We were still checking out the birds’ nests in Shady Gully as we dawdled to school always stopping and abandoning our school bags to swing on the thick vines which grew in the little gully opposite Coull’s Inlet. A huge banana passion fruit entwined amongst the other vines, their large, pink flowers hanging just out of reach and we would watch the green fruit forming, a promise of summer delicacy; but the birds always beat us to them. How we enjoyed the freedom of bush children, til the evening of September 3rd, 1939 when we listened in hushed silence on our old ‘Howard’ battery wireless to the voice of the then, Prime Minister, Mr. RG Menzies KC announcing that “it was his melancholy duty to inform the Nation that as Germany had invaded Poland, Great Britain had declared war on her thus, as a result, Australia is also at War.” I was eleven year’s old! Our Mother reassured us that Europe was a long way from our country and we would be safe, little did we know then how close the hostilities would evolve just north of our country.
Soon the traditional school songs we sang in the 1930s gave way to patriotic ones like, ‘There’ll always be an England’, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Rule Britannia’. Morning Nature talks succumbed to the War News which was broadcast on both the ABC and BBC. Mr McDonald declared he didn’t have to listen to it as Bill Bruce gave him a full account each morning from having his ear attuned to their Stromberg-Carlson.
The quiet little winding road into Mallacoota became busy with the constant arrival of trucks and equipment to establish an aerodrome. New families moved in as the Civil Construction Corp’s men came to do the major construction work. Because they mostly came from Killarney (near Port Fairy) an Irish settlement, our new pupils had the names of Ryan, Foley, Sheehan, Barker and so on. The township being in close proximity to the aerodrome, we had to observe the strictest ‘black-out’ regulations. The school windows were covered with black gauze, glued to each pane. Because the building was never used at night except on a rare occasion and then the only lighting was a small kerosene lamp, we children resented not being able to see outside. Woe betide any child who was caught scratching a little peep-hole; the leather strap was still a means of punishment.
The RAAF followed the Army to be stationed at the aerodrome and we became so accustomed to the bombers flying over head, we scarcely noticed them. They had become part of our lives and the boys constantly depicted the familiar Lockheed Hudsons and Avro Ansons during our drawing lessons. Nature pictures began to give way to ‘pin-ups’ Judy Garland, Betty Grable, Deanna Durban, Ingrid Bergman and so many more of those beautiful Movie Stars. John Payne, Clark Gable and Bing Crosby were great favourites. The ‘Bobby- soxers’ discovered Frank Sinatra during the 1940’s and England’s Vera Lynn and America’s Kate Smith featured in the weekly Hit Parade. How I waited impatiently to hear that program, hoping fervently the wireless battery would ‘hold it’s charge’ for as always, the ABC and BBC News had first priority. Our male ‘pin-ups’ were really the Aces, the fighter Pilots, real life heroes like our own ‘Bluey’ Truscott, and ‘Killer’ Caldwell and the Battle of Britain pilots, Paddy Finnucane and’ Cobber’ Kane.
Wartime meant we no longer corresponded with our American penfriends and their school; an across the Pacific friendship which had been established several years earlier. We exchanged with them pressed wild flower books and we felt confident that with our wealth of local flora, ours would be the Best. I was absolutely mortified to discover that their maidenhair fern was huge compared with ours! Perhaps that is where it all started, with the Americans and their boasting that everything is better and bigger back home!! A phrase that would become very familiar throughout Australia as the theatre of war moved to the Pacific area.
Due to the influence of the RAAF, our school songs progressed again to more uplifting wartime songs and we sung with great gusto ‘The quarter-master’s store,’ ‘Bless ’em All’, ‘Wings over the Navy’ and the songs that had originated during the dark days of the London Blitz; ‘Lambeth Walk’, ‘Hokey Pokey’, ‘Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree’, ‘Santa Lucia’, ‘Clementine’ and ‘Frere Jacques’ no longer echoed from our little school.