A determination to serve

Eighty years ago, Wilma ‘Billie’ Ayles (nee Galloway) convinced her sister, Heather, to join her in applying to be a wireless operator for the newly formed Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF).

CAPTION: Wilma Ayles, centre, supported by her daughter Evelyn Schuetze, receives an Air Force 2021 memento from Senior ADF Officer Amberley Group Captain Iain Carty at Cooroy, Queensland. Photo by Leading Aircraftwoman Emma Schwenke.

Twice a week, the sisters rode their bicycles from the family’s sugarcane farm into Ayr in North Queensland to learn how to send and receive Morse code before mailing their WAAAF enrolment forms during World War II.

However, in early 1942 the sisters were offered traineeships in Brisbane instead of roles as wireless operators in the WAAAF.

Heather took up a position at the Brisbane Gas Company while Mrs Ayles worked as a head ledger-keeper for three months.

But Mrs Ayles was determined to serve her country.

“I went to the recruiting office in my lunch hour where I was tested again and accepted,” Mrs Ayles said.

Enlisting on June 26, 1942, at 21 years of age, Mrs Ayles completed a three-month course in Melbourne before being posted to Townsville.

She said she fell in love with every aspect of her role as a wireless operator.

“I used to tell my husband that those were the best days of my life,” Mrs Ayles said.

“He said my married life should be, but in the Air Force, you made friends and you had no responsibilities other than the job you were doing.”

Mrs Ayles and her colleagues had contact with the war zones in Port Moresby, Milne Bay, Horne Island, Iron Range and Charters Towers, as well as other key communication sites.

“We would take the messages from mainly Port Moresby and Milne Bay, and forward them on to their destination, either in Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne,” Mrs Ayles said.

Mrs Ayles directly contributed to the Defence of Australia and helped the Allied Force combat the Japanese invasion.

After posting to Bowen, 115km south of her home town of Ayr, Mrs Ayles met and married her late husband, Bill Ayles.

At the time, married women weren’t allowed to remain in the WAAAF and Mrs Ayles discharged on April 27, 1945.

“I liked (the WAAAF) because it was very full on and I just hated to leave,” she said.

In the years that followed, Mrs Ayles attended WAAAF reunions in Brisbane.

Now, at 100 years of age, Mrs Ayles’ service to her country has been recognised as part of this year’s centenary of Air Force celebrations.

As part of the Air Force 2021’s Connect with a Centenarian project, Senior ADF Officer – Amberley Group Captain Iain Carty on February 17 presented Mrs Ayles with a commemorative memento from the Chief of Air Force and the Warrant Officer of the Air Force.

Three generations of Mrs Ayles’ family were present for the presentation at Cooroy on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, while interstate family watched via a video link.

“The role Billie played in helping defend Australia’s north by recording and sending Morse code was critical in keeping Allied command informed and the Japanese forces at bay,” Group Captain Iain Carty said.

“It was an absolute honour and a privilege, on behalf of the Chief of Air Force and Warrant Officer of the Air Force, to be able to recognise and celebrate Billie’s WAAAF service and her contribution to the war efforts from 1942 to 1945.

“It was also amazing to meet Billie’s family as well as some of her carers, and witness firsthand the genuine love and affection they have for her as both a matriarch and a war veteran.”

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