Real Life

Meet two generations of high-flying heroes

This Anzac Day, Kiwi Evelyn Hutchins looks back on her call of duty, while a new generation of Air Force talent emerges.

When Evelyn Hutchins joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) at Taieri airbase near Dunedin in 1942, the men she was sent to replace were less than welcoming.

The 27-year-old – who gave up her training in opera at the beginning of World War II – answered the call of duty to become one of 5000 New Zealand women who served between 1941 and 1945.

Over four years, Evelyn worked as a truck driver, ferrying soliders on the 50-man troop carrier to the bomb dump, rifle range or to railway stations and ships, where they left for training in Canada, before heading on to England. Now, at the age of 102, she recalls with a cheeky smile just how the WAAFs eventually won the men over.

“My husband Thomas was one of those men who joined the Air Force prior to the outbreak of war and those men were against women coming into what they thought of as ‘their domain’” she tells. “But once we women married them, that fixed it!” she laughs.

Marriage – or worse, pregnancy – was considered reason for discharge in the Air Force until the late 1970s.

When the WAAF was formed in 1941 in response to the critical manpower shortage, society still viewed women as unsuitable for service. But these women were by no means delicate.

They were expected to do everything the men did, despite being paid 20% less for their work.

“We’d lift heavy boxes of ammunition from the ground onto the truck, and we girls used to drive left-hand-drive Mack trucks, which was tricky when you went to park,” Evelyn laughs. “Once the men had finished shooting at the rifle range, we’d collect up the .303s. We didn’t wear earmuffs in those days – and that’s what I blame on having to wear hearing aids now.”

Evelyn and her late husband Thomas Hutchins both featured in a 1970 issue of the Weekly (left) when they met with ex-WAAF members to celebrate the founding of the organisation 30 years prior.

While the women may have been away from the war, many were still deeply affected by tragedy. Evelyn’s fiancé was killed in a bombing raid over Germany in 1943. She also witnessed two Tiger Moths colliding during a training exercise in Christchurch. Both instructors and their two students onboard were killed.

“What I remember above all, though, is all those young chaps heading off on the troop carrier, and wondering, ‘Will they return to New Zealand?’ It’s sad, really.”

Evelyn married Thomas Hutchins after she left the Air Force and went on to become the Publicity Officer for the Wellington branch of the ex WAAF Club. Her picture even featured in the Weekly in 1970 – with Thomas smiling at his wife’s side.

Fast-forward to 2016 and the life of a female Air Force officer is a world away from Evelyn’s story.

Warfare Officer Emma Taylor says these days, women working in the air force have many more options, compared with Evelyn’s experience in the 1940s.

Emma Taylor is 23, and simply smiles and shakes her head at the thought of being forced out of her job if she got married. After almost five years in the Air Force, she’s qualified as a Warfare Officer – it’s her job to motor the navigation onboard the aircraft and ensure it’s kept on route.

It’s not uncommon for Emma to work alongside female pilots and other female aircrew.

“While a lot of the women previously would have had only a few jobs to choose from, Air Force women these days can choose to work on helicopters, as an avionics technician or as a pilot,” Emma explains.

It’s recent progress. The number of female aircrew has tripled since 2002. The first woman to take up the role of Warfare Officer (previously known as navigator) wasn’t until 1990.

The job requires Emma to be a multitasker, a good communicator and work collaboratively with those on the flight deck, both men and women.

While women still only make up 17 per cent of those serving in the Air Force, Emma says she doesn’t feel like she’s treated differently by her male colleagues.

“I don’t know what it’s like in industries outside of the Air Force, but here, I don’t see any issues. We work together really well as a team, there’s a good balance of women and men, and everyone’s really considerate. If we choose to have children, we have the same options as everyone else – there’s a lot more opportunity now compared to in Evelyn’s day.”

Challenging sexism

Last month, the New Zealand Defence Force launched Operation RESPECT to tackle inappropriate and harmful behaviours within the force. It comes after three seperate reviews over two years revealed anti-female attitudes and multiple failings. The Action plan will include:

• Establishing a strategy to challenge sexism and better intergrate women into the Defence Force

• To train recruits in sexual ethics and healthy relationships

• To set up a disclosure system by June 2016 as an alternative way to report sexual assault

• To provide a dedicated professional sexual assault response team

• To address issues associated with risk factors, such as alcohol consumption

• To increase the number of women in armed forces and senior leadership roles

Words: Anastasia Hedge

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