World War II veterans reflect on Anzac Day: In Their Own Words

Rows of male sailors marching through the street.

Men of HMAS Australia march along a decorated Sydney street during peace celebrations, 1919. AWM H16147

Value of oral history

Oral history brings history off the page. It helps us to hear the voices of people who lived through historical events. It enriches our broader understanding of events by providing a personal perspective. We gain precious insight into the lived experience of service and war.

Hearing the stories of individual veterans:

  • helps to avoid stereotyping and generalising their experiences
  • highlights the diversity and similarity of others' experiences

Even if 2 people have served in the same theatre of war at the same time, they will have different memories. They each bring their unique insight to the broader story.

We started the Veterans’ Stories oral history project in 2012. The memories of veterans that we've recorded are not intended to be a definitive account of war. Instead, they give an insight into personal reflections of the individuals' experiences.

The Veterans’ Stories project is an invaluable resource for the Australian community that:

  • preserves the living memory of people who served Australia in wars, conflicts and peacekeeping missions
  • provides a research tool to develop a greater understanding of Australian history through firsthand accounts

In this virtual lesson, we've presented World War II veterans talking about the importance of Anzac Day. (In future lessons, we'll cover other themes, such as enlistment, experiences of war and coming home.)

You can use the questions next to each video for classroom discussion or independent study.

Importance of Anzac Day to veterans

Since its origins in 1916, Anzac Day has continued to be an important day for Australian veterans. While listening to these personal accounts, you'll gain an insight into how Anzac Day has affected - and even shaped - the lives of Australian veterans.

Alison Worrall

During World War II, Alison Worrall lived in Melbourne and worked in an ammunition factory, filling bullets. She enlisted in the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) on 23 August 1941. She attained the rank of Flight Sergeant.

Alison's father was wounded in World War I. After the war, he did volunteer work for Legacy, a charitable organisation that cares for the dependants of deceased Australian veterans.

Alison recalls how marching on Anzac Day was important to her family when she was young. In later life, she had mixed feelings about the focus of Anzac Day.

Watch these 2 videos:

Do the activity:

  1. How does Alison believe attending Anzac Day services reflected her father's community spirit for those affected by war?
  2. What does Alison believe should be celebrated on Anzac Day?
  3. Why does Alison still attend Anzac Day services?

Hear more of Alison Worrall's story.

Phyl Ahearn

Phyl Ahearn (born Platt) was living in Sydney when she enlisted in the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) in February 1943. She served as a private in the 1st Australian Base Postal Unit.

Although Phyl loved her time in the AWAS, she was disappointed that she didn't learn how to drive a postal truck.

Phyl talks about never missing an Anzac Day, and having strong feelings about the men who served.

Watch the video:

Do the activity:

  1. Why is Anzac Day so important to Phyl?
  2. How does Phyl feel about Australian soldiers who went to war?
  3. Have you attended an Anzac Day service at school or in your local community? Who also attended the ceremony? How did you feel before, during and after the service?

Hear more of Phyl Ahearn's story.

Jack Olsson

Jack Olsson enlisted for service with his brother at the age of 16, in July 1942 at Kogarah, New South Wales. Jack first saw action in the OBOE 6 landings at Borneo before serving on Morotai, part of the Malaku Islands in the Netherlands East Indies.

Jack recalls his childhood experiences of Anzac Day and his decision to join the army in World War II.

Watch the video:

Do the activity:

  1. How did watching his father march in Anzac Day services as a child affect Jack's view of army service?
  2. Jack and his brother lied about their age to join the army. Why do you think they did that?
  3. Make a list of the ways your own life would change if you enlisted in the army at 16 like Jack and his brother did. Think about how your family might feel. Would you miss your friends? What about your school or workplace?

Hear more of Jack Olsson's story.

Edward Chapman

Edward Chapman was a member of the sea cadets before joining the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) at 16.

After training at Flinders naval depot, Edward served in the government's requisition scheme of private boats. His duties included patrolling the coast of Queensland looking for enemy submarines. Edward was stationed near Bribie Island when a Japanese submarine sank the hospital ship AHS Centaur in 1943.

Edward talks about the role of Anzac Day in his family life, as an important day of remembrance for veterans and a time to catch up with old friends.

Watch the video:

Do the activity:

  1. What activities did Edward do with his family on Anzac Day before and after the war?
  2. Edward's brother worked in an essential industry on the home front during the war. How might his experiences of Anzac Day have been different from those who served in the armed forces?
  3. For veterans like Edward, Anzac Day is both a solemn day of remembrance and a happy occasion catching up with old friends. What are some of the activities Edward talks about doing each Anzac Day?

Hear more of Edward Chapman's story.

Bill Williams

Bill Williams enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in 1942. His time in the RAAF saw him serve across Australia before being deployed to Borneo with 22 Repair and Salvage Unit. Part of his work consisted of retrieving enemy aircraft that had been shot down or damaged in crash landings.

Bill talks about the recognition World War II soldiers receive on Anzac Day.

Watch the video:

Do the activity:

  1. How can veterans like Bill, who no longer marches, commemorate those who have served on Anzac Day? Visit Personal commemorations for more ideas.
  2. Bill thinks the media mainly focuses on veterans of World War I on Anzac Day. Research a recent news story about an Anzac Day service. Find 5 reasons to agree or disagree with Bill's opinion.

Hear more of Bill Williams' story.


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