My Wartime Adventure

Helen Dempsey

In December 1941, with the bombing attack on Pearl Harbour by the Japanese nation, the United States of America became fully involved in World War 2. This was also a significant event for Australia, with the declaration of war against Japan by the then Prime Minister, John Curtin…who warned our nation…"that Australia itself was faced with the very real threat of an enemy attempting to land on our shores" The entire country was then mobilised with an all-out war effort.

My brother was already in the Army and my sister was working as a volunteer nurse while waiting for her eighteenth birthday when she would receive her call-up to join the Army Nursing Service. At fifteen, I left school, anxious to be able to join some kind of volunteer service.

A call was made for women or girls to train as a telephonist. I applied and was accepted to learn to operate a switchboard at the Metropolitan Water Board in Sydney.

Within a fortnight my group was considered ready to be stationed in the not yet completed underground railway tunnels near Circular Quay. We were under the care of the Womens Australian National Service, known as the WANS. How would I have reacted had I been on duty on the night that Japanese miniature submarines entered Sydney harbour…I often wonder!

Early in 1942, another call went out from WANS, this being, that for the want of labour on the farms, fruit was rotting on the ground in the Gosford orchards. Women and girls were asked to volunteer to help with the harvest. Al last, women felt that they were being given a real opportunity to do more than merely "keep the home fires burning" Girls as young as sixteen were applying and being accepted, as were older women. Well…this was for me !

This group of volunteers was soon to be known as the Australian Womens Land Army and would eventually have more than 3500 permanent members, and all told, up to 6000 in busy times. Still waiting, my sister volunteered with me. We were told to obtain a uniform from David Jones Ltd, then some overalls and work boots, and report to Sydney Central Railway Station on a certain date and time, where we would be issued with a Rail Pass. So on that momentous evening in March 1942, we boarded the train with other girls, bound for an unknown destination.

By almost noon the following morning, we disembarked at a small station set in the flattest country I had ever seen. We still had no idea where we were. We asked the Station Master.

All the stations had been ordered to remove their name signs…it was thought this would help to confuse the enemy should they manage to get so far inland. So here we were…Leeton in the Riverina Irrigation Area of southern NSW.

We walked to the barracks where we found that an advance group of Land Army girls had made everything clean and neat for our arrival, so that we were ready to begin work on the farms the next day. We headed off in our new clean overalls to our allotted farms, to be greeted by row upon row of beetroots…huge paddocks all laid out with precision as far as the eyes could see…with oceans of carrots, spinach and onions. Day after day was spent weeding, planting, picking and hand-hoeing. At the end of a working day, we were grateful for the nearby irrigation canals, where we could cool down with a paddle, then back to the barracks for a steaming hot cuppa, supplied from the old-fashioned "chip" wood-burning heater.

As the seasons changed, so did the work. Plum, peach and apricot trees had to be pruned. The lemons, oranges and the finest grapefruits were all carefully picked, placed into canvas bags which hung from around our necks, then, by unlatching the bottom flap, emptied into large wood crates. At times we climbed A-framed ladders to reach the top fruit at 3 metres. A four-wheeled flat wagon, pulled by the most patient horse, was loaded high with the crates from the day's pick and taken to the packing shed. The best quality fruit was packed with tissue paper to protect it against bruising.

On rainy days too wet to go into the paddocks, the Land Army girls were asked to help in the Letona Cannery. It was a huge factory working non-stop for 24 hours every day. The Cannery had changed its production to supply foods for the Armed Services. Peach, plum and apricot jam and orange marmalade was tinned by the tons, as were dessert peaches, apricots and fruit salad.

Vegetables and beef was made into soups and stews. The noise of the can-making part of the factory was incredible. The cans were stamped out of steel, formed, then dropped down chutes to the preparation benches where the women would cut the cleaned produce to size, then pack them into cans which travelled on to the huge cookers. Added to this noise, were the freight trains pulled by massive steam engines which actually pulled up in the factory yard.

At one time, I was given the job to climb into a wagon filled with large green-coloured "jam melons"…unload them, then stick one end on a peeling machine which looked very much like a bayonet. A large mounted revolving knife completed the peeling. The melons were converted into delicious jam when mixed with lemons or oranges or ginger.

With the cessation of hostilities in 1945, the Land Army was quickly disbanded when the men began returning to their farms. Enduring friendships were made with the farming families and over the years, visits were regular events, as were reunions. In 1994, the Australian Womens Land Army was at last rewarded for their contribution to the war effort, with the presentation of the Civilian Service Medal 1939-1945.