By Dr Cheryl Griffin
The War in the Pacific was over and despite cold and rain, Melbournians turned out in force to celebrate. It had rained for 90 minutes before the parade of 20,000 service personnel and other war workers marched through the CBD in the early afternoon of Friday, August 24, 1945.
“It’s on!” the crowd cried. Shops and businesses shut their doors as excited city workers headed out to greet their heroes. There was cheering, clapping, whistling. Confetti and streamers swirled around the heads of those marching.
As you can see from this image taken in Elizabeth St near the Block Arcade, nothing could deter the crowds, many of whom had been waiting in the rain for several hours, determined to secure a good vantage spot. Despite warnings not to stand or sit on shop verandas, all along the street people took the risk. Some sang in time to the bands as they played Mademoiselle from Armentieres and other wartime favourites. Some threw caution to the wind and dangled their legs over the edge as they threw streamers down on the marchers. Others cheered and waved flags.
The scene was the same in every street. If there was a flight of steps, a window or window ledge, a truck or roof top with a view, it was found and claimed long before the march began. Small boys perched high in the treetops along Collins St and one newspaper reporter even glimpsed seven men perched precariously on a decorator’s ladder and plank.
The marchers represented a broad spectrum of war workers. There were representatives of the army, navy and air force. There were POWs and the crowd went wild when a group of Kokoda Trail survivors passed by. Munitions and aircraft production workers marched alongside other civilian personnel. Australian Army nurses were joined by the Australian Women’s Land Army (in their first public march). Bands from all branches of the services were interspersed among the marchers and were joined by a number of municipal bands.
It is a group of nurses and drivers from the Australian Red Cross who dominate this image. Most of their war work was done on Australian soil. Nevertheless, they played a vital role in the war effort. The nurses probably worked in hospitals and convalescent homes. A few may even have served overseas. The drivers drove trucks and ambulances. Other Red Cross workers took part in a wide range of supportive activities, including catering and fundraising as well as hospital visiting, providing home help and even library services. The Red Cross also provided medical attention and food parcels to prisoners of war.
The humanitarian work of the Red Cross during both World Wars and beyond is well documented, but perhaps less well known is Melbourne’s connection to the tracing of missing persons and the role Red Cross luminary Vera Deakin (later Lady White) played in this. The daughter of Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, Vera was only in her 20s when she became the founding secretary of the Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau. She did similar work during World War II in her role as Director of the Bureau (Victorian division) during World War II and her commitment to the organisation continued until the 1970s.
For those interested in Vera Deakin’s contribution to the Australian Red Cross, a new book, Vera Deakin and the Red Cross, by historian and RHSV Fellow and honorary secretary Carole Woods, has just been published and can be purchased from the RHSV Bookshop. Carole will give a not-to-be-missed talk on “Vera Deakin in War and Peace” at the RHSV’s Drill Hall, 239 A’Beckett St (near the Flagstaff Gardens) on Tuesday, March 16. Bookings can be made on the RHSV website. Historyvictoria.org.au.