CENTURY OF LIFE AND LOVE
GWEN Willmington has amassed a lifetime of memories in her 100 years.
The memory of the day the magical words signalling the end of World War II rang out over the radio is unfailingly clear: walking along Brisbane’s main streets surrounded by a stampede of joyous people singing, dancing and shouting .
On Saturday, friends and family spanning generations gathered at the Chinchilla RSL to celebrate Gwen’s upcoming milestone birthday on November 9. Born in Bundaberg in 1918, Gwen ventured to Brisbane to work as a nurse when World War II was raging across the seas.
After the war, she married Harry Willmington and the couple resettled in Chinchilla between 1967 to 1972, before returning in 1976. Gwen has lived here ever since and today, is the proud grandmother to six and great-grandmother to six.
Here, Gwen shares her memories of the war:
I don’t remember the Great War. I was born two days before the Armistice that signalled the end of that war. I heard the stories though, heard about the incomprehensible loss of life on the Western Front.
I learned of Gallipoli and the birth of the Anzac legend. Everyone hoped it truly was the war to end all wars. But it wasn’t.
Along came World War II. I remember that war, remember it all too well. It changed all of us. It changed our way of life. It changed the country.
Until then life had been good. There were no luxuries but we had the necessities. On weekends we went dancing and played tennis on ant-bed courts. In some ways it was carefree. But, when the war broke out it was as if a dark cloud hovered over everyone and everything.
A lot of young men joined up and some of the girls went to work in the city.
I went to Brisbane and worked for three and half years as a nurse at the Dalkeith Private Hospital. We were paid one pound a week and worked six days a week.
Little details remind me of what it was like then.
The city was teeming with servicemen, Australian and American. Movies were popular, they cost 10 pence and there were always long queues. The cinemas provided a brief respite from the awful confrontation that gripped the world.
We were given coupons for food, clothing and petrol, if you happened to have a car. We always had to queue for food. Clothing coupons were used very carefully as there was a shortage of everything and there was very little to see in the shop windows.
I remember the shop windows were decorated with chocolate boxes, but, they were all empty. You could not buy a chocolate anywhere: luxury food wasn’t available.
The radio at the hospital was on all the time so we were well up with the war news. I remember hearing one night that the Japs were getting closer. I remember feeling frightened and wondering what fate would befall us. Transport was good though.
I do remember one particularly unsavoury incident. Travelling back to the hospital quarters on the tram, I happened to notice an American soldier was watching me. When I got off the tram he followed me.
I ran to the quarters, when
❝ When the war broke out it was as if a dark cloud hovered over everyone. — Gwen Willmington
I got up the stairs I grabbed my suitcase and threw it at him.
He left, but, unfortunately he took my suitcase with him. Even worse, the suitcase contained a new dress I’d bought.
New dresses were hard to come by, I was furious!
But, there were far more consequential events unfolding elsewhere.
Not long after, the atomic bomb was dropped. Then, one day, we heard those magical words on the radio: The war was over!
I went into the city that day and walked along Queen and Adelaide streets. There was a stampede of people singing and dancing and shouting. The trams couldn’t move through the crowds so police had to clear a path.
A few years after the war, I married Harry Willmington. The war’s legacy lingered though. There were still shortages. One old fellow gave us a gallon of petrol so we could drive to the Gold Coast for our honeymoon. I remember visiting the city after the war and revelling in the freedom. The freedom of not having to stand in a queue. Small details that told you the war really was over.
REFLECTIONS: Chinchilla’s Gwen Willmington will turn 100-years-old on November 9, 2018.