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Lorna's lens reflects her war service

Deniliquin’s Lorna O’Brien singed up for the Australian Women’s Army Service in 1942.

ZOE MCMAUGH April 25, 2014 3:50am

Lorna O’Brien


Deniliquin’s Lorna O’Brien says she was just doing her duty when she signed up to serve during World War II.

With her brother Ross Baker joining the army before her, Lorna was 18 when she signed up for the Australian Women’s Army Service in 1942.

After weeks of training at Ingleburn in Sydney, not far from her home town of Penrith, Lorna was assigned to the signals office — the communication centre to the front line.

After three years at Australian bases, her duties would take her to New Guinea where she lived in a barbed wire clad camp protected by guards.

But the 90 year-old still maintains she ‘‘didn’t do much’’ during the war.

‘‘I was still at school when the war broke out,’’ she said.

‘‘I left school when I was 16 and was working as a governess on a property, and I joined the AWAS in July 1942.

‘‘Everyone was joining up and I felt I wanted to do something too.

‘‘I had one brother in the army, Ross, who was a light horseman before the war and was in the armoured troops.

‘‘In the signals office, we took the place of the men so they could go off and fight.

‘‘I eventually put in to go north (from Sydney). I was based in Townsville for a few months before going to Charters Towers.

‘‘I had been there for a while when they asked for volunteers to go to New Guinea.’’

Lorna said she didn’t expect to have been chosen to go to New Guinea, and was surprised when she did.

Those heading overseas had to be 21 and they had to volunteer, and Lorna was only 20 when she applied.

With departure not until May 7, 1945, just under three weeks after her 21st birthday, she was selected to go.

Lorna cannot remember how long she spent on the warship between Brisbane and Lae, in New Guinea, but said being in the new country was ‘‘an experience’’.

With the AWAS taking the place of the army as they moved the fighting front forward, Lorna said she did not see any of the war action.

The toughest part, she said, was the information the AWAS members had to keep from their loved ones.

‘‘We were there when the war ended in the September, but we stayed on until early February,’’ she said.

‘‘We weren’t allowed to tell our parents where we were or anything about the war. If there was anything in our letters, they were censored before they were sent.

‘‘We worked on shifts day and night, eight hours shifts, and got four days off after each block of work.

‘‘We were barb-wired in and there was always a guard on the gate.

‘‘The signals office was a bit down the road and we used to go there by army truck.

‘‘I started on the switch and then became a clerk in the signals office.’’

When not working, Lorna said she and the other AWAS members would go swimming and enjoy other leisure activities.

‘‘We used to have dances and open air pictures, even though it rained every day we were there.

‘‘We would wrap our ground sheets around us – we never went anywhere without them.

‘‘We used to go across in a boat to a nearby island beach to swim for the day on our days off.’’

After arriving home from the war, Lorna put her new found skills to good use.

She went to the post office in Penrith where she worked as a telephonist at the telephone exchange.

Lorna and her husband Harry, a friend of her younger brother Bruce, moved to Deniliquin early in their marriage.

Originally only planning to stay for a short time, they fell in love with Deniliquin and never left.

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