Tapping into the past

Anita Jaensch 05 August 2020

A wireless operator during WWII, Doreen Matthews shares her memories of wartime Townsville.

Ninety-six-year-old Doreen Matthews still remembers the Morse Code she learnt eight decades ago, deftly tapping out a message for us on the Morse key in the Redlands RSL Museum.

“It was the naval reserve I joined at 16 because I just wanted to do something and couldn’t do anything until I was 18. And then when I was 18, I just joined up. I couldn’t wait to get into it with everybody else,” she recalls. Already proficient in Morse Code from her time in the reserves, Doreen became a wireless operator with the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) and was posted to Townsville – an experience in itself.

Old pictures of WWII veteran and RSL Queensland member Doreen Matthews

“They weren’t ready for us, they just weren’t. When we first got there, they took us out of the army trucks that had picked us up from the station and gave us this whole big heap of hay, like straw. It was to fill up the palliasses* – what they called them in those days. That was what we slept on, in tents. All us girls together in this yard with goats running around. Goats and fleas. It wasn’t really good when we first got there.”

Her eyes twinkle. “Did you know how we had a shower? They had four posts, and they had the shower built around it, just by corrugated iron. And they had a kerosene tin tied to a rope. We undid it and lowered it down, filled it up with water and hopped under it quickly.” She laughs. “You didn’t get much of a shower!”

In time, Doreen moved from the temporary camp into billets in Denham Street. As a wireless operator, she was busy sending and receiving crucial coded messages from troops in the Pacific.

“I just remember how many soldiers came through that city on their way to each of the ships to go to war. They shipped everybody out from Townsville and there were soldiers coming and going all the time. So many of them… It’s sad really,” she says.

One of those soldiers was her future husband. On patrol in New Guinea with his troop, he decided to sit down beneath a coconut palm to light a cigarette – just as one of the men stood on a landmine. Of his entire troop, he was the only survivor.

“The blast went above his head. He lost his ear drum and had ended up with war neurosis,” Doreen says.

By the time the war ended, Doreen was married with a child, and the young mother was too busy to join the celebrations. “I just felt so happy about it,” she says wistfully. “I felt like celebrating but I had a child by then. Too busy!”

This year however, on the 75th anniversary of that day, Doreen is looking forward to joining in the celebrations her RSL has planned.

“Whatever they’re doing. I go with the flow. I just do that. Just don’t make plans, go with the flow. That’s all you can do.”


* A palliasse is a straw-filled mattress.

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