Friday, February 24, 2012


Sydney Harbour Bridge 1944
 In the early years of the war Australia lay largely cocooned, isolated and far away from any threats of actual aggression.  As usual though we were quick to mobilise army, air force and navy units to send overseas.  Mother England was threatened and needed our help. Then suddenly the status quo altered.  Japan entered the equation, Pearl Harbour was bombed and suddenly we realised the fighting was getting awfully close to home.

Close yes, but not actually in our own backyard, not yet.


My world comprised a tightly knit family circle in Sydney’s beachside suburb of Bondi.  The youngest of the tribe I was surrounded by much older cousins and far too young to appreciate the sudden change in clothing worn by the younger men in my family.

Uncle Bill and Grandfather 1942
Dad came home one day dressed in khaki clothing that I guess didn’t look all that flash.  So did my uncles. There was an awful lot of serious talk going on, and my American grandfather, who at the time I didn’t realise was any different to any one else’s, suddenly wasn’t around quite so often to pander to my every wish and whim.

He was too busy reading the paper, analysing the war news and bringing home stray sailors and soldiers who all sounded just like him.  And their uniforms looked like the ones I saw in the movies when Mum took me to the Saturday matinee.  Maybe I even thought they were all movie stars.

I’m pretty sure my grown up cousins Leota and Gloria thought they were.


Leota and Gloria were always bringing new boyfriends home, not all of them in uniform; our milkman was one who kept calling as opposed to being invited, but Leota apparently, at that stage anyway, didn't rate him as boyfriend material even though he sometimes produced rare bottles of cream. 

She must have changed her mind later though because after the war she married him. 

As you can see there was a huge difference between my cousins and me as this 1940 photo with Leota shows.

But back in the midst of war news from the front and our efforts to cope with all manner of shortages, we experienced our own super catastrophe. The old 'high pedestal embedded in terrazzo with pull the chain loo' broke down, on all fronts, completely. 

Apparently, not a thing could be done to it much less in it. It seemed all Sydney's plumbers along with their plungers and associated spare parts had been sucked into the war effort and were now impossible to flush out.

Life became extremely difficult as we all trooped down to the beach to use public facilities on the esplanade or in an absolute emergency the Faunce’s loo next door.  We soon discovered that Theo, the milkman, apart from being a persistent suitor had other hidden qualities.  He was as my Grandmother put it a man of many talents and he set these to good use scrounging an almost new second hand cistern and even a shiny toilet bowl to replace the old cracked irreparable one.

As Gran reminded us, life could be much worse, we could be in England dodging bombs and spending the nights in air raid shelters.


Despite our complacency  the war did arrive in Sydney.  Not that I fully understood what happened.  I remembered that one particular night, yes... and it’s consequences for Mum and me and my Aunts and cousins.  We were all shunted off to country Inverell,  evacuation I think they called it.  Again small me was too young to understand the word and its meaning.

Years later, I read all about the 1942 submarine raids on Sydney Harbour, but my shielded memories of the night it happened are of sirens and confusion.  In the midst of all this, my father and Grandfather disappeared into the night; but what they saw or heard I have no idea. There was an awful  lot of adult ‘shooshing’ and ‘karkenavoicer’ going on.

It took a while for the general population to find out a bit more damage had been done by enemy bombs than any of us guessed at the time.

Unknown to those in authority Japanese submarines had been sneaking up and down the east coast for some time until in the early hours of May 31st 1942, they launched three midget submarines off the entrance to Sydney’s heavily fortified Harbour.

Over the next few hours the submarines did their best to destroy the busy naval facilities around the port.  One failed to clear an anti-torpedo net and the crew self destructed.  The second sub fired its two torpedoes at the USS cruiser Chicago, the missiles going astray, one running ashore on the naval facility at Garden Island, the other passing under a Dutch submarine before striking the harbour bed beneath the depot ship HMAS Kuttabul where the vessel exploded and sank killing 21 sailors.

That second sub escaped unscathed.  The third midget submarine was later sighted at the entrance to the harbour and was depth charged and later destroyed.

A month later a submarine shelled the eastern suburbs of Sydney and the town of Newcastle to the north.  Unlike the Darwin raid with its heavy loss of life, this attack caused only minor damage.



I grew up with that word ‘karkenavoicer’ constantly ringing in my ears.  I always thought it was just another remnant of  Gran’s Fiji childhood.  She was always saying things like ‘vinaka’ or ‘samoce’ or ‘kerikeri’ instead of good night or good morning or even making sure I said please before grabbing a biscuit or whatever.   

I soon cottoned on to the ‘karkenvoicer’ word though,  it meant my little big ears weren’t meant to understand what was being said by the adults around me.  During the fallout from the Japanese bombing that was a word I heard often. 

The immediate result though, for my mother and I plus assorted aunts and cousins came soon after as we were hurriedly packed and detrained to the then little known town of Inverell near Glen Innes.   I imagine the men folk had to stay behind to look after the batches of home brew happily fermenting on the veranda back at Curlewis Street.

To us city women the small country town seemed somewhere back of beyond, though its choice wasn’t as random as I imagined.  Aunt Viti had been working there at the local newspaper for some months and helped ease us into hastily arranged accommodation.

Mother told me years later the girls all had a wonderful time in Inverell with card parties and fund raising dances at the local hall. I came down with German measles, an unpatriotic complaint, and spent most of the time covered in sticky ointment and cold tea in a darkened room.

Later in adulthood and knowing all we now know about the so-called Brisbane Line, I often wondered why Grandfather moved us north and closer to possible action rather than south.  Maybe he thought the enemy wouldn’t want to go bush.

During the Inverell sojourn for me, at least there was one bright spot. My Aunt Viti married Uncle Erwin and I suddenly acquired a new eight-year-old cousin.   I thought Kurt was very special because he had a bike and once my spots had stopped being contagious he wheeled me around the park opposite the boarding house where Mum and I were billeted. 

As I grew older and listened to the gossip around me, I learned that Uncle Erwin and Kurt were Austrians and together with his mother had left behind their  home and his parents and sister to escape the Nazis and their concentration camps.  There was a lot more to that story that neither Kurt nor I found out about until we were both grown up and Uncle Erwin was dead.

Sadly, by then, it was too late for Kurt to rediscover a lost mother and unknown half brothers and sister living all that time barely a state away; but not too late to discover his parents family history of wartime torture back in Austria, concentration camps and death.



A badly shaken Sydney eventually settled down after the Japanese sub scare and we all returned home. Around this time Dad was invalided out of the army and began working at a Woolworths store in the city.  We moved into a flat in Glenayr Avenue at the Bondi Seven Ways, only a short walk from Curlewis Street so my life continued to revolve around my grandparents. The war raged on, though to a four year old it all seemed very remote.


Like most other families in those days the entire Brown Parker tribe were car-less.  Nearly everyone relied on public transport, in particular the trams.

In fact for some reason or other, some wit in describing a fast getaway coined the phrase, ‘he shot through like a Bondi Tram.’ It’s a slang term still used today.

If  you wanted to go to the city, you took either a tram or a double decker bus.  The bus started and finished at Central Station where we could then board a train to other suburbs like Parramatta, Hurstville or Dulwich Hill where some of Dad's relations lived.  Sometimes we even took the longer rail trip to Newcastle to visit Uncle Bert and Aunt Mary and cousins Rosemary, Margaret, Barbara and John.  That was usually an all day affair and we always arrived back in Sydney at nightfall tired out with the clacketty clack of the train and the nonstop chatter and gossip with the rellies.

The tram journey into town took us on a meandering ride from the beach front along Curlewis Street skirting the harbour side suburbs of Rose Bay, Bellevue Hill and Rushcutters Bay, then into the notorious Kings Cross and onto the city,  turning past Hyde Park to David Jones and ending up at Circular Quay.  

From Circular Quay it was a thrilling ride across the harbour on one of the big ferries to the zoo at Taronga Park or even further on to Manly where a short walk brought us out to another beach:  Not that we were ever deprived of sun and surf with Bondi Beach on our own doorstep.

If we didn't use the bus or the tram there was always shanks pony. In those days people thought nothing of walking the two or three blocks to Hall Street to the post office and the grocery stores or even going further on fun walks around the cliffs to the beach inlets at Turramurra and Coogee.  Sometimes after a late card session or a party at Uncle Bob’s and Aunt Molly’s flat at Waverley we walked home counting stars or singing songs like A Long Road to Tipperary or the Road to Gundagai.  Everyone did things like that in those days.

Mum and Dad did own a car for a short period back then, a very short period indeed.  I gather Dad bought it with winnings from a successful flutter on the races, or the gee gee's as he called them.  It wouldn't have been a huge win because the car was the smallest vehicle on four wheels you could ever imagine. 

Focus on a drab Model T and cut it in half, then squash the sides in until there is just enough room for driver and front passenger,  round it out at back with a half sized dickey seat and there it was, a cross between a rocket and a coffin.

Possibly an early 1930's Morris Minor or an even earlier Model A Ford roadster.  It had obviously seen better days but it was ours when no one else in the immediate family possessed a car at all.

I can remember taking one brief but memorable excursion, the car, Mum and Dad and me.  It was planned as a picnic to Parramatta and we packed in the obligatory blanket along with a hamper of cold meat, probably the left over’s of a leg of mutton, salad in a glass bowl, (no plastic then)  and most definitely I should imagine, an apple pie. 

I wouldn't have been surprised if Dad didn't have a map and a survival kit as well, because Bondi to Parramatta was a huge trip to undertake in the forties, particularly for a driver of little or no experience.  We made it as far as Darlinghurst, a matter of a few miles, when the little car ran out of poof, right in the middle of the cross roads and straddled across two lanes of tram traffic.

Dad got out to push the car off the rails.  Mother was mortified as tram passengers jeered and shouted and one wit yelled out, "Pick it up and put it in your pocket ya galah."

I can't recall ever seeing that car again.


Picnics back then were far more formal than today's casual visits to the beach and the bush.  For a start, we didn't have a picnic basket and the esky hadn’t been invented so the salad, cold meat, mayonnaise and the ubiquitous apple pie, blanket, tablecloth, plates and cutlery were all transported on the tram or bus in a small suitcase.  Aunty May and Gran would always  be decked out in skirt and twin set over corset and stockings. 

Photo shoots were taken pretty seriously with Aunty May refusing even to look at the camera.  The most favoured destination was the botanical gardens looking out over the Harbour and Cockatoo Island. 

At other times though, we went to the zoo at Taronga Park departing on the Harbour ferry from Circular Quay.   It's all still there of course, mostly just as I remember it, except for today’s iconic Opera House and the high-rise buildings, the electric trains and the freeways curling and twisting across the city.  

As you can see, Sydney back then may have been on a war footing, but apart from rationing and the news from the front, life really continued on uninterrupted and with very little change.

To my pint sized eyes anyway.



Robyn Mortimer ©2012