The Passing Out Parade was supported by the Australian Government’s Anzac Centenary Arts and Culture Fund and was coordinated by South West Arts in partnership with South West Music Regional Conservatorium and Outback Theatre for Young People.
By David Schoeffel
“When I turned eighteen, I tried to join the Army, but they knocked me back, because, as a laundryman, washing bed –linen for the hospital in Ballarat, I was deemed to be an ’essential worker’. So I shut up about my laundry job and joined the RAAF instead, as a trainee aircraft maintenance mechanic.
They railed us all up to the Flying Training School at Deniliquin, at night, offloading us at ’Bradley’s Clump’, a mile or so before the town, where we had to climb over a fence and march in the dark, across a dry, prickly plain, to the Air School. Arriving there, we were housed in electrically-lit, uninsulated huts of corrugated iron or asbestos-cement sheet. In each hut were either twelve or sixteen of us, each with a camp-stretcher, a straw-filled palliasse, three blankets and a pillow.
These were years of terrible drought: we sweltered by day and froze by night. During the winter, forty consecutive frosts kept shaded areas frozen till midday. Planes couldn’t be flown until de-frosted with steam-cleaners. It was so dry: from 1943 on, there were around thirteen dust-storms a month, grounding our aircraft, despite our huge dust-suppression sprinkler system.
I became an airframe mechanic, specializing in controls and ‘trimming’. There were twelve hangars, set in a boomerang shape, with a tarmac parking-apron in front. Our work-benches were mounted on casters, so we could take the work and equipment to the planes. We worked in shifts, so that maintenance, like flying training, could go on round the clock. At night, the tarmac and runways were lit by kerosene flare-pots. It was freezing, but kindly locals brought us out hot food and drinks during the small hours.
As well as the huts and hangars, there was an admin. block, a hospital, a cinema, a parade-ground and three swimming-pools, for the various ranks. Fully a third of our population were women: members of the Womens’ Auxiliary Australian Air Force. They helped, with skills ranging through administration, instrument-repair, nursing, driving and catering. Their huts were, naturally, ‘no-go’ areas for us men.
Although they called me ‘the cool cat from Ballarat’, in reality, I was anything but. I was too shy to go in to the monthly dances at the Town Hall, but we did have weekly dances and movies at the Base. With wartime rationing, our food, though quite good, was never quite enough. We could go into town on weekends, to eat and relax at ‘Air Force House’, where volunteer local women would serve us over two hundred meals a day. Also, whenever a supply train came past, carrying beer, it would whistle and we would all rush in to town to beat the locals to it.
We hungered also for news from the Fronts: we made radios from scrounged bits and pieces and listened eagerly during the few hours each day that the local station, 2QN, was on air. As petrol was rationed to 16 gallons a month, those of us who had cars, fitted them with gas burners, using charcoal made in the forest at Gulpa, by men too old to serve in the military. You could get twenty miles to a bag of charcoal.
Of course, we lived with tragedy at the Air School, losing friends to crashes during training, and hearing of graduate friends, killed in action. Nevertheless, we lived a pretty cheerful existence, with a lot of mischief. I was one of a dozen-odd lucky souls who bagged himself one of the local girls, as a wife.