Beryl Joyce SEXTON

SEXTON, Beryl Joyce

Service Number: 110215
Enlisted: 7 April 1943
Last Rank: Aircraftwoman
Last Unit: Royal Australian Air Force
Born: Benalla, Victoria, Australia, 27 December 1923
Home Town: Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria
Schooling: Burwood State School, Victoria, Australia
Occupation: Not yet discovered
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World War 2 Service

7 Apr 1943: Enlisted Royal Australian Air Force, Aircraftwoman, 110215
27 Mar 1946: Discharged Royal Australian Air Force, Aircraftwoman, 110215, Royal Australian Air Force

Beryl's War Story

Being in the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) is the best thing I've ever done.

I had a difficult childhood following a parental breakup, growing up during the depression in Melbourne and living in boarding houses with my older sister Maureen. My two younger sisters lived with our great Aunt Kate and her family in Elmore in the country. I had no education past Year 8, as girls in the 1930s were expected to become full-time wives and mothers, so I did menial work in laundries during the week and shoe sales on Friday nights and Saturday mornings.

The WAAAF was a big change for me. It gave me confidence in myself, and was a great leveller – it taught me that everyone is equal whatever their rank or station!

When I was 18, in 1942, I felt I wasn't doing anything for the war effort, and not having money to contribute, I thought joining up would be the best help I could give. I enlisted with my sister Maureen in November 1942, but was not called up for four months because there was no WAAAF accommodation available in Melbourne at that time.

I filled in the months working at a laundry in Bendigo. The owners of the business were kindly happy to pay us the same rate if we left early, as long as we finished the work for the week, so I encouraged the other girls to work fast so we could knock off at 2.30pm on a Friday, instead of 6pm. Finishing shirts with a glad iron, my record was 28 shirts in one hour!

Finally, in March 1943, Maureen and I began as 'rookies' in the WAAAF, in the newly built Larundel facility in Heidelberg in Melbourne. This was commandeered by the Air Force during the war, before being used according to its original purpose as a care centre for disabled children. (It is now an abandoned psychiatric care facility.)

At Larundel, the thirty or more women in each flight slept in one dormitory room together. We had to make our own beds by stuffing straw into palliasses, and had a good laugh one night when one girl found she had a mouse in her mattress. We let the mouse out the next day into the yard.

We learned how to march, how to put our gas masks on fast during 'gas attacks', and about the whole Air Force organisation. We lined up for 'needle days' – inoculations that saw some of the girls fall out of line as they passed out! Our duty hours were 8.30am to 6pm every day except Sunday, with one Saturday off per month. On our first day we were given duties like 'emu parade' and 'feeding the donk', which we failed to do because we didn’t understand the lingo. We should have been picking up papers in the yard, and stoking the boiler!

After a month of training, I was sent as an office helper to the Air Force wing of Heidelberg hospital. Making sure they got their mail delivered promptly to their bedside, I got to know some of the wounded men who had long stays in hospital. The injuries were terrible, from air crashes up in the islands.

Maureen and I were given an extra boarder’s allowance to stay with civilians and we boarded with a family we nicknamed the 'Grims' for a while. They never talked at meal times – not even the American boyfriend of the daughter who lived there, who was grimmer than the rest of them! After this we found some lovely serviced rooms on St Kilda Rd, which suited us much better.

I had been promoted to clerk and sent to Prahran to work in Records. At Records I did paperwork to keep track of all the airmen – where they were and what operations they were involved in. Of course, we were not allowed to tell anyone what we knew.

I soon found myself training the new Records staff coming through, and when I said to my superior 'I'm not a teacher, why am I doing all this training?', I was told 'People who you teach are thorough and do it the right way!' Doing the training was a great way of meeting lots of new people.

At one stage, I was strongly encouraged to take a course in radar operations but my belief that I wouldn't be able to do it well got the better of me, and I rejected the offer. Maureen also declined to take the training. I have always regretted that I didn't take the opportunity to have a go at something so interesting and important.

With most of the men under 50 away at the war, women were doing all sorts of work that men previously thought they couldn't do. So it was a great time for women to learn what they could do, like working in factories and driving trams. There was a real sense of camaraderie between women and we all supported and respected each other. I was always very impressed by the Australian Women's Land Army girls – they did such a hard job working the farms to feed us all, giving the men the chance to go away to fight. A few marriages fell apart after the war when the men came home expecting the women to simply go back to their old duties in the house!

Of course, with no young men around we women had to entertain each other, playing cards and going out places, and I made many lifelong friends in the WAAAF. There was a dance every Saturday night and one night we saw there were far more people than usual, and found out that some American servicemen from Guadalcanal were on leave in Melbourne. Usually if anyone asked to take us home, I said 'I have to go with my sister'. One American asked me and said that it was fine to go with Maureen as well, and when we found her, his best friend had already asked her! They were very nice, polite fellows, and they ended up buying and even cooking food for us for a couple of weeks, which was a great deal, we thought.

We had lots of fun and, having met them, even the lady who ran the boarding rooms was happy to have them stay until 10pm in our sitting room. We ended up good friends (just friends!), and they wrote to us once they were back fighting. When one of them failed to write, we found out from his friend that he had been killed. Tragically, not long later, his friend stopped writing too.

Maureen wasn't keen about working in Records, and took the opportunity to relocate to Mildura, where she worked at the trainee flying camp for fighter pilots, while I stayed in Melbourne.

As the photos show, I did occasionally meet up with RAAF pilots. The photos here were taken at Adelaide RAAF 'parafield' airfield, which we visited, during a trip my friend Marjorie and I made to Adelaide to visit Marjorie's parents.

Although I enlisted fully, rather than just 'enrolling' as a volunteer, and could have been sent anywhere by the WAAAF, the strong government position throughout the war was that no Women's Auxiliary corps members would serve overseas, so I never had the opportunity to consider the idea of serving outside Australia. (Some women actually served overseas in Papua New Guinea in non-combat and combat roles towards the end of the war, when things got desperate, but this was not generally advertised.)

After the war, I would have liked to stay on in the WAAAF, but Maureen was keen that I be discharged at the same time as her, as sisters that joined together could be discharged together. She was not easily put off, so we left in March 1946.

When I was discharged, the officer said he had a friend who was looking for bright young women to work for him doing bookkeeping. Once again, I didn't know anything about it, and didn't think I could do it, but he insisted that I could!

This time, I took up the opportunity and during my interview at Radio Corporation my prospective boss made a deal that I would be trained and we would both take a month to see if I should stay on. It took me only two weeks to learn the basic accounting, including paying cash in and out of a £200 fund, which was a lot of money and a big responsibility at the time. I loved it, and ended up virtually as an assistant to the accountant, before 'retiring' to marry Jim Burrowes in 1951, starting a new chapter in my life. Jim had been a coastwatcher signaller in the AIF during the war and had spent 2½ years in the islands north of Australia: The Last Coastwatcher <> We had four children who all turned out very well and of whom we are very proud.

Postscript: After a couple of months working at Radio Corp. I took a working holiday in Perth, where I had managed to travel on a troop train with some of my WAAAF girlfriends who were being discharged over there. Luckily I still had my uniform to wear on the train. We had a great time crossing the Nullarbor, sharing our meals and having fun with the Aboriginal people who came to the train stops.

We were in second class carriages and organised our luggage so we could sleep on top of it. We played cards with the soldiers on the train, and once I was dealt a perfect hand in 500! Another time, I was sleeping wrapped up in a blanket in the corridor, and a soldier who came by kicked me accidentally, and said 'Sorry, dig' (short for 'digger'). He obviously thought I was a soldier.

I worked with my friend Marjorie at the main department store in Perth for three months – she was in 'Hats', I was in 'Underwear'. During the war, many things had been rationed, and one day my manager got us together to say that there was a big delivery of underwear coming from the east (that is, from factories in eastern Australia). The next morning we could hardly get through the doors to get to work, we had to push through so many women: it was like a modern Boxing Day sale! At the end of the day's trading, an exhausted saleswoman – an older, stately-looking woman – collapsed to the counter and said 'I think I've covered every bum in Perth.' We couldn't stop laughing.

I have included some photos of my time in the WAAAF and shortly after the war. One photo includes another good friend, Cath Corrigan. The final colour photo is a recent one of me.

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