Remembering Australia's invisible wartime heroes

Date: 30/05/2002

While Australians are keen to embrace the nation's war heroes, we tend to forget about the thousands of Australians who've volunteered behind the firing lines says a UWS academic.

Dr Melanie Oppenheimer, who will speak at the Australian War Memorial's Remembering 1942 conference tomorrow, has criticised official accounts of Australia's involvement in war for ignoring the extent of civilian voluntary efforts.

"Some historians have tried to acknowledge and understand the efforts of volunteers but generally the impact and influence of volunteer work and workers has not been considered a worthwhile part of the story of Australians at war," she says.

"This is quite astounding when you consider that the 8000 wartime charities established in Australia during WWII saw thousands of ordinary Australians raise close to 28 million - that's a staggering $A1.6 billion in today's terms."

In her new book, All work No Pay: Australian Civilian Volunteers in War, Dr Oppenheimer examines the work of Australian civilian volunteers who carried out unpaid work on the home front and overseas during wartime, and analyses the relationship between governments and the voluntary sector.

"It is the first study of its kind - this perhaps explains why history books have sustained the unfortunate view of war volunteers in war as womenfolk in small country towns busying themselves producing copious numbers of socks.

But according to Dr Oppenheimer these images neglect the real stories of countless wartime civilian volunteers.

"The results of my research indicate that during World War II in particular, Australian volunteering was enormous in its undertaking and scale. The activities crossed class boundaries and were carried out by men, women, children who engaged in all types of unpaid work," she says.

"During World Wars I and II, volunteers from all walks of life assisted servicemen and women at home and in the field by providing nursing and rehabilitation services, food and clothing.

"They also pressured government to act on essential matters like repatriation benefits for returning soldiers and for the welfare of their dependents."

Dr Oppenheimer believes it is fitting we spare a thought for those who committed themselves to the war effort behind the firing lines as we remember the Australians who were at war sixty years ago.

"Somehow between 1945 and today the stories of these invisible wartime heroes have been lost. There is precious little mention of civilian volunteers and the millions of hours of labour they contributed," she says.

"And while their stories may appear ordinary when compared with the contrasting image of battle scarred soldiers, if volunteers continue to be ignored politically, socially and historically, what hope is there for the 2.6 million Australians who currently donate 434 million hours in voluntary work?"

All Work No Pay: Australian Civilian Volunteers in War is to be launched by Ms Martine Letts, Secretary General of Australian Red Cross on Friday 31 May 2002 at 1pm.

When: Friday 31 May
Where: Foyer, Telstra Theatre
Australian War Memorial

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