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March 07, 2019

June Smith’s Story

Born in 1922, June can clearly remember watching the Sydney Harbour Bridge being built from her house in Cremorne Junction. Preferring the fresh air and outdoors to the rigors of the classroom and the drudgery of office work, June signed up with the Volunteer Aid Detachment as soon as war was declared. In 1944 she was sent to Lae in New Guinea, thereby fulfilling her dream of serving overseas. In the process she found love and a whole new direction for her life……

My father was a returned serviceman from WWI. He was gassed on the western front and every now and then would need a day in bed, he was not a very well man. Mum would tell us to leave him alone, which my two sisters and I did, and invariably he’d recover and head off to work the next day. We were lucky in that he was able to hold down a job all the way through the Depression years.

We lived in one of the few 2-storey houses in Cremorne Junction; we could look down and see the harbour. Watching the Harbour Bridge being built was fascinating; they built the arch first and we thought “well that’s going to be a hard climb for the cars – we thought we’d have to go over the top!”

I had a very happy childhood. I didn’t like school, in fact I hated school. I would rather have been playing in the garden and walking or making paper boats to bob down the gutter on rainy days; I liked being in the outdoors.

I finished school when I was 17, just as the Second World War had started. I worked in an office for a while, which I didn’t like and then the war came and with it the opportunity to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD). We all wanted to be nurses. With the VAD I’d go to Concord Hospital every Sunday to help make plaster bandages. We’d rub the powdered plaster into the bandages and then they’d be made into casts for the men. I was excited, I thought “here’s my way out of office work”. Plus we all wanted to do our bit for the war effort.

After 12 months we were enlisted into the Army (the Australian Medical Womens Auxiliary Service). I had my 20th birthday at rookie school in Ingleburn with all the girls. We had a party that night, it was great fun. Unfortunately for me after the initial training they discovered I could use a typewriter, so I was sent to work in the Quartermaster Store (Q-store) issuing uniforms, then to the orderly room typing and filling in forms.

But fortune favoured me again and I was given the opportunity to go to nurses training school – I was over the moon. This was what I wanted! I completed a six-week course in Victoria, learning how to make beds, take temperatures, and other simple skills to become a nurses aid. From there I was posted to the 114th AGH (Australian General Hospital) in Goulburn.

The ward I worked in had servicemen suffering from malaria and skin cases. It was my job to collect all the bandages, boil them up in the copper outside, get all the ointment out and send them off to the laundry to be washed and dried. They’d come back a terrible mess so we’d roll them and sort them and get them ready for use again. It was pretty hard work but we were all in it together and I really felt that I was doing my bit to help the war effort.

Goulburn was bone-achingly cold. We had no fireplaces, nothing except the extra blanket we were issued. The men were in big wards with one fireplace at the end of the room and that was it. If they were able, we’d get them out of bed and help them walk around to warm up a bit.

By this time New Guinea was hotting up and I could see an opportunity for myself so I applied to go even though I knew that, if successful, I’d be put back into office work. I was determined to do everything I could to serve overseas. A posting in the Q-store came up in Lae – an area on the coast of New Guinea which had been a stronghold of the Japanese until our troops overwhelmed them and pushed them out in a fierce six-month battle in 1943. This was my chance. When I told my father, he could understand why I wanted to be there. He’d been a soldier himself so he knew what it was all about; I think he was quite proud of me. My mother was a different story, she wasn’t happy about it at all.

The boat trip to Lae was an eye-opener. We knew there was a chance a Japanese submarine was watching us. We were in a flat bottom boat and everybody was terribly sick. No one was allowed to throw anything overboard, even a cigarette butt in case it left a clue that we were there. There were no lights allowed at night at all in case we were spotted. It was quite a wake-up call.

Once in Lae I was posted to the 2/7th AGH in the Q-store, like a grocery shop. We lived in huts made by the native labour. They used the native labour a lot, the women worked in the laundry. I remember in the store we had little mirrors for sale and they absolutely loved them; they’d never seen mirrors before. It was hot and mosquito-infested. Having seen the men in Goulburn suffering from Malaria I was completely vigilant with wearing long sleeves, trousers and using the mosquito nets at night time. If you happened to be in your hut at 5pm you’d run around everyone’s beds and pull the nets down.

“When I told my father, he could understand why I wanted to be there. He’d been a soldier himself so he knew what it was all about; I think he was quite proud of me. My mother was a different story…”

It was such an amazing experience. Two very memorable events happened while I was there – peace was declared and I met my husband Jack who was the Quartermaster Sergeant there. When we returned we married, bought a poultry farm at Kurrajong with a small brick cottage on it and settled down to a very happy life with our (eventually) six children.

The war gave women so many opportunities to gain skills and experiences they would never otherwise have had. For me, it got me out of the office and away from a desk. It gave me the chance to serve overseas, to see a bit of the world. It brought Jack and I into each other’s orbit and set us on a path for our future together. The funny thing is, it never occurred to any of us that we might not win the war. We’d always say “when the war is over” with such naïve, youthful confidence. Thank goodness we were right.

Photo: June Smith currently lives at Mark Donaldson VC Gardens, Galston

Words: Helen Johnston

Photography: Tim Pascoe

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