Women's army provided 'fine career'




19-9-1915 - 7-11-2012

MARY Johns, who has died at 97 years, was one of the thousands of women during World War II who responded to the Australian government recruiting campaign calling for "hundreds of Australia's keenest women to enlist" in the new Australian Women's Army Service (AWAS). The recruiting campaign called for women with "general intelligence, a willingness to serve and general adaptability". The AWAS was formed to release men from support military duties for deployment to the fighting forces.

After enlisting in May 1942, Mary served in the AWAS until it was disbanded in 1947. When the Women's Royal Australian Army Corp (WRAAC) was formed in 1951, she was one of the first to join. After a combined 24 years of army service, she retired in 1970 as a colonel.

During the war Mary had a range of postings around Australia. After one week of training she was appointed an instructor. Her first posting was inducting civilians into the rigours of army life at Glamorgan, Toorak. She was then posted to Bonegilla where she was in charge of trainee signallers.

In later years, she recalled the enormous pressure felt by young AWAS members learning code. She also reminisced about the challenge of keeping the soldiers in the neighbouring barracks at arm's length from "her girls". No one who knew Mary doubted she would have been up to this challenge.

The next posting was Balcombe on the Mornington Peninsula to supervise training in outdoor bivouacking, vehicle driving and maintenance. She was then posted to the AWAS officer training school at Darley near Bacchus Marsh. After seven months of service, Mary was promoted to lieutenant.

In 1944, she was promoted to commandant at AWAS Western Command, Perth. One interesting task there involved her AWAS members acting as prison officers during a strike by staff at the Fremantle jail. The Western Command posting was not all hard work. Her recollections of Perth in 1944 included an active social life, with invitations to activities at the prestigious Weld Club, honorary membership of the WA Trotting Association and visits to Rottnest Island.

After the AWAS was disbanded in 1947, Mary had a short time in civilian life before being approached to join the Women's Australian Army Corps, which later became the WRAAC. The army offered "A Fine Career for a Woman", said the recruitment advertisements.

Colonel Kathleen Best, the WRAAC's first director, was Mary's much revered leader. In recent years she would teach the nurses caring for her about Colonel Best's heroic role in evacuating a hospital from Greece during the retreat of Allied forces in April 1941. Colonel Best was awarded the Royal Red Cross medal for this work.

Promoted to major in 1952, Mary moved between Point Lonsdale Studley Park, New South Wales Mildura Victoria Barracks, Melbourne Georges Heights, Sydney army headquarters, Canberra Sydney and back to Canberra, before retiring in 1970. She spent significant periods in WRAAC staff training, the Department of Supply (army branch) and the Office of Scientific Advisors, Canberra.

Mary's appointment as officer in charge of the WRAAC personnel selected for the visit to Canberra by Queen Elizabeth II in 1954 was a personal highlight of her army career. On a very hot day during the numerous rehearsals for the march past and guards of honour, several service women fainted. The commanding officer told Mary: "Keep your women upright, they're upsetting my men!" Mary's response is not recorded but those who knew her doubt she would have been sympathetic - her concern was for "her girls".

The formation of the women's army during the darkest days of World War II provided Mary with an opportunity that she seized. Her intelligence, willingness to serve, adaptability and her sense of humour enabled her to enjoy a very successful army career.

On retirement from the WRAAC, Mary was director of the Nurses Memorial Centre in Melbourne for several years.

She had strong views about gender equality. In part, this resulted from the discrepancies in employment conditions between women in the AWAS and WRAAC compared with men of comparable rank. These views often created interesting situations when she met men who she felt did not recognise her experience or background.

In 2001, Mary was honoured by the NSW WRAAC Association when she was invited to take the salute for the march past on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the formation of the WRAAC.

Mary was the second child of the Reverend Walter and Ada Johns. Every three years, the Methodist Church posted her father to a new circuit so the family moved from Yarram to Werribee, Rushworth, Echuca, Latrobe (Tasmania), Maffra, Frankston, Drouin and finally Lilydale.

Mary did not enjoy school but she loved music, especially playing the piano, a love that continued through her life. Reading printed music was a bother, she preferred playing by ear. One teacher, who was blind, was able to tell when she was not reading the music and would admonish her for not paying attention. Until very recently, a piano in the room was a signal for her to entertain family, friends and army colleagues for hours.

After she left school, Mary spent short periods helping her mother and then worked at a small boarding school at Healesville before moving to the Riverina to become a governess. She maintained a lifelong friendship with the Redfern family, her first governess position.

Tennis parties, dinners at neighbouring properties and the occasional visit to Melbourne filled in time between tutoring and helping with domestic duties. She used to shiver as she remembered "rabbits galore" and an introduction to the horrors of drought on the properties.

Nieces and nephews recall Mary arriving on holidays as an erect person who smoked cigarettes and played jazz-style music. In summer time, they were goggle eyed when she donned her two-piece bathing suit to refresh her sun tan. For her country-based nephews and nieces, Mary was an exotic character - the family's own Auntie Mame!

Mary acted as a role model for her nieces, showing that careers in non-traditional areas were possible. She didn't bother about domestic skills such as cooking or needlework but the structured life she learnt in the army remained to her last days.

Until Mary retired to Nelson Bay, NSW, in 1985, her life from birth had been like a gypsy moving between places with minimal possessions and having to establish new friendships each time. In 2005, Mary moved from Nelson Bay to Drouin to be closer to her sisters and brother.

Her sisters, Berta and Helen, and the extended families of her nieces and nephews survive her.

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