A teenager’s war

Iris (middle), purchases in hand, ca 1940
Iris (middle), purchases in hand, ca 1940

Two years before she died in 1984 for a history assignment I interviewed my mother Iris from the perspective of a ‘Melbourne teenager during World War II’. I was often surprised by her comments about life at the time.

In March 1942 food rationing began; identity cards were issued to those over 16:

I didn’t have an identity card. I don’t recall anyone having an identity card. The family had to go without a lot of things. What we got didn’t take us far, but we managed. I bought two ration books. It was illegal. I don’t know where people got them from but people had them available to sell.

Clothing rationing:

I loved clothes and had them made by a woman in Brunswick. I would pick a style I liked, she would measure me and next time I went it was ready. You were allowed to buy whatever the coupons allowed. Stockings! They were like gold – you’d only wear them once and they’d be laddered from heel to thigh. The boys’ favourite saying was “Can I follow your run?” and it was right up your leg!

National Security Act, 1942, allowed for women to be drafted into essential industries:

I didn’t know about that Act. During the war you weren’t supposed to change jobs. I left one job for another and received a letter saying that I could be jailed but nothing ever happened, probably because I was working in a factory making ‘dog’ biscuits for the boys at the front. They were four inches square and so hard. We sometimes put notes in the tins and got letters back. I later worked as a drink waitress at the Australia Hotel serving American servicemen, so I guess that’s why they didn’t try to move me back to the factory.

Mid-1942, ‘brownouts’ commenced:

You had to have your blinds down all the time. It was awful coming home on the tram at night – you didn’t know where you were. The trams were dimly lit and had blinds drawn. When they stopped you had to get off quickly when the door opened. You couldn’t see outside as the streets were pitch-black. I used to count the stops. I had 42 before my stop. But at about that time an American negro was murdering people. We were all scared travelling alone at night.

Panic in 1942 following the first of 59 bombings of Darwin:

I don’t remember people panicking. The war seemed a long way away and life went on as usual but we all got a scare when the submarines got into Sydney harbour. The newspapers listed ‘so many missing, so many dead’ and who was coming home on leave. It was lovely to read about someone you knew coming home on leave. But it was mostly about people missing in action. It was sad for those with sons and relatives on active duty.

The Americans were big spenders:

They always had plenty of money. They could take a girl out and show her a good time. Nothing was too expensive. Their uniforms were really nice and the only time we went in taxis was when we were with the Yanks – with Australians you walked or took a tram or train. The Americans were not used to our money and would hand money over to the driver and ask them to take the money – and they did!

Were Australian men jealous of Americans?

They were. Americans treated girls as they should be treated – with respect, gave them a good time and weren’t ‘expecting the world’ because of it. With Australians it was the other way. Naturally the Australian girls took to the Americans.

Post-war scheme to remove women from workforce:

I know it happened but I was working with other single girls; our jobs were not for males and so we never had to leave.

Life for women post-war:

Everything was ‘peace’. It was a change from Americans to Australians. I suppose the girls didn’t like it much because the good times they had were over. It was hard for the men to settle down after having been away for so long. There were many divorces. I don’t know what Catholics did – they must have ‘stuck it out’.

Iris’s experience of WWII:

We really did have a ball because we could have gone out every night of the week. I had quite a few boyfriends during the war because some were overseas and some here. The Americans took us dancing, roller-skating, ice-skating, a bit of everything. I don’t think Australian people really felt it but everyone knew somebody who’d been killed, missing or maimed.