When war came to Australia

Jan Clement

I was 5 years old and living with my parents in Mackay, Queensland when World War II broke out. However, by the time the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in 1941, I was old enough to know that something serious was happening. At school, trenches were dug and the air raid drills practised. We all had a hessian sack either cut or folded in half so that it would cover our head and back when crouching in the trench plus a wooden dolly peg to bite on. My father was not allowed to enlist, much to his chagrin, as he was regarded as “essential services” to keep the trains running. They were always jam-packed with Australian and American soldiers being taken on route to New Guinea and the islands. He was also an air raid warden with his gas mask and helmet hanging in the bathroom cupboard. He finally put the helmet on when the air raid sirens sounded on 26 July 1942, riding off on his bicycle to his post. I clearly remember being woken up and dressed, then taken downstairs where we stood with our neighbours at the fence in the brilliant light of a full moon. I found it all very exciting to be up in the middle of such a magical night. But later, we learnt that the Japanese had bombed Townsville and the threat had been very real. When I have told this tale in later years, the majority of folk had never heard of it. It was apparently censored, just as the extent of the devastation of Darwin was not publicised at the time.

As a result of this scare, my mother and I were evacuated to Dalby on the Darling Downs. We were met by a horse drawn vehicle and taken to a boarding house where turkeys roamed the yard, terrifying me. I don’t know how long we actually stayed there but it had a certain nightmarish quality as far as I was concerned. I contracted diarrhoea and the elderly doctor prescribed a dose of caster oil every day. With one toilet in the back yard for the use of all staying there, I was ‘caught short’ on several occasions, to my enormous embarrassment. Another little girl, also an evacuee, had had an illness which had made her lose her hair, so we were the outsiders at the unfamiliar school. My mother was also unhappy so it was not long before we returned to Mackay. A bomb shelter was dug in the back yard but was never put to the use for which it was intended. My friends and I played in it when it was dry, but during the wet it used to fill up with water, and became quite a hazard.

During the war, my mother was a member of the Northern section of the Voluntary Aid Division, and I remember the members making camouflage nets on the veranda of the School of Arts building. They also had to do a first aid course, and I enjoyed playing ‘patient’ as well as learning to roll bandages. I don’t know whether it was part of the V.A.D. work but she also learnt to recognise the different aircraft and every plane sighted in the area was recorded. It is only recently I finally discarded the original of a biscuit recipe, which had been written on the back of an airplane recognition form from that time.

Rationing made life very difficult for the women struggling to feed and clothe their families. Clothing and food coupons were issued and I didn’t know whether to be embarrassed or proud when I received extra coupons because of my height. If you knew someone who worked at one of the sugar mills, you could sometimes get some extra raw or unrefined sugar. Butter was a big problem and women learned to use lard in baking. But it always left a distinctive taste. There was a camp for Indonesian evacuees in the district and if you had something to barter, rice could be obtained. The shortage of petrol forced Dad to put his beloved 'Chevie' up on blocks for the duration and Mum had to learn to ride my bicycle, while I rode with Dad. Fortunately, Mackay is flat with wide roads, so she didn’t have many problems, although she did collide with a woman one dark night as there were no street lights.

Much to her delight, my mother became pregnant in 1943, and it was decreed that she needed Glucose D, or powdered glucose, which was unobtainable locally. Her sister Marge found a tin in Sydney so her husband Bill said he would deliver it. Bill was in the American navy piloting American small ships up the inside passage of the Great Barrier Reef to New Guinea. He led a group of six vessels to Mackay, three of which berthed in the harbour and the other three sailed up the Pioneer River at high tide and tied up at Paxton’s Wharf. Bill asked Mum and Dad if they would entertain the officers for lunch. Because of rationing, Bill offered to provide food from the ship if Mum would make some chocolate sponge cakes. That was the day I learned that a mince pie could be sweet! And that ham could come in large slices and be fried! It was a great success and we really benefited! Extra food in the kitchen; sweets and chocolates to overflow the icebox while Dad received cartons of Camel cigarettes. He didn’t smoke but they were invaluable for barter. However, when the officers returned to the ships in the river, it was to find the tide had gone out and they were now leaning against the wharf. As a result, I believe the delivery of that glucose cost Uncle Sam a considerable sum. I don’t know if it helped but my sister Susanne Jean arrived safely on May 24 1944 at the Mater Hospital.