The War Years

For many months aeroplanes had traversed the skies overhead. Aircraft were seldom seen in Mallacoota during the 1930s so I remember them with the same feeling of awe as I did twenty years later, when we watched the starry skies to catch a glimpse of the first satellite, Russia’s Sputnik 1. I guess though our parents knew, as they observed the incessant flights of those planes, making aerial maps of our coastline, that their activity was a prelude to war. I remember clearly the hushed silence in our lounge room as we listened on our old ‘Howard’ battery wireless to the voice of the then Prime Minister, Mr. R G. Menzies KC. announcing that it was his “melancholy duty to inform the nation that, as Germany had invaded Poland, Great Britain had declared War upon her and thus, as a result, Australia is also at war”. It was the 3rd of September, 1939 and I was 11 years old. My sister and I were terrified but our Mother assured us that Europe was far, far away and we were quite safe in Australia. Little did we know just how close the war would come to our shores.

Our little isolated bush township was to see many changes in the next six years. Equipment began arriving and an aerodrome, a number one priority for our very vulnerable coastline, was established.

The Civil Construction Company (CCC) did the major construction work formed by men from Killarney (near Port Fairy), an Irish settlement established when the potato famine forced them to leave Ireland. The men brought their families with them to Mallacoota so we had Ryans, Foleys, Sheehans, Barkers and so on as ‘new’ pupils at our school.

The Army arrived to set up training camps, then later the RAAF. Both RAAF and naval posts were established on Gabo Island. Like all schools, we had to have an air raid shelter, so with the help of our teacher, we dug one.. We would arrive home each afternoon with our clothes a mess, not just from the work but from the continual clod fights. With the township being in such close proximity to the RAAF station, we had to observe the strictest ‘black-out’ regulations. We put old blankets over the curtains and blinds and, at school, the window panes had black gauze glued to them. We had no electricity in those days and we relied on kerosene lamps and candles for light so I don’t think the blacking out was really necessary.

We were issued with Identity Cards, the teacher witnessing our signatures. In Melbourne, a register of children living in the city and coastal areas of Victoria was set up in case it was essential to evacuate them to safer places. We thought Mallacoota’s very isolation would have ensured that!

In 1942 the Prime Minister was John Curtin. He introduced rationing. Petrol was one of the first items but that didn’t worry us much. Few people had cars so we never ventured far from our little community, anyway. Australia in those days was a land of tea drinkers, so everyone felt the rationing of this item. Instant coffee had not been manufactured and coffee beans were hard to obtain in Mallacoota but some people drank coffee essence, a black treacle looking substance. It was the American servicemen who brought coffee to this country. We found butter rationing very difficult even though we made our own. The substituted margarine was like white lard and not the refined product we know today. It was difficult to spread and the taste was most unpalatable. Sugar and meat were also rationed and newspapers ran competitions to find recipes for meatless meals. Most of them were called ‘Mock’ something or other.. Like all children we longed for sweets. Many of the boys boiled Nestles’ Condensed Milk to make toffee.

It did not worry us here in Mallacoota that clothes were in short supply, after all, we had just come through years of Depression and were used to recycling and wearing “hand­me-downs”. The men were not exactly happy though when the long tails of their shirts were shortened. Cotton was unobtainable during the war years. Our Clothes Ration Books held 112 coupons to last a year. It took 4 coupons for each pair of socks or stockings and mens’ suits needed thirty-eight coupons. They were the days when stockings had a dark seam down the back, the straightness of which supposedly determined the character of the wearer, so it was very important to keep that line straight! With a shortage of hosiery, women painted liquid stockings on their legs, the more daring had a go at those seams, too.

“Wartime commodity” became familiar words; even bikes came under the category. To purchase one between us, Mione and I had to obtain a permit. Our kindly teacher stretched the seventy chains (the distance from school to home) to eighty chains making the required mile.

Hot water bags were unprocurable, so we filled bottles with hot water to keep our feet warm in winter. Whisky bottles were made from fairly thick glass and coveted as that drink was a lUxury. Mum, ever watchful of saving water, would empty the water into the fowl scraps each morning to mix them into mash. I remember the morning she accidently picked up the wrong bottle. There was a howl of anguish from Pa McCaffrey, “Begorra, Be­at, you’ve emptied all the bloody (“00” as in “hood”) whisky out”. Dad was much more explicit and the fowls fell asleep everywhere quite incapable of making their perches! Daylight Saving was introduced in 1942 and all the kids loved it!

Our Dad, Hugh Brady, had the contract to supply milk and bread to the RAAF. The cows were milked at “Raheen” and it wasn’t always easy to keep up the supply during the times of drought. The RAAF would send a tender around to collect it from the large milk cans and the forms were duly signed. Dad also had the contract to supply bread to the RAAF at the aerodrome and Gabo Island RAAF and Navy. Albert Greer and Dad baked the bread in the Bakery which was on the fence line of the Hotel and Lakeside Flats. It was demolished a few years ago. Albert’s mother, Bella Greer, also once had a Bakery in Mallacoota, which was also demolished a few years ago. It was about halfway down Clarke Street on the Medical Centre side.

School continued much the same except the traditional songs we sang in the thirties now gave way to patriotic ones like, ‘There’ll always be an England,’ ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and so on. Whilst tunes influenced by the RAAF, ‘Quartermaster’s store’, ‘Bless ’em All’, and other popular wartime songs were sung with great gusto. One nice memory of those times was when a kind serviceman stationed on Gabo, who felt sorry for Mione and I, would often give Dad a few Hoadley’s Violet Crumple bars from the Canteen. ‘Under the lap’ of course! We kept the secret well. We had no intention of jeopardising the supply!

Dad had the contract to take supplies and personnel to Gabo Island. The Entrance kept closing as it has done right through the years, so they built a rail track at Bastion Point right up to the bottom of the cliff so Dad could winch the boat up out of the ocean. Many a night Dad slept on it when the seas were rough. When heavy seas prevented the boat from making the trip to Gabo, the RAAF would airlift the supplies. I remember the poor fellow, in his haste to get the Mail, had a parcel dropped on him breaking his leg. The contract also specified the boat be available for sea rescue. Once when a bomber went down off Gabo Island, it was on ‘stand­by’ for several days. Finally a naval boat a Fair (Four) mile picked up the crew. Their rubber dinghy had been spotted surrounded by albatross! Another time, when a gale force sou’wester had made the seas too rough to return to Mallacoota, they were ordered that night to leave the Island. It was pitch black but they were mounting the guns on Gabo that night and the CO thought the men would be safer at sea. He gave Dad a torch and a code to signal if they got into difficulty and had to turn back. The War was a lot closer than we thought!

One at the saddest incidents was when a bomber crashed into the river at Gipsy Point killing the unfortunate crew. We knew one of the groundstaff men who had gone for the ride. Dad had to take the bomb disposal men from Melbourne in the “Beatrice” to the scene where the bombs were ‘deloused’ and the bodies retrieved. It had been a long day for Mum waiting for Dad to come home safely. At about midnight, Mum woke me up as Brita (Albert Greer’s wife) had no phone. Mum said I was to go over to the township to see if she had heard any news. It was a very dark night so she gave me a torch and off I set on the push bike. I still can remember how nervous I was going around Shady Gully. It was a very surprised Brita who was woken up but she assured me that they would have heard if anything had gone wrong. It seemed to take ages to get home again.

Our local men formed the VDC. (Voluntary Defence Force) and were issued with .303s. The uniform was made up of khaki pants and bottle green tunic top. Some of the men went off to the War Training School near Foster. A Voluntary Observation Post, manned by locals on a roster system, was set up in a small shed on the corner, at the back of Joan Allan’s property. Booklets were issued to all the Observers. They showed ships and planes in silhouette which they had to learn to identify. Our old ‘tree to tree’ telephone to Orbost was updated with a second line added. Communications were very important. The Victorian Education Department formed a Young Workers’ Patriotic Guild and proceeds from our school stalls and other money raising efforts were sent to Melbourne. Can you imagine children of today making curry­combs and bootscrapers from beer bottle tops or sugar bag aprons? Come to think of it, what parent would buy them? Our needs were very mundane, then. The Department presented a certificate to every child who raised £1 ($2). It was a great incentive! We knitted socks and scarves, not all works of art, which the Red Cross distributed to servicemen. We became so accustomed to the bombers flying overhead that we scarcely noticed them. They had become part of our lives and the boys constantly drew them during drawing lessons.

We had our ‘pin-up’ pictures just as they do today: Judy Garland, Betty Grable, Deanna Durban, Ingrid Bergman and so many more of those beautiful Movie Stars. John Payne and Clark Gable were great favourites. The ‘Bobby Soxers’ discovered Frank Sinatra during the 1940s and Bing Crosby was a great favourite. England’s Vera Lynn and America’s Kate Smith featured in the weekly Hit Parade. How I waited fervently to hear that program, hoping that the battery on our old Howard wireless would hold its charge but always the ABC and BBC News had first priority.

We grew up quickly during those years, time seemed so short, the future as unsure to us then as today’s young people regard theirs now. There were good times too, and the RAAF, knowing our isolation, would include us in their entertainment. They would send a tender into the township taking us down to their Recreational Hall to see the latest films. Their Medical Officers would often attend the sick townsfolk and I remember once having a very painful tooth extraction at the aerodrome. I often wondered if those medical orderlies ever followed a medical career after the war. Once when my uncle was having a tooth extracted, a plane overshot the runway and the crew were all killed. The huge crater left by it is still visible as you turnoff to go down to the beach.

The RAAF held regular dances and they would send tenders to Orbost, Eden and Bega bringing back a ‘load of girls’ for dancing partners. Goodness knows how they travelled those unsealed, gravel roads packed into the back of those dusty vehicles whilst trying to keep their long dresses clean. With clothing rationing, long gowns were almost unprocurable but mosquito net was a wonderful substitute and could be dyed in pretty colours. Many a romance blossomed at those dances, many ending up in marriage. Dance bands were brought in. I remember one, Arty Young from Orbost. His was so good. There was always plenty of talent among the personnel, particularly pianists. One young RAAF man I recall had a dreadful impediment in his speech but, put ‘Titch’ behind the microphone and there was no sign of it. He had the most wonderful singing voice. Because of being employed by the RAAF, Dad was an Honorary Member of the Officers’ Mess and sometimes, particularly on a dance night, he would be late home. We would be dressed up in all our finery and finally, away we would go. Dad, by now influenced by all the pilots flying talk, would zoom the old Buick around Shady Gully and ‘take off’ down Davis Creek Hill. Without side curtains, the wind would be rushing in and out as we careered along. The georgette scarves, keeping our “dolled up” hair in place, would stream out behind in typical Isadora Duncan fashion, and Dad, enjoying it all, with a huge grin on his face, would give a few honks of the horn for good measure. We would pull up abruptly at the ‘old’ Betka Bridge where the Sentry on duty would ask for the password. Dad seemed to take ages before he gave it. Then it was over the bridge and to the hall where we danced the “Lambeth Walk”, ‘Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree’, Hokey Pokey’ and ‘Hands, knees and Boomps a-claisy’ that had originated during the London Blitz.

Our district’s menfolk were serving in the armed forces in the Middle East and, later, in the Pacific area. Joe Bristow from Double Creek sadly lost a leg in the Middle East war zone. Joe did not have much time to enjoy life on his return, as he died quite young, the aftermath of war. We were very proud of all our boys, especiC!lIy Bob Stevens (Ken’s brother) from Wangrabelle who was awarded the D.C.M. for his heroism in New Guinea. Thankfully, the war ended and we had Welcome Home dances for all our boys.

The aerodrome finally got down to a skeleton staff of RAAF. Buildings were later sold. Everything that wasn’t burnable was tipped into the Betka River. Driving over the ‘old’ Betka Bridge, one could see tins upon tins of paint, partly submerged stoves, refrigerators…. you name it. Everything had been obtained through the American Lend Lease Plan so what else could be done with it?

Lots of commodities still could not be obtained and I remember, as I was packing to go off to Wollongong for a 2-3 year Commercial course, Mum said I would have to take the old-fashioned cane lidded dress basket. How I pleaded and cried to her not to make me take it. Had it been today, I would have cheerfully packed my belongings in a green plastiC bag. Parents then weren’t given to ‘backing down’. I managed to get to Bega on three different buses without any comment but I remember my mortification when the Nowra bus driver threw the offending case up to his helper saying, “Watch out Bill, here come the chickens!”

We were the lucky ones to have missed the horrors of war, it touched us only slightly. I hope it taught my generation to be frugal, to realize that material things weren’t all that important in life and that it is caring and sharing that really counts!

Leone Pheeney

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