LOOKING BACK: Alice McArthur reflects upon her life during the Second World War. Photo: Max Fleet / NewsMail
LOOKING BACK: Alice McArthur reflects upon her life during the Second World War. Photo: Max Fleet / NewsMail Max Fleet

Book records Bundaberg woman's tales from WWII

A BUNDABERG woman's story has been told in a new book about women who lived through the Second World War, Between the Dances by Jacqueline Dinan.

According to the book, Alice McArthur (formerly Wedemeyer) and her sister Gladys helped on the family property on the Burnett River at Yenda.

They had a Ford Sedan 38 that fortunately the army had not taken.

From the age of 16, Alice drove it to the factory loaded with large cans of cream.

She also drove her mother 32km into Gayndah for business and to shop.

When Alice turned 18, her father asked the police sergeant for her driver's licence which he gladly issued.

The following year, 1943, Alice was called up and farewelled at the Gayndah railway station.

She travelled through the night from Bundaberg to Roma St station in Brisbane before being taken in the back of a three-ton truck to Redbank where she was sworn into the army.

Alice was one of about 300 rookies living in a tent city at Yeronga before being drafted to Grovely for a three-month motor transport course.

YEARS PAST: Alice Wedemeyer in her uniform during the Second World War. Photo: contributed
YEARS PAST: Alice Wedemeyer in her uniform during the Second World War. Photo: contributed contributed

Grovely was very cold in winter, particularly after a cold shower to remove the grease and dust, and sleeping on palliasses (straw mattresses) on the floorboards.

Weighing a mere seven stone (44.5kg), Alice was instructed in driving a three-ton truck and attended lectures on how vehicles worked.

In June, 1943, Alice was drafted into the Ambulance Car Company where she served until her discharge in May, 1946.

The company consisted of headquarters staff at Ennogera and female staff in two platoons, plus men in the workshops.

Its role was to meet all transport bringing back wounded and sick troops.

Over the years, they met trains, hospital ships, flying boats and liberty ships, and waited day and night for RAAF planes to appear in the sky at Archerfield and Amberley airstrips.

The first fleet ambulances were three-ton Austins brought back from the Middle East.

These were replaced by three-ton, four-wheel-drive Fords

. Later on, Alice drove Chevrolet ambulances.

Country girls chose to paint the name of their home town across the front bumper of their vehicle.

Each driver was responsible for their vehicle's first maintenance, which required Alice to use a grease gun on every shackle that moved

. Each driver also had to paint the engine with kerosene then take the vehicle to the ramp for a hose down.

At least 60 female drivers were split into two platoons - one with ambulances detailed at all camp hospitals in the metropolitan area and the other platoon with ambulances serving country areas such as Redbank, Toowoomba, Warwick, Tenterfield and Wallangarra.

At the end of three to four months, duties were reversed.

There were always two drivers - one from each platoon - on standby at headquarters.

Ancillary duties included mess duty once a month and picket duty in the vehicle car park.

One night at Ennogera, while on picket duty, Alice and other AWAS could hear Japanese PoWs muttering away in their compound just across the gully at Gaythorne.

The women carried an unloaded .303. and when the PoWs were ill, the drivers had to take them to the hospital.

In April, 1944, Alice'"claimed' her younger sister Gladys into the ambulance car company as a driver.

Gladys had been serving with an anti-aircraft unit in Townsville before it was disbanded.

During the mid-winter of 1944, Alice and two driver mates spent four months at Warwick, southwest of Brisbane.

They slept on duckboards in a tent behind the military hospital.

With their two ambulances, they served all the regimental aid posts at Morgan Park, a very large hospital base.

The women worked day and night with soldiers from New Guinea coming down with malaria after arriving in the freezing conditions at Warwick.

She also transported soldiers discharged from the Canungra camp hospital aid post in the hinterland to a convalescent camp at Burleigh Heads on the Gold Coast.

On one occasion, as Alice drove past a pub on a steep hill, soldiers called out "stop, we are your cargo".

She pulled up and a dozen men hopped in the back but forgot to bolt the doors, before calling "take it away driver".

As she accelerated, the men all ended up rolling down the hill.

They bolted the doors the second time round.

When the call came for volunteers to go to New Guinea, Alice put her hat in the ring twice, but was rejected, first because she was not 21, and second because trained drivers were not taken.

Alice spent the final year of the war at Redbank.

The drivers were granted 24 days leave each year, which meant the country girls saw their families only every 12 months.

Whenever the AWAS drivers were awarded a leave pass, they would catch a tram to the city.

Alice enjoyed dances at the city hall or Railway Institute.

Otherwise she would go to the pictures.

On a two-day leave pass, she and friends would tram to Mt Gravatt from where they would hitchhike to the Gold Coast and rent out a bottom-storey room for about two shillings.

In August, 1945, when the news of the Hiroshima bombing came through, Alice got a ride to the city

. It was a mass of thousands of people - all rejoicing in the streets.

"It was simply crazy," she said.

As there was no transport from the city back, Alice and her friend walked to the hospital at Yeronga, making it back by daylight

. In September, 1945, Alice drove as part of a convoy of ambulances gathered at Hamilton Wharf to meet the Oranje before it continued its way down south

. Aboard were 827 PoWs, the first shipment from Singapore back to Australia.

The 121 Queensland patients disembarked.

"Walking cases, some of them obviously very sick men, were assisted down the gangway into waiting ambulances, but stretcher cases were disembarked in a novel manner. They were swung from the top deck by a derrick and gently lowered into the waiting military ambulances on the wharf," Alice said.

She drove one of many ambulances to Greenslopes Repatriation Hospital where the men were reunited with family and friends.

She later married, still in uniform

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