Armidale WWII veteran Thelma McCarthy reflects on her time as one of the first female wireless telegraphers

“Just before we were posted our trainer said to us: ‘remember ladies, we don’t want to be the same as men, we want to be equal to men,’ and that’s been my war cry my entire life,” WWII veteran Thelma McCarthy said.

ARMIDALE VETERAN: WWII Veteran Thelma McCarthy has received a Order of Australia for her work as one of the first female wireless telegraphers during the war.

ARMIDALE VETERAN: WWII Veteran Thelma McCarthy has received a Order of Australia for her work as one of the first female wireless telegraphers during the war.

“It was very good advice because we had to prove ourselves not only to be the same as but to be better than men, and my word we did.”

Growing up on a property in south-west NSW, Mrs McCarthy would catch the train to boarding school during the holidays.

On the carriage, the boys in the years above her would talk eagerly about their dreams of joining the Royal Australian Airforce.

They talk about women’s rights but these girls, they had to fight very hard for a lot of their rights - from the ground up. - Thelma McCarthy.

“My father served in WWI and was one of The 1st Light Horse Brigade, I saw this ad in the paper calling for volunteers to learn morse code - I thought it was interesting so that’s what I did,” Mrs McCarthy said.

Women had not previously been highly involved in the war effort, but were called to replace men after the bombing of Darwin.

At the post office, the men would take 18 months to reach the required 18 words a minute receiving and sending morse code.

Mrs McCarthy and a friend mastered it in just six weeks.

“We learned it day and night, we slept it, I still remember it to this day,” she said.

In the commandeered homes of the wealthy, stripped of their lavish furnishings in Toorak, Melbourne - the women trained.

Mrs McCarthy was posted to a RAAF base in Canberra at 18-years-old, where she quickly rose to the rank of sergeant.

“They talk about women’s rights but these girls, they had to fight very hard for a lot of their rights - from the ground up,” she said.

“I was in charge of the whole caboodle.

“I recall then, it didn’t worry me at the time, but the airman that scrubbed the floor of the office I was in charge of made more money than I did - and I was the sergeant in charge.”

Mrs McCarthy worked as a wireless telegrapher from 1942 to 1945 and said it is one of the most highly regarded times in her life.

In her days as a wireless telegrapher, Japanese submarines lined the coast of Australia.

Any movement of aircraft troops or weather reports were sent in morse code.

“It taught me a good way of life, it taught me about discipline, camaraderie with people and it was a very precious time in my life which I do miss now that most of my associates have passed on,” she said.

“I’m grateful I had that experience, I really am.”

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