Updated: Nov 7
The shortest of the gun crew was half an inch shorter than another, but received the nickname Shorty, and smoked like a chimney. Lofty stood soaring a foot taller than everybody else. Drover, Robbo, Meg, Bail, and Boydie...Clarkey, Tress, Norrie, Gunner Gunner, and Giddy...Betty, Fitzy, Flanno, and Frankie, all stood surrounding the Vickers QF 3.7inch anti- aircraft gun. Two gunners took their positions at the dark dusted-green coloured, height and range finder; a six-foot-long contraption which was perched upon a tripod and had prisms built-in at either end, and a set of binoculars built into the middle. Through the turn of a handle, it would adjust the gun to where the approaching aircraft would be. Four gunners encircled the olive-green predictor; a large cast iron box of handles and gold knobs, which acted as a mechanical computer for calculating that perfect shot, based on the gravity, the weather, the wind, and the humidity of the target’s location, and the speed of the recipient of the 13kg shell. The rest of the group either stood or sat around the Ack Ack gun or on its concrete perimeter, waiting for the sergeant to call “On target – FIRE”, before experiencing the eardrum shattering detonation.
Before these adjustments could be made, their minds would need to recognise and evaluate if the aircraft approaching was a threat. They recalled chalk-drawn sketches from their theory of gunnery training; plane shape profiles, charts, engine sizes, and printed photographs of the decals, both underneath the fuselage and on the side of aircraft. Two gunners were on lookout, their eyes fixated towards the ocean for any glimpse of the Japanese naval ships cruising menacingly on the horizon. Radio transmitter in hand for a quick call to Fort Scratchley or Fort Wallace, on Newcastle’s coastline.
Sitting on a seat attached against the base of the gun was the prettiest of the gunners, who had been a physical fitness girl during the ‘40s. Her name was Nita, and her heart continually pounded for other people. And on some occasions, was known to inhale breaths through her quaint, petite nose before she made even a simple utterance; an utterance defending those she loved. She had an adorable nickname to match, and was head over heels in love, as she daydreamed about the red-headed Irishman that was their sergeant. In fact, her future husband in ‘44.
Behind her, standing next to the predictor, was an 18-year-old girl whose hat was tilted back at such an angle that it stopped her hair from being crushed by its brim. She was thankfully half an inch taller than Shorty, at 5 foot 2, which meant that her nickname was Blackout to most and Midnight to the rest. But, to her family and friends back home in South Canterbury, her name was Valerie ‘Val’ Jean Blackett.
Months earlier, as the sage-green Chevrolet truck pulled up at the front of The Laurels; a large, two-storey Victorian mansion on the outskirts of Stockton, the commanding officers were met with a disappointment due to a previous assumption. Standing precariously, beneath the troop carrier’s olive canvas hood, were not the stereotypical male soldiers they had been preparing for, but rather a group of girls.
They were wearing light khaki shirts with a darker khaki tie, matching jacket tunic which held four brass buttons in the middle, four pockets to the front, and a navy patch with a red arrow on their sleeves. Their hats were pinned with a rising sun badge in the centre, and sat snugly on their neatly, coiffed hair. They wore skirts, stockings without holes, and they were supported by brown polished boots, free from the sand-covered forts they were about to reside in. They were the girls of Stockton, and they were there to protect the Australian coast from enemy aircraft, and, on some occasions, Japanese submarines.
Whilst the adolescent girls stood outside their transport, they gazed through the black, iron fence at the house towering in front of them. “That’s going to be my room”, Westy said, pointing to the balcony. “That will be mine”, hoped Blackout, as she imagined the lavish rooms the mansion held, within. As they formed a line, they marched through the front door, surprisingly passing the staircase that led to the rooms they had pointed to on the curb. Continuing, they walked out of the backdoor, their eyes meeting with a poorly constructed wooden hut, its roof of corrugated tin, their actual home for the next three weeks. “Ohhhh”, they gasped in disappointment. Inside, their stretchers held hessian bags full of straw, the most primitive form of mattress available. Blackout sneezed, thinking, “Just my luck to have hay fever”. Even though the beds were uncomfortable, the mattresses kept them cool in summer as they slept in the nude, and warm in winter when they would wear full-length pyjamas.
For the past three weeks of strenuous training, the girls went without any washing facilities for their clothes. After waking up at the rising of the sun, they finally did their washing and pegged it to the single line of string which was strung across the back garden. Arriving back at 4pm, they discovered that the boy’s hut, next-door, accidentally prepared the strongest starch mixture possible, which resulted in all their washing being stiff. Unpegging her stockings, Blackout tried to bend the hosiery to no avail. The afternoon saw the Girls of Stockton playing hockey with their own custom hockey sticks - their stiffened, unwavering stockings.
‘The Laurels’ had been their residence for the first few weeks of their service during the Second World War; rather a shed in the mansion’s garden, but it wouldn’t be their last. Blackout and the girls would then move to their second post, at ‘Wave Battery’, which was built on the shifting sands of Stockton. They would be situated in Pitt Street Park, a beach between the two breakwaters which gave them a direct view out to sea. It was a gun site; an ablution block, and it didn’t hold the amenities, buildings, and footpaths like Fort Scratchley to their south. Nor did it hold the ‘Girls of Scratchley’, whose tasks had been established to juxtapose the men’s. Wave Battery, on the other hand, “did it tough and without complaint”. At least that’s how Blackout and the other girls felt.
“If the girls think they can do what we can do, well...we don’t want anything to be different”, said some of the boys to agreeing officers, in an adjacent block. Gravel was raked to form roads; coal was shovelled to keep the boiler alight; grease traps were scrubbed clean, by the girls. Things may not have been different in fieldwork and chores, but the camps were vastly different. For the girls, the day started with a whistle. They had two showers and two washing bowls between them. There were only two toilets, too, as girls struggled to sit on seats, simultaneously. Thirty girls huddled together underneath a single showerhead hoping that they could just be drenched enough to resemble some form of cleanliness before the second whistle sounded, thirty-minutes later, announcing that they were needed for inspection. This was their morning, every day, without change, regardless of the weather.
Another day, another detention from a case of the giggles. Blackout had been humming a song she had spontaneously written, “mmmm hhhmmmm mmm I live in the house of the swipers”, as she began to learn that her possessions, like her oversized, double- breasted Great coat, weren’t completely safe from the sticky fingers of a fellow, vertically
challenged comrade and the suspicious smokers, since the four bob a day wasn’t enough to live on, let alone buy cigs. Her song was synonymous with giggling and detentions - scooping coal.
The four shillings did come in handy when it came time for food. The mess hall always included potatoes and ‘some kind’ of stew. Blackout looking at the scoops of questionable brown slop, thought, “I don’t know what is in that glug”, so she focused on fruit, picking up a few apples and oranges to consume during mealtime. She also had the inside scoop, knowing that two to three days a week, a fisherman would pull his boat up along the coast. Nicking off during breakfast, Blackout would sprint down to the shoreline, ready to buy a couple of pounds of prawns.
After eighteen months in the presence of the other girls, it was time to say farewell.
The final siren alerted, announcing that it was their last day at the camp, which was being decommissioned. The hope of leaving that they had held when they first arrived, had now become heartbreak as they left the family they had made on service; on hay-filled mattresses, during stocking-hockey games, huddled under shower heads, empowered around anti-aircraft guns, and nestled together in concrete bunkers. “I love every one of those girls; all so completely different”, said Blackout, her comrades drenched from a morning of mourning, many having travelled to the Great Southern hotel to fill their empty schooners with their tears.
Frankie, Blackout’s best friend and roommate, returned conquered; intoxicated from drowning away the pain of leaving.
“Why did you stay so long?”, asked Blackout, as she watched Frankie laughing and falling over.
“Frankie, we’re leaving in an hour. We need to get ready”, said Blackout, who had realised that the only way Frankie was going to arrive to the truck on time, was if she stepped in and took control.
Blackout lifted Frankie on to her back and lugged her to the bathrooms, dropping her tired body onto the floor of the shower. After drenching her with whatever water was left, Blackout threw a towel around her, and dragged her back through the sand to their room. Frankie fell to the floor and crouched on her arms and knees. Suddenly, the door opened, and standing there was Lieutenant ‘strait-laced’, glaring at the barely covered Frankie on the ground.
“What are you doing down there, Gunner?”, the prudish Lieutenant questioned.
“I am looking for my back collar stud”, Frankie retorted, having quickly sobered up with her brilliant rebuttal.
Turning and walking back out the door, the Lieutenant said, “You better hurry up, the truck leaves soon”.
Idling at the front of the camp, sat the same sage-green Chevrolet that had dropped off a group of young eighteen-year-old girls back in 1943. The troop carrier sat patiently, but the girls never appeared. Instead, walking confidently in a line towards the truck, were thirty young ladies, each that held new strengths along with their frailties. They had banded together with a new respect and love for one another. Stepping up into the back tray of the truck, they looked for handholds to support themselves as the truck shifted gear to take them to their next unit. Six ladies were going to go to Ypres, eight to Fort Wallace, and some back to Sydney. Frankie, Nita, Boydie, and Blackout were amongst the eight heading to Fort Wallace to establish the first radar team. Underneath that olive-green canvas hood, were not a bunch of young, immature, adolescent girls, but rather a proud, gunner crew from the
Australian Women’s Army Service.
They became and will always remain The Ladies of Stockton Wave Battery.
Having re-established themselves at Fort Wallace, the eight friends of Wave Battery, including Frankie, Nita, and Blackout all felt back to front, especially having left their positions on the anti-aircraft gun, the oven-shaped prediction computer, and the dusted-green height-and-range finder. Instead of scanning the sky and sea, with eyes peering through binoculars towards those Japanese warships cruising menacingly in the distance and the submarines hidden under the waves of the Pacific, the four had their eyes fixated on a small screen. Their backs faced the ocean, as they analysed the screen for little black dots that would pop up every few moments. Pen in hand to scribble down notes to warn the forts of the enemy’s ship locations. The ladies had joined the first training course in radar. Australia's commanding officers had changed their beliefs, and now feared that the enemy would no longer be coming from the air, but instead 'only from the sea.'
It was impossible to tell that her denim dungarees were khaki in tone, since the grease from cleaning, and the coal dust from shovelling coke into the boiler, had tarnished and covered her overalls. Sweat formed on her brow from exhaustion. Blackout thought, “They always give us the dirtiest jobs. Anything that’s too hard for the boys.”
The pool of congealing blood, on the cement floor, and dripping down her outfit didn’t help her situation either. Seconds earlier, whilst walking on the perimeter of the gun site, just off the cement tank-trap-ridden dunes and coastline of Stockton, she had heard a thumping explosion. It was paired with a sudden pain behind her right eyebrow.
Feeling unsteady on her feet, Blackout approached the on-site medical officer for assistance. “This should help”, the medical officer said as she dropped a single aspro into Blackout’s hand. Bemused, she took the pill. Blackout was thinking “An aspro a day, doesn’t keep the doctor away. Maybe that’s only apples”. Each time Blackout fainted, Nita, Frankie and Boydie would rush to her aid to pick her back up off the ground. “You poor little bugger.”, Boydie said, as she looked down at a fainted Blackout, on the ground. “Here, have some food”, she continued, handing her some food she had smuggled out mess hall. Each time Blackout visited the medical officer, she received an aspro.
Resting, Blackout awoke with a bruised black eye, which she would disguise by tilting her hat downwards, hoping the brim and the shadow would cover it just enough to eliminate stares and questions. The chemist in Stockton recommended she purchase two black, eye patches since it was going to transition to the other eye. “Oh no, I am going to be wearing a patch like my uncle, Cam”, thought Blackout, whose uncle had lost his right eye at Gallipoli to a stray bullet, and was always seen with a patch “like a pirate”, but a “gorgeous, cheeky man”.
Back on the base, an officer saw a staggering Blackout on guard duty, and finally realised that something was ‘actually’ wrong and wasn’t going to go away with an ‘aspro’, so they immediately called an ambulance that would take her from Fort Wallace to Newcastle hospital. Blackout laughed, “I think they were going to charge me for sleeping on duty.”
Waiting for Blackout was a man whose hair was white, a moustache filled his upper lip as stubble covered his cheeks and chin, his shaggy eyebrows didn’t seem out of place, and his gracious eyes twinkled. But to Blackout, all her squinting eyes could see was the blurred shape of the doctor. His name was Captain John Richard Kay-Mouat, a man who was previously a Surgeon Lieutenant-Commander of the Royal Navy in WWI, but was offering his services for the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps. Instead of celebrating his 63rd birthday, he was tending to the ward. After analysing the wound, he said, “We are going to send you in for an x-ray at Greta Hospital”. After the test had been completed, the surgeon held the results in his hand. “You have a bullet in your head”, he said. Blackout laughed,
“Doesn’t everyone?” The bullet had entered from the right side of her face and lodged itself behind her right eyebrow.
After being transported to Greta hospital, an Australian Casualty Clearing Station, Blackout stepped off the ambulance, her head wrapped with bandages and her hat still tilted downwards to hide her blackened eyes. Slowly, she made her way through three wards of men. She made her way passed the walking wounded who were pushing the rolling wounded, whilst trying to look inconspicuous. Her ears picking up a commentary of “What does the other bloke look like?” and “How’s the other bloke?”, coming from the male soldiers sitting up in their beds or perked up in wheelchairs, their lustful gazes watching her every step. “I just want to die”, an embarrassed Blackout thought. A cold compress and drugs helped to alleviate the swelling, and surgery helped to extract the small, brass bullet.
A week later, the male soldiers who had just been giving her grief, changed their tune, “Will you marry me? Gosh, you’re beautiful”, they swooned.
Blackout thought, “This bullet is so precious to me, having been in my head for more than two weeks. I will see if I can keep it”, before asking the doctor “May I keep the bullet?”, which received a “yes”. She carefully picked it up and placed it safely in the pocket of her Great coat, within the pocket that secretly had her name embroidered on the inside. A set of threads that saved her jacket from being stolen by her half-an-inch-shorter-friend.
For over half a century, she would keep it alongside her other most-valuable possessions, in a little jewellery box, until thieves stole it, along with 1,000 pounds she had won in the local lottery. The thieves would notice her house windows open, letting the strong stench of newly applied lacquer escape from polished, wooden floors. And upon walking down her staircase in the morning, she would find the door open, handbag and jewellery box missing, and footprints embossed into the still-drying polished floor.
Whilst it hurts to know that the bullet that pierced her eyebrow has been stolen and will never return home, the subtle scar over her right eye has remained, even if it is hidden by her rose-tinted, turquoise and gold glasses. She smiles, as her mind remembers the girls who rushed over to help her when the incident on the perimeter occurred. At 25, Nita was one of the older ladies serving.
Blackout recalls, “Nita was like a mother to me”, before giggling about some nicknames and memories from her time during her service. Today, she is 96 years old sitting with a red jacket draped over her shoulders, but like the youthful 18-year-old gunner, her humour has remained unchanged. In her hands, she is gently holding printed photographs, a bright beaming smile fills her face, as she points to an image of the gunner crew with a horse. “They used to hate us coming in [to town] because we used to bargain. Then they would find their horse and cart gone. We’d be up the road”, she giggled. Pointing to another image entitled St. Patrick’s Day ‘Dance at Newcastle Town Hall’, she said, “That’s me, Flanno, Clarkey, Giddy, and Gunner”.
Like a card dealer, the next image was shuffled and placed down face up. Val said, “Here I am with Shorty, and Drover”. It was like a banquet of imagery, as prints were spread across the dinner table in an organised mess. Sepia tones, black-and-white, greenish tinges, and colour. Each memento from history, holding its own unique scribbles of names in faded pen ink and numbers in graphite. The names continued, “Nita, Robbo, Meg, Bail, and Boydie...Clarkey, Tress, Norrie, Betty, Fitzy, and Frankie.”
Still struggling with hay fever, even though her bed is now a soft mattress and not a hessian bag full of straw, Val sneezed before a thought crossed her mind. Laughing, Val said, “It’s just terrible hay fever”. She paused, “My nickname isn’t Sneezy...It’s Blackout.”
If you enjoyed this yarn, please leave a comment below, and like this post. I will share all comments for Blackout, with her. - James, Teller of Yarns