by Greg Martin
The Royal Australian Air Force this year celebrated the centenary of its formation on 21 March 1921. A year after the birth of the RAAF, Margaret and Reg Turnbull became proud parents of a bouncing baby girl, Jean, at a private hospital in Richmond.
And 20 years later, that young lass was among the first thousand or so women inducted into the new Women’s Auxiliary Australia Air Force (WAAAF). The WAAAF was formed in February 1941 with the appointment of senior officers and recruiting commenced the following month.
By the time Japan entered the war there were around 1,500 WAAAFs in uniform but towards the end of World War II more than 18,000 officers and airwomen were serving. “I was still only 19 and had to rely on my father giving me permission to join up,” Jean said, while holding court with your writer and photographer, Kath Johnson, in her room at Uniting Hawkesbury Aged Care facility at Richmond.
Despite her 98 years – she turns 99 on 12 July – Jean’s memory is phenomenal and Kath and I were gobsmacked as she rattled off her life story as though the milestones in her nine decades in this place had happened only yesterday. Jean has devoted much of her long life in contributing to making her community a better place for all of us.
As well as serving in the WAAAF for four years, she has been involved with the Richmond branch of the Country Women’s Association since she was 10 years old. And we all know what major contributions the CWA has made to society throughout the country since its inception in the year of Jean’s birth. “Mum joined Richmond CWA in 1932 and was a very proud and hardworking member until her death in 1985,” Jean explained.
“I was always ready to lend a helping hand to mum in all her endeavours with the CWA but it was only after her passing that I became an active member, eventually taking a turn as president.
“I’m still a member but not as active,” Jean laughed.
Such was Jean’s contribution to the organisation that she was awarded a Life Membership.
Another Life Membership was bestowed on Jean by Richmond Golf Club which she joined in 1949, displaying her talents as a committee member and also out on the course where she played off a handy 23 handicap and won a C Grade championship.
Eventually our chat returned to Jean’s stint with the WAAAF.
“I joined on April 11, 1942, spent three weeks learning drills and all about air force regulations in a camp at Robertson on the Southern Highlands before being posted to Wagga Wagga as a clerk in the Second Aircraft Signals Section.
“I spent nine months there before being moved to Point Piper’s Eastern Area Headquarters Signals, spending eight months there before off again, this time to Townsville.
“I was there for two years with Signals and then it was back to Point Piper where I remained stationed until being demobbed in January 1946.”
Jean said she was “very proud” of the work she and her fellow airwomen did during the war.
“Even though we were paid two-thirds of RAAF male pay for equivalent positions,” Jean said, gently shaking her head.
Jean, who never married, was in the workforce until 1980 when she retired and returned to the family home to look after her mother until she passed. She has been in Uniting Care since 2016 and is happy that she is “in home territory”, close to extended family members. I asked Jean about her life prior to joining the WAAAF.
“I grew up on the family citrus orchard at North Richmond and attended North Richmond Public and then Penrith High, staying with a family friend during the school week and returning home for the weekends,” she said.
“After high school I went to business college in Parramatta for 12 months and then worked in a number of secretarial jobs in the city before finding employment in the Hawkesbury Dairy and Ice Company at Windsor where I was for two years until joining the WAAAF.”
Back in Civvy Street, Jean worked as a clerk in the city, completed a 12-month course in Podiatry and then joined the NSW Health Department and travelled around the state in a mobile chest X-ray unit.
“I did that from 1959 until 1971 and then was fortunate to be relocated to Richmond where I worked for Hawkesbury Area Health until my retirement,” she said.
When Kath and I arrived in Jean’s room, I was fairly certain she was having a gander at the newspaper formguide.
And so she was, she admitted.
“My dad, who was a member of the Hawkesbury Agricultural Show committee for 50 years, liked a day at the races and so early on I developed a liking for the gallops.
“I’ve had the pleasure in attending three Melbourne Cups and still like to have a flutter each Saturday with my TAB account.”
Jean backs the occasional first past the post but the folk of the Hawkesbury and the nation have always been on a sure-fire winner in Jean Turnbull.