EJANZH: Western Australia in World War Two, Reviewed by Judy Skene

Jenny Gregory (ed.), On the Homefront: Western Australia and World War II. Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, 1997. Ppxiv + 364. Illustrated. $39.95.

On the Homefront: Western Australia and World War II commemorates the efforts made by Western Australians to cope with the demands of being at war. It was commissioned by the Ministry of Premier and Cabinet in 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II and a year that saw many aspects of the wartime experience throughout Australia recalled as part of the ‘Australia Remembers’ project.

The production of this text brought together the largest group of historians ever to work on a single historical project in Western Australia, under the able guidance of editor Jenny Gregory. The resulting volume includes many aspects of wartime experience which have not previously been the subject of historical research, interspersed with a selection of short stories by West Australian authors and numerous illustrations.

Although aimed primarily at upper secondary and tertiary students, On the Homefront deserves a much wider audience. World War II is recent enough to loom large in the lived experience of many elder citizens and younger West Australians share that memory in family histories, national memorials and fictional representations. As Jenny Gregory cautions in her preface, however, collective memory can often overshadow or silence aspects of experiences that do not sit comfortably alongside the myth-making of national histories. The historian’s task to interpret evidence, from the viewpoint of the present, can recover ‘oppositional memories’ at odds with more popular versions. Matthew Allen explores this theme in more detail in the final chapter of the book, ‘Forgetting and Remembering: The contradictions of “Australia Remembers 1945 – 1995″‘.

Following an introduction by Pen Hetherington, the chapters are organized thematically, beginning with responses to the war. As a comparitively recent immigrant to Perth, I read with interest the chapter on the suburbs at war by Cathie May, followed by Tom Hungerford’s short story set at Scarborough, both of which bought home to me a sense of how small and isolated Perth was in the 1940s. The rural experience is touched on in a chapter on Pemberton, a timber town in the south-west of the state, by Gay Eivers. The social impact on West Australians of being at war is explored by Lindsay Peet, writing about the men who stayed behind, while Sara Buttsworth and Gail Reekie focus on women’s experiences and their responses to war work, and Pen Hetherington concludes this section with a chapter on how the war affected families and children.

These chapters provide a context for other aspects of the wartime experience discussed in the next two sections entitled ‘theatres of conflict’ and ‘ mobilizing the population’. Perth’s isolation was one explanation for the impact of the influx of American servicemen, discussed by Tony Barker, or fear that lead to the internment of Italians that Micheal Bosworth writes about. Bobbie Oliver and W.S.Latter conclude that the death of trust is another casualty of war in their account of the activities of the wartime Security Service, although trust of a different sort is explored by Catherine Massam and John Smith in their chapter on the role of churches on the homefront.

If Perth was isloated, then the north of the state was even more so, and the war’s varying impact on Aboriginal peoples in different parts of the Kimberley is the subject of Christine Choo’s contribution. The defence of the North-West and the enduring mystery surrounding the sinking of HMAS Sydney are addressed by Mike McCarthy.

As the war came closer to West Australian shores, extra efforts were required to meet the challenges imposed by threat of occupation. Leigh Edmonds discusses the practical difficulties of meeting the increased strain on transport and communications. Maitaining public morale was also regarded as vital and Ron Davidson’s chapter on newspapers and propaganda reproduces blatant anti-Japanese propaganda that was criticised by a majority of the population, even though under threat of Japanese invasion. Public health was also of concern to authorities, as Sue Graham-Taylor and Michal Bosworth detail in chapters on health provision and food and nutrition.

The fourth section relates to the aftermath of the war, with chapters focusing on post-war immigration by Nonja Peters and Kerry Evans and Crienna Fitzgerald’s account of the contiuing battle against tuberculosis by returned service personnel, who had contracted the diease during their war service. Monica Creek recalls the effect of war-induced shortages of building materials on the post-war generation of West Australians, whose aspirations of home ownership had been put on hold for the course of the war.

Life went on: but the war was not forgotten. In the final section of On the Homefront, Olin Richards has written about war memorials to World War II in Western Australia and Matthew Allen comments on the ‘Australia Remembers’ campaign of 1995. Two appendices conclude the volume, the first being a chronological outline of the Armed Forces in Western Australia during World War II and the second is a timeline of significant wartime events, including relevant Commonwealth legislation.

As this brief summary indicates, On the Homefront contains the fruits of much original research into aspects of the wartime experience. Although of particular interest to West Australians, regional research such as this has wider application, providing new insights into subjects of national interest. Gail Reekie’s oral history on women’s war work, for example, contests the widely-held view that women were pushed out of higher paid jobs after demobilization. Reekie concludes that for many women, work in munitions factories was dirty, difficult and monotonous. They were not trained for more rewarding tasks and were therefore relieved when the war’s end allowed them the choice of not continuing in paid employment. Reekie cautions against accepting monocausal explanations for women’s actions that eschew women’s agency.

The comprehensive coverage of the wartime experience in this volume should prompt further research, both in Western Australia and in other states, into this defining period of twentieth-century history. On the Homefront is an attractive volume that will hopefully find its place in schools, universities and libraries throughout Australia.

Judy Skene is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History, University of Western Australia