In January 1945, five military women arrived in Dutch New Guinea. Two of them were Australian’s Lieutenant Veronica Myers and Captain Mary McCauley, both members of the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) (Fig. A). With them were AWAS Sergeants Ailsa Jarman, Beryl Godkin and Lorna Fox (Fig. B). Their arrivals were routine and there was no fanfare surrounding them – other than the realisation that aside from the various female Coastwatchers undertaking dangerous work in Japanese occupied territories, these were the first Australian women outside of nursing staff deployed to an operational theatre of war. The other major significance was that both of the officers were attached to the Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB) and had been seconded to either ‘M’ or ‘Z’ Force or both throughout their wartime careers. M and Z Special Units were joint Allied special reconnaissance units. M eventually morphed into part of the Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD), while Z did the same in field commando operations. Both were covert military intelligence units specialising in behind the lines operations against the Japanese in the South West Pacific area of war.
Twenty-seven year old Veronica Myers had been a secretary in civilian life, and had excelled both academically and in the secretarial arts. A gifted stenographer, within a month of joining the Army in September 1942, Myers found herself dispatched to the Far Eastern Liaison Office (FELO). Set up only three months earlier as AIB Section D, FELO was a Propaganda and Field Intelligence unit. It was one of the four main areas responsible for control and co-ordination of activities of various intelligence organisations aimed at defeating Japan (the other three were Section A Special Operations including SRD; Section B Secret Intelligence Australia (SIA); and Section C Field Intelligence further subdivided into geographical areas of operations). Throughout her entire war service, Myers remained with FELO and at various times on secondment to M Force, including in Lae and Hollandia. While we may never know what Myers’ real job was, we can only speculate that it was more than just taking shorthand, making coffee and keeping the place tidy – noting that she was continually seconded on special duties with them, and that she was mentioned in dispatches. The latter of which was formally recognised by the award of a ‘Mentioned in Dispatches Certificate’ dated 6 October 1947.
It was a similar set up with twenty-three year old Mary McCauley. A volunteer Red Cross and transport driver prior to joining the AWAS, McCauley too was destined for a military life in the shadows. Enlisting in January 1941, she had spent the early part of her career based at Land Headquarters in Melbourne before she too found herself attached to AIB. Along the way, McCauley would later find herself on special duties with both M and Z Forces over time, but her main job was that as personal assistant to Colonel CG Roberts. The Australian Army career officer Roberts however, was not just your everyday senior officer. He held the ubiquitous title of being in command of the AIB, and reported directly to Major-General Charles A. Willoughby. Willoughby in turn, was General Douglas MacArthur’s Chief Intelligence Officer for the South West Pacific area (SWPA). In McCauley’s position as Robert’s right hand woman in the AIB, you’d be hard pressed to find someone else with as much finger on the pulse of Allied operations in the region as she probably experienced.
Whatever McCauley or Myers jobs entailed, you could pretty much bet on the fact that alike all personal and executive office assistants, there was nothing that went on in the AIB or any of its areas of operations, that they probably hadn’t heard, read, typed, translated (especially the handwritten chicken scrawlings of management) or otherwise known about. Not only would these two women have been privy to some of the most sensitive and utmost secretive aspects of Allied strategical, tactical and operational actions, they probably also collectively knew more about what was going on than either Canberra or Washington.
And what of the three AWAS Sergeants? All three were alike their AWAS officers highly intelligent and intellectually independent women. The latter of which can be surmised from various innocuous descriptions of their personalities while under initial entry Army training. They too were various secretarial and administrative specialists in their own right, and they too were all attached not only to AIB, but to either M or Z Force or both. Personality traits that suggested that if you wanted to send a specific group of women to work with specialised commandoes and other behind-the-lines covert operators, then these five women were probably the cream of the crop.
Even allowing for the threat of presentism to rear its head, the fact that when these five Australian Army women arrived in-country, and that they had no Australian lines of accommodation to go to, speaks volumes about how little politicians, policy-makers and practitioners had thought about how war outside of bombs, bullets and body bags was fought. While it’s all good and well to focus on the usual ‘he who has the most toys when he dies wins’ scenario, it seems history is always vague about how the toys got there in the first place.
It was lucky for these first five Australian women that they could share some digs with the American WAC detachment already stationed in New Guinea. It was more than lucky that Staff Sergeant Edna Nelson of the 5200 WAC Detachment, was the mess sergeant tasked with finding the hapless Australians somewhere to eat, sleep and bathe. It was probably also because all of them shared the experiences of being stuck behind red-hot typewriters and the enduring search for recalcitrant files. Anyone who’s ever experienced the never ending dusk to dawn machinations, of an in-country operational military office in the tropics, knows exactly what that means. Sweat. Sweat and more sweat and in the humidity, the fight to keep anything dry.
In the tropical heat of the New Guinea jungle it would have been worse, especially because this was exactly the type of places where ants and an assortment of other wee beasties could infiltrate anywhere and everywhere – and they did! There’s a reason ye olde manual typewriters and their ribbons often didn’t last the distance in the tropics, and it wasn’t because the operators weren’t doing their best to take care of them. So what were these Australian women doing in wartime New Guinea? A good hint might be that they were important in the Army’s other main wartime business, that inevitable modern warfare accomplice of the dreaded paper trail. In reality it’s thanks to their work and the work of others like them, that written history survives.
Reports don’t type themselves let alone provide copies. Movement requisitions don’t magically appear out of thin air on flying carpets. And the dissemination of situation reports to all and sundry, don’t mysteriously appear out of nowhere. Put this into the context of need-to-know highly classified environments, and it’s important to respect that war is not just fought just through armed conflict alone, and neither was this one. An importance to wartime histories that are often overlooked. So when these troops arrived in the remote New Guinea jungle, their importance was reflected in the fact that the only places they could find to stay, were in cramped shared accommodations not only with each other, but thankfully at least, with their American Women’s Army Corps cohorts.
Unlike the Australians, the Americans had little qualms about sending nearly three thousand of their Army women to the region. Troops in various specialisations that were engaged in sensitive work including interrogation and translation, as well as the usual and routine administrative, communications and transport networks. It is telling that although these five women were the first of nearly three hundred other non-medical staff Australian female troops to New Guinea, their wartime histories – either individually or collectively- are missing from the mainstream. But why?
The hint might be in the fact that not only were they all AIB personnel seconded to M or Z Special Units, but that they were serving in an Australian area of active operations at the time. And not just in a routine administrative way, but one that belonged to the Secret Squirrel world. Not only that, at least McCauley and Myers had been together in Hollandia in the northern coastal area of Dutch New Guinea, before they headed south to Lae.
Hollandia was the area where Macarthur had established his new forward headquarters just a few months earlier, almost immediately in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat in that part of the island. Roberts and other AIB interests including FELO’s were also there. At such a seminal juncture in the war against Japan, perhaps these five AWAS may not have been at the pointy tip of the spear as warfighting goes, but they were definitely part of the solid backup all operations need to be successful. These five Australian Army women might not have been part of the actual combat operations, but they were nonetheless part of how intelligence operations work and ultimately rely on, secrecy.