And then there was war

Vera and 3yo Joan

Veronica was not yet three months old and I had not turned four when World War 2 was declared on September 1st, 1939.

Then Japan bombed Pearl Harbour and took Singapore. It was now the Pacific War. Australia was well and truly involved. In all there were 111 bombing attacks to the north.

Gruesome posters warned ‘It’s Fight, Work or Perish’.

The Premier advised the citizens of Melbourne, ‘Keep calm if the city is invaded’. Councils were directed to dig 40 miles of air-raid shelters, enough for 100,000 people in open trenches. My father’s  first response was to build a back-yard air raid shelter; everybody was doing it. Joe’s shelter was a deep rectangular one, roofed with a heavy fireproof door sourced through his plumbing contacts. I was fascinated and proud.

There were, of course, neighbours ready to offer unsolicited advice about Joe’s air raid shelter. Firstly, it held water, a lot of water when it rained. Secondly it was directly below our very large gum tree which, neighbours thought, the Japs would undoubtedly bomb. Thirdly it lacked the escape tunnel which would certainly be needed when the roof collapsed.

Our neighbours of two doors further up the street had a house with fancy front windows, a plump son call Wilton and a model air-raid shelter. It was roofed, lined and stacked with emergency food. It had a round tunnel for escape and Wilton demonstrated wriggling out headfirst. The next thing I remember is Wilton howling, my grandmother Annie Martin holding my hand firmly and presenting me to my mother saying, ‘Look what she has done now. She wacked poor Wilton on the bottom with a piece of four-be-four’. It was probably my first action for justice and equity. I loved my father.

Model Brunswick Air Raid Shelter

I started school. I was issued with an ‘evacuation kit’. We had First World War style trenches in the school yard and would practice air raid at the sound of a siren. We would squat down and scratch at the walls of the trench looking for treasures; the school was built on a block that was once a tip. Air raid practice was enjoyable. At night we went out into the dark to watch spotlights sweeping across the sky. This was a wonder: a starry night and beams of light swerving to and fro. I had just one worry. In the morning at school there would be drums and marching practice. I was skinny and hipless and the elastic in my pants was no longer strong enough. I had to keep hitching. We had to swing our arms to the beat of the drums. I tried to swing my arms with my elbow clamped to my waist.

Instead of the usual holiday at Marysville we went to my mother’s cousins farm at Malmsbury. I tramped around with Dad and the boys and men on a routine drive to suppress the rabbits. It was more violence than I had ever seen. Ferrets were released into rabbit holes; rabbits popped out at the other end. The men grabbed rabbit after rabbit, twisted their necks to kill them and tossed the bodies into bags on their backs. My father’s rabbits hopped away. I understood that if he went to the war it would have to be the navy. He wouldn’t shoot people he could see.

Then something happened that was totally surprising. My father decided that the family would stay in Sassafras, a holiday township in the hills outside Melbourne. He would visit us in the weekends but during the week he was busy at work. It was 1942. We were surrounded with gum trees and tree ferns.  I remember the smell of it and the peacefulness.

As an adult I was intrigued about this. I went to the Victorian State Archives in North Melbourne looking for references to Joseph Healy. I was invited to put on white gloves and look through the bound book of Cabinet Minutes. There was an Essential Services List of plumbers, gas fitters and firemen. The list was ‘handpicked men because of fear of sabotage’. These men were blocked from enlisting.  It was thought that events would develop ‘with great rapidity’. Gas sources and water sources would be the first targets of the Japanese bombing raids and there would be fires. Squads were trained to deal with this. Meanwhile we were safer in Sassafras.

By the end of the war I was almost ten years old. I understood horror now, and a world of suffering. When the atom bomb was dropped, we listened on the wireless, then knelt as a family and prayed for the Japanese people.