee wireless telegraphist. I soon joined other recruits on a troop train to Melbourne. Then we were taken by bus to the Showground at Ascot Vale, where our civilian identities were left at the gate. Thereafter we would be addressed only by rank, namely ACW (aircraftwoman, the lowest of the low.) Now we were each given a hessian sack and led to a heap of straw. Our instructions were that when filled, these must be placed on iron bedsteads in the Cattle Pavillion. Next came a visit to the Quartermaster’s Store. We each received three blankets, a pillow, towel, eating utensils and our everyday working clothese – navy blue boiler suit with matching beret, which must be worn “one inch above the left eyebrow with no hair showing”. The more glamorous “dress” uniform was only for special parades or going on leave. Here came my first problem. On parade, all skirts must be the same height from the ground, irrespective of the wearer’s height. I measured five feet and half an inch (approximately 151 centimetres.) I was sent off to the tailor and emerged in a mini-skirt, twenty years ahead of the fashion.
After three weeks of parade ground drill and route marches we began our instruction in Morse Code, learning to transpose letters and numbers into “dits” and “dahs” and then transmit and receive code messages at a minimum speed of twenty words a minute. In the pre-computer age this speed was considered adequate. Higher speeds were often attained but increased the risk of repetitive strain injury (we called it “dit happy”.) If we failed one of the daily tests we were required to repeat tha whole week’s instruction. Theoretically the basic course would take six weeks, followed by four weeks of procedure and practice, but there were many setbacks.
In that environment germs circulated freely and I was soon in hospital with measles. All patients were accommodated in the same ward, so no sooner were the mesles vanquished than I was re-admitted with mumps. But life was not all doom and gloom. There were many opportunities for fun and friendship. Our main interest was food, and every “stand-down” (leave) would see us invading the cheaper restaurants of Melbourne. We were also offered weekend hospitality in private homes, often in the most affluent suburbs, giving us insight into very different lifestyles. On Melbourne Cup Day we were given free entry to the Racecourse, my single experience of that famous event.
Despite our various problems we all eventually qualified, gaining those metal “flashes” to indicate our area of usefulness. I said goodbye to Melbourne and moved to the warm tropics.
But that is another story.