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15 October 2014
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Stories from an Australian WNEL

by cambsaction

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Contributed by 
People in story: 
Irish Priestley
Location of story: 
Townsville and Brisbane, Australia
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
30 October 2005

[This story was submitted to the People's War site on behalf of Irish Priestley by a volunteer from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire who fully understands the site's terms and conditions.]

Accounting can be Eventful

When War was declared, I joined the WNELs, the Women's National Emergency Legion [in Australia.] I was sent to Townsville and I worked in the Accounting Department, was a cashier and also cut the checks for all personnel in our area and in the Islands. I worked in American dollars, Dutch guilders and Australian money. It amused me how the Americans couldn’t figure out our currency.

One day I was sent downtown to the bank with an amount of money and was assigned two MPs to guard it. It seemed peculiar to me as I had never heard of a robbery. As we were on the second floor, I was counting money when some joker turned on the big fan. I was outside picking up the bills.

My Part of the War

My brother Lyall joined the Australian Army when he was 17 and was going to New Guinea, and I was working in Townsville. One day, an Australian soldier came in and brought me a letter and said, “This is from your brother Lyall” and I said, “Where is he?” He said, “He is out in the Bay, in a convoy.” I went up and talked to the American major I worked for, and I told him about it and he said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to go out and see him”? And, of course, dumb me, I said, “Oh, yes”! So, he said, “Well, you know the guy in the Navy—why don’t you call him up and see if he would take you out”? So, I called up the Navy, so the next morning, they came along and had one of these landing barges. The major came with me, so I went with the major along with the Navy guy, In the meantime, the soldier had already come back, and the major had asked him to find out which ship Lyall was on, so we found out which ship Lyall was on, and the major said to tell Lyall that we might see him there. The soldier said, “Gee, don’t get me in trouble—the only reason they let me off was because I had such a bad toothache and they let me off to come in and go to the dentist.

So anyway, the next morning we went out there, and we were not supposed to know that the convoy was out there. They were really upset that we knew about it. While we were there, some of them went to town to try to find out what happened. The next morning, when I came to work, these four or five officers from Intelligence come trooping in there, and they were talking to the major, who then came up to me and said, “Hey, think of a story fast and stick to it. You’re the one they want to talk to. So, they took me down in the vault in the bank—we were in was an old bank building--and they wanted to know how I knew that convoy was out there. I knew that if I told them, that young soldier would get into trouble, so I didn’t know what to do, but I kept saying, “Oh, we were just driving around out there and we saw it”. Of course, they knew I was not telling the truth. I am as bad as some President, I guess. But I knew if I told them that this young soldier would get in trouble. So, they really grilled me for a long time and they scared the daylights out of me. They said, “The War is going to be over, and you’re going to be in jail, long after that for not telling them”. Anyway, after that, I was stubborn and wasn’t going to say anything, so they let me go. I’ll tell you, that really scared the daylights out of me for a while; I was pretty careful after that what I did. I was only in my early twenties and that major should have known better than to tell me to go out there, and he came with me, and the Navy officer. But, that was my part of the War I guess, the scary part, anyway.

No More Favours

Once I got in trouble. Servicemen would give me their films to get developed as they were moving up further to the war zone. I was in one picture, down on the beach in my swimsuit. In the distance were ships, you could hardly see them. I was called to Intelligence Headquarters and had some explaining to do. Who was taking these pictures? I said I didn’t know they were visible in the pictures and besides, they were so small who would know? The officer said they could be blown up and identified. No more doing favors for servicemen. After my scare with the Australian Intelligence, I hoped my time with the WNELs would soon be over and I could return home to my parents.

Rationed Stockings

Sugar, flour and butter, also tea, were rationed during the War years. Coupons were issued even to children. All clothes were rationed, even a handkerchief. I don’t think we had Kleenex tissues then.

When I worked for Major [X] he often gave me some of his coupons, especially when I was preparing for my wedding and trying to find the cloth that was rationed by the yard to make my dress.

Shoes were rationed and stockings were impossible to find. We had a beige liquid that came in a bottle. You would slap it on your legs, trying to get it even and then take an eyebrow pencil and try and draw a seam down the back. At first this took much practice and often a few washing of legs before you got it right. Why we bothered to draw the pencilled seam line down the back is beyond me but that is the way stockings were constructed. Later they became seamless. What a blessing.

What a Flight!

One time I was trying to be home for Christmas [from Townsville to Brisbane, Australia] went out to the Air Field, hoping to get a ride home. I waited many hours before my name was called and this was to be the last flight south this night as we were in a big storm and it was closing the airport.

As I was the only girl, they allowed me to sit in the cockpit. The plane had come in from New Guinea. The crew had gone downtown on their break and a couple had been drinking. The pilot turned the controls over to the co-pilot and went to sleep somewhere. The conversation between the co-pilot and navigator was, who would go back to the tail of the plane and get the booze? The navigator said he would not go as there were 30 or more men lying in the belly of the plane. As I was sitting in the pilot’s seat by now, the co-pilot said he would show me how to keep the plane on course and he would go back and get he booze. I emphatically said, “No, you come back here"! The storm was raging outside. I never rode in a plane for many years after that scare.

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