Yesterday I visited – for the first time – both the historic Evans Head airfield in northern New South Wales, and the co-located museum run by the Evans Head Memorial Aerodrome and Aviation Association. Although filled with heavy – and light – metal of the kind you’ll see replicated in similar museums throughout the continent, I was awestruck nonetheless that a small group of regional volunteers should have achieved so much, in such short time.
The highlight for me however was not the macho gas-guzzling production machinery but rather, a seemingly insignificant bespoke item encased in the gloomy shadows of a girder column, its all-too-brief caption revealing only that it had once belonged to an RAAF Aircraftwoman. Here possibly, at last, was a personal story – the real stuff of aviation.
Never before had I seen a more charming wooden model aeroplane, let alone a hand-carved RAAF Anson so finely detailed as to even include a serial number and a place of origin (viz. Cootamundra). But what most intrigued me was the suggestion that this curio had once been owned, possibly even carved, by an Aircraftwoman – so much of our military history and heritage having been written and shaped by men. Here’s some of the backstory to that model.
Born in Sydney on 7 August 1922, Joan Mary Stevenson was 19 years old when, on 29 September 1941, she presented at the No.2 Recruiting Centre (Sydney) and signed up for a twelve month stint with the Women’s Auxilliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) – serving initially as a W/T Operator, then later as a Telegraphist.
She commenced her initial training at Malvern, before being posted to No.1 S.T.T., subsequently serving at the Melboure W/T Station and Eastern Area H.Q (1942); RAAF Nowra (September 1943); then No.1 Air Observer’s School at Cootamundra (August 1943).
The following year – on 14 August 1943 – she married Sgt. John Strachan McCormack (VX80179) of the 1st Australian Parachute Training Regiment (Richmond), the WAAAF granting her four days leave – presumably for the wedding and honeymoon.
At just 5′ 4″, her youthful appearance and diminutive stature may have belied what the Air Force – fortunately – recognized as obvious leadership potential. Although she’d only had the benefit of an ‘intermediate’ education, and had only previously ever performed clerical duties at David Jones, her conduct assessments were consistently exemplary such that within five months of joining she’d been promoted to Corporal, receiving her sergeant stripes in August 1944. That future promise, however, was never realized.
At 0745 on 11 September 1944 a military aircraft crashed at Glen Innes (N.S.W.) – during a training flight – killing all five crew members, including newly promoted – and married – Sgt. Mary McCormack. It was a 1 AOS Avro Anson (LT781) from Cootamundra, just like the little model found later amongst her personal effects.
Eye-witnesses state that the plane had previously circled over the locality at a good height. When it was returning an explosion was heard. The plane then crashed into Eimer’s [unoccupied] house, a short distance ahead, and flames immediately shot into the air…The tragedy occurred within 150 yards of the home of Mr. and Mrs. John Noble, parents of the late Flight Sgt. Noble, one of the victims of the tragedy, and fragments of the fabric from the plane were scattered in their yard. (Glen Innes Examiner, 12 Sep 1944, Page 1)
A Court of Inquiry subsequently found that the aircraft may have suffered structural failure while pulling out of a low drive.
Joan’s husband, John, died in South Australia in 1990 aged 72, seemingly having never remarried.