Topic: Ellen McCormack: A World War II childhood

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In 1989, 50 years after the beginning of World War II (1939-1945), Katikati Historian Ellen McCormack recalled her childhood years in Katikati throughout that time.

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It's 5 November 1989 and the story about the World Wars is being discussed on the radio; especially as it is fifty years since the beginning of World War II.

The music alone brings back so many memories - and most importantly of Sunday mornings in our very large kitchen on the farm. This is what we now call the Old house; the farm at the end of Beach Road in Katikati.

The lovely old scrubbed kauri table seated at least twelve. It sat in the middle of the room but close to the wood stove for warmth.

At 9am every Sunday the battery radio would be turned on in order to listen to the BBC war news from England. Those Sunday morning radio broadcasts were never to be forgotten.

Sometimes after the news was announced, a few of the troops at the war would be selected to send a short message home to their family members. Because of the censorshiph the messages were nearly always the same, 'Hello Mum and Dad, hope you are all well at home, thanks for the parcel, love to everyone, Jack.'

But at least it gave families an opportunity to hear their husbands or sons voices for the first time since they had left home which was often years ago.

Next came the list of the missing and those killed in action. You could hear a pin drop as the names were read over the radio. The male radio announcer’s voice was always very clear and precise, it had to be, as this was usually the first time that many people would hear of the death of their friends and relatives as only the next of kin would have been previously advised.

My parents’ reaction to some of the names would only be a slight gasp, there was no conversation, no reaction and definitely the 'stiff upper lip' that prevailed in all households. How they coped with losing so many close family members and friends I have no idea; but cope they did. I guess there were many tears in private, but children were shielded as much as possible from the horrors of war.

My mother had three brother's and numerous cousins away fighting in World War II. My father also had his only brother there as well. His brother had fought in World War I (1914-1918) and was later killed in World War II.

There were never any scenes of men lying dead on the battlefield recorded in the newspapers. The papers were far more restricted in their coverage and respected privacy far more than today.

New Zealand was such a small place in those days, but even in a little country town like Katikati was not immune from the war. During those Sunday broadcasts we were continually hearing so many names of young men who had left wives and sweethearts behind and were now never coming home again.

Mothers and Fathers were left devastated at the loss of their sons and other family members, and this completely altered their plans for the future. This included retirement, plus loss of labour for the farms and many other complications to everyone’s lives.

Our telephone also ran on batteries, so both the radio and the telephone were only used for specific purposes at certain times of the day. Practically everyone was on a party line with up to twelve or more subscribers. Radios and telephones were very greatly respected, as many families had spent a large portion of their lives without either manner of communication.

Farm labour was very scarce during the war with so many men and women serving overseas, so everyone had 'to pull their weight', children included.

From the time farm children were old enough and strong enough to be useful, they were expected to work. Much of the work was heavy, long and tedious.

With the rationing and shortages of the most common commodities like petrol, food and clothing, many families were really struggling to survive.

Tiredness was a huge complaint, hence homework suffered with many of us just not able to stay awake long enough to complete what was required.

Some of my friends, having helped with the early milking, then had a three mile walk to catch the bus at the corner of their road at 7.45 in the morning. All this necessitated very early rising and after the return walk home at night with more work to do, they were absolutely exhausted. It was a long day for growing youngsters, but it was something that we all accepted as we had never known life to be any other way.

Sport was very limited, there was more work for children on Saturdays because of the labour shortage. Teachers who would have taken sport were often involved with weekend farm work for many families. Mainly teachers or mechanics drove the school buses so again people were required to be very versatile and be able to cope with many different occupations. Sport was NEVER played on a Sunday.

Most of us only had one set of good clothes kept for church or special outings and in some families the children only had their school clothes to wear.

They were tough years there is no question about that. Rules, rules and yet more rules that were absolutely necessary if the country was to be kept running. However they were good years, families communicated, lots of games were played, especially on Saturday evenings. Bag-a-tell, snakes and ladders, monopoly and many different card games.

I do not ever remember my Mother actually sitting down and doing nothing .She worked from daylight till dark and when she did sit down she would be knitting socks or scarves for the men overseas, crocheting, mending or sewing.

Relaxation was not a common sight anywhere; people were always busy with endless things waiting to be done. Occasionally, on a family members birthday, my mother would make a picnic lunch and we would all go to the beach at the end of the farm for lunch and a swim. I can still see my father in his red bib-top swimsuit and my Mother in a sea green costume with a little skirt in front below the waist.

Those swimsuits were darned and repaired from one summer to the next. I remember the moths had a good chew on them during one winter, so my poor mother spent many hours darning them and trying to make them look respectable. It was the days of rationing and new swimsuits were definitely not a necessity.   

Clothes were handed down from one family member to the other. They were often given a new trim or something extra to revitalize the garment and were accepted without complaint.

What a different world we live in today, who would accept these practices. Quite often families exchanged clothes with other families and who ever was a good fit for the garment, well that solved the problem and it was theirs.

The trenches at school were another interesting phase in our lives. I cannot remember the exact measurements but the playground was taken over with the trenches. Dozens and dozens of them, with steps down in to them and we were able to evacuate the whole school in minutes. About eight to ten of us in a trench and so life went on.

There were black blinds in all houses so no lights could be seen in the case of an invasion. Again life consisted of rules, rules and more rules!

Even though the war ended in 1945, the aftermath continued for many years. Many men returned home minus limbs and traumatized from their experiences. Widows had to cope as best they could. There were broken relationships and a whole country having to be rebuilt without the thousands of young men and women who were never coming home. Children were still required to be a large proportion of the workforce because of the huge labour shortage, and their education suffered greatly.

One thing that my generation did learn from the war years was self- sufficiency, obedience, loyalty and how to make the best of what was available without complaint.

People had to rely on one another to survive, and they did. The barter system saved many families from ruin.

Fortunately my mother was a wonderful cook. She could do wonders with the cheaper cuts of meat and our vegetable garden was a year round continual food supply. No food was ever wasted; even a few slices of bread could be turned in to a delicious bread and butter pudding.

by Ellen McCormack (1989).


This page archived at Perma Cc in September of 2016:

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Ellen McCormack: A World War II childhood