I probably shouldn’t mention white feathers. Not on the eve of Anzac Day 2015. News reports tell us that Australians could be suffering from ‘Gallipoli fatigue‘ after watching too much war TV. I’ve heard whispers of Anzackery, as well.
So, this is a story about men who didn’t go to WW II.
Many wonderful Australian men didn’t go to war. Most of them wanted to join their brothers and mates. They, too, would have liked to serve their country, to be brave and perhaps to have an adventure.
Instead, they stayed home and worked hard. They farmed to feed servicemen and civilians.They manufactured essential goods and kept the country running.
My father, Keith Stone, was one of the men who didn’t go to war. He didn’t make his fortune. He didn’t receive any medals, not even a service medal. He didn’t get deferred pay or a war-service home or a hand-up to get a university education or a new trade.
Instead, my Dad received a white feather in his letterbox.
The week after Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced in 1939 that Australia was at war with Germany my father went to enlist.
‘You’re no good to us,’ they said. ‘You’ve got flat feet. You can’t march like a soldier. You wear spectacles, so you can’t be an airman. Or a sailor.’
My father went back to his job making cardboard boxes. His father had made boxes during WW I. By the outbreak of WW II my grandfather was almost eighty, too frail to work.
My father was the only man left in the factory. Women had been recruited to replace the men who’d gone to war.
Ammunition, shirts and shoes, tinned bully-beef and surgical supplies were all packed into boxes for shipping to war zones. Red Cross comfort parcels, with hand-knitted socks, cakes of soap and Christmas cakes made by volunteers were also packed in cardboard boxes.
Dad did all the heavy lifting, in every sense of the word.
When Japan entered the war in 1942, the government again urged men to enlist. By then they were getting desperate and less fussy about who they took.
At the recruitment office this time, he discovered that he’d been officially ‘man-powered’. The Manpower Directorate ruled certain occupations were essential for the nation and the war. Men employed in them couldn’t be freed for active war service.
With their menfolk at away at war, women in our street asked my father to fix their broken taps and put up shelves. The owner of the only car in the street he drove them in labour to the maternity hospital in the middle of the night.
One morning in 1942, my mother found a white feather in our letterbox. That evening, she led my father into their bedroom to tell him what she’d found. When they came out, they’d both been crying.
What was a white feather?
That white feather in our letterbox was sinister.
From the beginning of the eighteenth century in Britain, a white feather had been a symbol of cowardice. My father would have known that Admiral Charles Fitzgerald had initiated the British Organisation of the White Feather, during World War I. It was one way to ‘encourage’ fit men to enlist with the British Army.
Young women handed out white feathers in the streets to men not wearing uniform. They implied the men were shirkers or cowards. The feather was meant to shame and offend.
During WW I the British government also developed a badge with the legend, ‘King and Country’, to be worn by those involved in key industries and occupations.They marked the wearer as a person excluded from the moral pressure to enlist.
There wasn’t a badge in Australia in 1942, No one knew who was man-powered. White feathers were ‘given’ anonymously. Donors denied their targets the right to protest or explain.
White feathers would have hurt. They were meant to. They’d have caused suspicion. If you got one, you’d have to ask yourself, ‘What bastard would do that? What if it’s someone in our own neighbourhood?’
My father never found out. He got on with the job. quietly supporting the Australian government at war.
Blokes like him were among war’s unsung heroes.