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Women in uniform: 100 'unsung heroes' share their tales of Australia in wartime


The untold stories of the “unsung heroes” of wartime Australia shines a light on ex-service women.

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When eighteen year old Hilary Jose enlisted in 1941, she had no idea she would be crucial in training WWII fighter pilots.

The centenarian was one of two women in the Women’s Australian Auxiliary Airforce to become an aerial cinema photographer making slow motion films of mock dog fights between planes.

Katherine “Kit” Kinniburgh also enlisted as soon as she was old enough with the Women’s Royal Auxiliary Navy and became a cryptographer with the intelligence bureau.

The now 98-year-old code cracker worked from a secret Melbourne location, deciphering Japanese messages and sending the information to to the US Navy.

Their wartime efforts are among almost 100 Australian ex-service women who are sharing their experiences in the defence forces since WWII.

Photojournalist Carla Edwards is capturing the stories and portraits of Australian ex-service women she believes are “unsung heroes” whose history is largely untold.

“It’s a project to highlight (ex-service) women. There’s not enough women’s stories…’’ she said.

“I am just honoured they trust me to tell their story and trust me with making their portrait,’’ she said.

Her project started when the New South Wales Central Coast Council gifted her exhibition space at Woy Woy.

“I keep getting told there is nothing like this being done, (a history) that’s only dedicated to ex-service women,’’ she said.

She showcased the portraits and stories of seven ex-service women and word quickly spread.

Ms Edwards said she uses hessian as the backdrop for the portraits because it is strong and versatile like the ex-service women she photographs.

“Hessian has the elements that a woman has, it’s strong and you can put through the wringer and still come out strong,’’ she said.

Ms Edwards currently finances the project herself and is seeking funding to hold an exhibition  and establish a website.

“It’s important these women have a voice and tell their stories,’’ Ms Edwards said.

Australian Catholic University History Professor Noah Riseman said Ms Edwards’ approach is an innovative way to document stories of ex-service women.

“I can say as a historian, there is a very little scholarly work on the women’s services… especially after the Second World War. I can only think of two books that have been written about the women’s services.

“It’s definitely an area that’s under researched. It’s not talked about enough in the public, “ said Professor Riseman who is based in Melbourne.

“…Getting the human story is just such an innovative and really important way to get these stories documented and shared as part of Australia’s history,’’ he said.

Professor Riseman specialises in social histories of the armed forces, primarily post WWII.

He said the histories of Australian ex-service women are under-represented.

“Obviously the roles for women in the defence force have expanded dramatically over the years…a lot more roles opened up to women…so women can now do anything in the ADF but it is still a very male dominated organisation,’’ he said.

“When ANZAC day rolls around, we honour veterans from all wars, including currently living ones. In the First World War, women’s roles were much smaller, most were nurses.

“So much focus on the first world war means that the expanding roles for women in the decades in the century since then, it’s harder to get a look at when so much attention is still put on the First World War,’’ Professor Riseman.

Ex-service women Tracey Pelling and partner Lou Broadfoot have both told their stories about their time in the Royal Australian Air Force and Army respectively for the project.

The couple, who are also former Queensland detectives, are reservists. Ms Pelling said she joined the RAAF straight out of school.

She said while she loved her military service there were some difficult experiences which are hard to talk about.

“I got out relatively unscathed but I was definitely not totally unscathed from hazing ceremonies and the things that used to happen in the bad old days.

“Now if you went to an air force base, you have probably more women working on aircraft than men. Those women and generation will also have their own stories,’’ she said.

Ms Pelling said it was important women keep pushing through the ranks and supporting each other.

“We stand on the shoulders of the WWI and WWII women, …we stand on the shoulders of those beautiful women in previous wars and now the new generation stands on our shoulders…none of us pull up the ladder behind us,’’ Ms Pelling said.

Ms Broadfoot said she hoped the project would raise awareness and education about the role of women in the military.

“Recognition that women sacrifice just as men whether they are serving in Australia or away,’’ she said.

Ms Broadfoot was deployed to Afghanistan in 2018 with the Australian Army to provide training and mentoring at the Afghan National Army Officers Academy.

“There are still a lot of women who go and serve overseas or domestically who put their put their family lives on hold and expose themselves to certain amount of risk.

“While in Afghanistan we still had to wear body armour and helmet, go out to the front gate every day and people were shooting rockets at us. I think people don’t necessarily realise this kind of (combat) involves women as well, ’’ she said.

Both the NSW ANZAC memorial and Queensland’s State Library has expressed interest in hosting the exhibition if Ms Edwards gets funding.

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