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Monday, May 10, 2021

Anzac Day – it’s what made Australia a nation, Peggy says

Peggy Harman was just 20 years old when she enlisted in the RAAF.

It was January 1942 and the former Maitland Girls’ High School student from Muswellbrook walked straight into national service.

Her father served in the First World War and despite growing up knowing the traumas that came with war, Peggy was determined to do her bit for her country.

It was a time however, when women were literally fighting for their right to fight.

“I just joined up because my father had served in the first war and it was the thing to do,” she said.

“I don’t know why I chose the Air Force instead of the army – I think it sounded more exciting.”

Leaving behind an education hampered by childhood measles, Peggy just wanted to get her hands on an aeroplane.

“I only just scraped through school,” she said. 

“But when the time came I  knew I wanted to work on aircraft. 

“I never dreamt of being an aircraft electrician though, women just didn’t do those sorts of things.”

Peggy began her three months training at the Service Flying Training School (SFTS).

She was one of just a handful of women at the time.

“Everything was discriminatory in those days,” Peggy said.

“They couldn’t imagine whether the girls would be capable of the work. 

“When they decided they would eventually let us work on the aircraft we had to do a three month intensive course to see if we were capable of doing work that only men had done previously.

“Strangely enough we came through with flying colours.”

Peggy came second in her class and was sent to Uranquinty. 

“At the camp the men were harsh,” she said.

“They didn’t particularly want girls there so they swore and told dirty yarns. 

“This other girl said to me ‘what will we do?’ I said ‘pretend we’re deaf’. 

After two weeks, Peggy says their plan “wore pretty thin”. 

“Then they decided they’d offer to lift the aircraft batteries for us because they were too heavy.”

Trainee pilots at the time would drain the planes’ 12-volt batteries through continual practice of their take-off and landings.

It was the girls job to collect replacement batteries.

“They were too heavy but we knew if we let them do it they’d say ‘see the girls aren’t fit to do it’ so we struggled through it. 

As time passed Peggy’s role became teaching the pilots how to conduct daily inspections on the aircraft.

“They’d learnt all the theory and had to be taught the practical,” she said.

“We were able to show them but we weren’t allowed to fly in the planes.”

Now a 98-year-old widow, Peggy is aware that she is now seen as a trailblazer of sorts.

“We had a [RAAF] reunion at Belmont North a few years ago and these girls thanked me for what we’d done and the choices they had now,” she said.

“It’s true we had to fight for what we got.”

Speaking at an Anzac Day service at Toronto Private Hospital on Friday, the great-grandmother urged the community to remember fallen soldiers.

“Some people say it’s strange to celebrate people dying, but it really is a celebration, it made Australia a nation.”

Ensuring we care for our returned service men and women is also crucial moving forward, Peggy believes.

After witnessing first hand her father’s trauma of returning from war, Peggy’s late husband Jack, a Prisoner of War (POW) in Burma, also faced a tough homecoming.

“When they come back now they have counselling, but when my husband came back they had nothing,” Peggy said.

“When he came home what they were given for counselling was two cartons of cigarettes, and then he died from emphysema years later.

“Thankfully it is getting better.”

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