International Women's Day: Air Force drill instructor was among the first recruits

TRAILBLAZER: Narrabeen woman Shirley McLaren was among the inaugural recruits for the Women's Royal Australian Air Force. Picture: Geoff Jones
TRAILBLAZER: Narrabeen woman Shirley McLaren was among the inaugural recruits for the Women's Royal Australian Air Force. Picture: Geoff Jones

ALMOST 70 years ago to the day Narrabeen woman Shirley McLaren was among the first ever graduates of the Women's Royal Australian Air Force (WRAAF).

When she joined she was just 18 years old and had to seek permission from her parents first, but the decision changed her life.

"There was an advertisement in the national papers calling for expressions of interest for women to join the three services which they were going to reform after World War II to release the men for active service in Korea," she said.

"Dad was fine because he was in the Army, but Mum was a little bit more reluctant to let her daughter join the Air Force. I really and truly believed that I had something to offer."

TRAILBLAZER: Shirley McLaren in her summer and winter uniforms with the Women's Royal Australian Air Force (WRAAF).

TRAILBLAZER: Shirley McLaren in her summer and winter uniforms with the Women's Royal Australian Air Force (WRAAF).

The WRAAF are a unique part of RAAF history as the title WRAAF only existed from 1951 to 1977 before they merged into one service.

On January 29, 1951 she was among the first 50 WRAAF recruits. She swore allegiance to King George VI and was stationed to RAAF Base Richmond. On February 26 that same year she graduated and then worked as a drill instructor and was responsible for training young women as they entered the service.

"It was exciting, it was a new beginning, I think everything is exciting when you're 18 and 11 months," she said.

"I loved it, I loved the comradeship with the girls, I loved being able to pass the knowledge that I had on to them. It was a wonderful life.

"It was a time when girls were still being told by their parents what to do and when to do it and how to do it."

I loved it, I loved the comradeship with the girls, I loved being able to pass the knowledge that I had on to them. It was a wonderful life.

Shirley McLaren

For four-and-a-half years she loved her work, but said she always knew it would come to an end if she fell in love. In 1953, she met Roy McLaren and in 1955 they married.

"When I joined, the rule was if you married or became pregnant you had to take your immediate discharge," she said. "The love my life, the father of my children overrides everything else and they were the rules and in that day and age you obeyed the rules."

Shirley and Roy McLaren.

Shirley and Roy McLaren.

For many years the Australian Government did not issue an Australian Defence Medal to women who served from 1951-77, this was in the days before equal pay and rights. Mrs McLaren campaigned for years to change this, sending hundreds of letters calling for these women to be recognised.

"There was no medal of recognition of any description was given to women who joined after World War II," she said.

Shirley and Roy McLaren on their wedding day.

Shirley and Roy McLaren on their wedding day.

Finally in 2001, this was changed and Mrs McLaren counts this as one of her great victories to help women who served in the Defence Force. "I didn't only do it for the WRAAF, I did it for the Army girls and the Navy girls as well," she said.

Mrs McLaren is also well known to a national audience as one of the stars on ABC's Old People's Home for 4 Year Olds program. She is also the current president of Anzac Village's ex-servicewomen, and patron of WRAAF Sydney.

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