War effort or subversion? We will never know. But my mother, Florence Stone was a woman who made a difference.
She wrote dozens and dozens of letters to strangers during World War II. She said it was part of her war effort. And I’m willing to bet every letter she wrote was treasured, some for many years.
My father was man-powered. He worked long hours and slept at home. My mother provided billets for homesick seamen. I’ve never read anything about billeting in Australia during WWII. I’d love to hear from anyone who has more information.
After 1942, warships from the United States of America docked in Fremantle, Often, crew members were given shore-leave . The men, mostly teenagers, who came to our house slept in pairs in our sleep-out.. They brought gifts for their hostess from the USA government – nylon stockings and chocolates and Juicy Fruit chewing gum. She received extra food coupons, too, so she could feed them.
These young men were grateful for my mother’s hospitality and the few days they spent in a family home.
They thought my baby sister, Elizabeth, and I were ‘cutie-pies!’ Our backyard chickens and vegetable garden fascinated them. My mother called her tiny backyard farm ‘part of my war effort’. The men thought the deep, lined air-raid shelter we shared with two other families was hilarious. Perth seemed so far from the war.
My parents were only a few years older than most of their guests. The young men called my mother ‘Ma’am’ and my father ‘Sir’, But they told my mother about their own mothers, fathers and siblings at home. One or two had wives or girlfriends.
The seamen were forbidden to write letters. There was a risk that the location of their ships would be compromised. Phone calls to the USA were also vetoed. Their families had no idea where they were, or even if they were alive or dead.
Mum wrote letter to the mothers or wives of the young men with a nib-pen dipped in ink. She’d left school young to help support her widowed mother and siblings. Writing was hard work for her. But of course, she laughingly passed it off as her war effort.
All mail in and out of Australia was heavily censored. Words and phrases were often blacked out or sometimes cut out with razor blades. She carefully wrote her return address at the top of the page. There would be no doubt the letter came from Perth, Western Australia. She wrote as if to a cousin or a friend, rather than to a stranger.
She’d address the other woman by name, talk about her husband and the baby’s new tooth. She’d complain about having to let down the skirts of her older daughter who was growing fast. The chickens and their eggs might get a mention, and the gum tree that was flowering.
She’d tuck in a paragraph, the point of her letter.
Oh, I nearly forgot. ‘Joe’ has been staying with us for a couple of days. I’m sure you would remember Joe? I think he has enjoyed being here. I made his favourite orange cake for afternoon tea. He says to send you and Ted and the kids his love and tell you he is well.
The letter would be signed, ‘Much love to you all, Florence’.
She’d carefully address and stamp the envelope and hand it to the young seaman so he could post it himself in the nearest letter box.
Women in the USA might have been bemused at first at a letter from Western Australia. But when they read the name ‘Joe’ (or whatever his name was) and that he was well and safe, they would understand.
Sometimes my mother received censored letters in return. Letters of gratitude, joy, thanks. Their subversive letters forged bonds between women.
From solid Irish stock, she had a healthy disrespect for senseless directives. Perhaps that’s one reason why I have so much trouble making sense of Anzac Day.