Photo: Fred Smith with Melba and the family at Rose Hill. Left to right: Fred, Colin, Melba, Lorna, Merlene and Joyce (Taken by Ann Smith on December 25, 1940).

When World War II broke out in 1939 a young woman from Bowning, Ann Smith, started to write letters to some of the men she knew who were enlisting. Then in 1940, in order to “do her bit” for the war effort, she placed an advertisement in the “The World’s News” offering to write to other soldiers in the 2nd AIF. This resulted in a correspondence collection of 141 fascinating letters from twenty servicemen giving a very personal account of both their wartime experiences and life for Ann on the home front.

Whilst the original letters are now in the Australian War Memorial collection, Ann’s daughter Gaye McSweeney has very generously donated a digital copy of the letters to the Yass Archives with biographies of each of the servicemen and her mother. Gaye explained, “By donating the original letters to the War Memorial relatives of servicemen will now have access to them.”

Ann who was born in 1917, lived with her parents Monteith and Ethel Smith, and her seven older siblings on their Bowning property “Rose Hill”. She was educated at Bowning Public School but left aged eleven to “help her mother around the house”. Her effort to enlist in the Australian Women’s Army Service in June 1942 was rejected on the grounds of flat feet, so she and her sister went to Lithgow to work in the noisy environment of the Small Arms Factory. After returning home in December to support her very ill mother who passed away on January 9, 1945, at Yass hospital, Ann resumed work for the Department of the Army as an inspector in a munitions factory near St. Marys Sydney.

During this time Ann managed to keep up a correspondence with all her servicemen. The plea from one correspondent, Fred McSweeney, indicates how much her chatty letters were appreciated. On May 7, 1940, he writes in his first letter from Palestine, “there is nothing that cheers up a lonely soldier more than anything else is to hear from Aussie”. Frank adds a postscript, “Can you send a snap of yourself”.

Ann Smith in Cooma street 1940

Her local correspondents included: Charles Beaver who marries Ann’s sister Eileen in 1940, Charles’ brother George, Charles Dyball who married Ann’s second cousin Roma Turton, Peter Jefferson stepson of Ann’s oldest brother Arthur Smith, Arthur Ryan a neighbor who returned to marry Joan Fallon and settle in the Bowning district and Ann’s older brother Frederick who had married Melba Armour in 1921.

Some of Ann’s penfriends found themselves in Germany, Crete, Greece and North Africa. When the censor allowed, they were able to record details of life in these places. Cecil Barr wrote 38 letters and cards from a prisoner of war camp in Germany. Clarence Wragg was also a POW as were William Quinnel and Fred McSweeney. Jack Ellis describes his trip to the Middle East and Palestine. Colin Lyon writes from New Guinea.

When Ann didn’t hear for some time from Peter Jefferson and Cecil Barr she asked her brother Fred, then in North Africa, to try to find them. Frustratingly his reply was so heavily redacted she couldn’t get any useful information about them.

Some of Ann’s own letters, recording local events and fundraising efforts and entertainments, were returned to her when the men went missing. Apparently, the “snap” requested by Fred McSweeney made the right impression. In 1947, Ann and Fred married. They built a house at Revesby, Sydney and there raised their three children, Gaye, John, and Diane.

By Judith Davidson | Yass and District Historical Society

Images courtesy of Gaye McSweeney