Proof women could be trusted

MAVIS WHEELER, 97

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - OUR ANZAC LEGENDS SPECIAL TRIBUTE -

Women’s Aux­il­iary Aus­tralian Air Force

After Pearl Har­bor was bombed, the Aus­tralian Air Force needed more men in ac­tion in the Pa­cific. But it wor­ried about hand­ing over their im­por­tant work on do­mes­tic air bases to women.

So it em­barked on an ex­per­i­ment to see whether women could be trusted with air traf­fic con­trol.

Six women were cho­sen to be tested and Syd­ney woman Mavis Wheeler, then 21, was among them.

“I have al­ways thought it was silly,” she said of the ex­per­i­ment. “What’s wrong with women?”

Ms Wheeler had come to the job well-qual­i­fied; the young sec­re­tary spent 1941 at evening classes study­ing the in­ter­na­tional tele­graph lan­guage Morse code in the hope of con­tribut­ing to the war ef­fort.

She would walk up to the lessons at Syd­ney’s Fort Street High School after a day’s work at the Queen Vic­to­ria Build­ing.

“I can still do it, all through the al­pha­bet, al­though I am a bit slower — we got up to 25 words per minute,” she said. “It stays with you for­ever.”

The women en­listed in the Women’s Aux­il­iary Aus­tralian Air Force ex­per­i­ment were taught medium fre­quency di­rec­tion find­ing, nav­i­ga­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­niques.

They were taken on flights to test whether they had the tem­per­a­ment to deal with fear.

“It re­quires lit­tle imag­i­na­tion to know the du­ties are ex­act­ing and im­por­tant,” a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle said at the time. “A wrong di­rec­tion could re­sult in the loss of the ma­chine and its crew.”

Al­though she never used her skills after the war, Ms Wheeler re­mains proud of her work. “They didn’t know if we could do it, and we showed them how we could,” Ms Wheeler told The Sun­day Tele­graph.

“Even though I never went over­seas, I sort of en­joyed the war. I felt it was help­ing peo­ple who needed it.”

Pic­ture: Tim Hunter

Mavis Wheeler.

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