Introducing LESLEY GENT OAM
(Interviewer Gareth McCray OAM)
Lesley whilst having never been in the Air Force is part of the Air Force “fabric”, as have been officers, airman and families since 1921.
She grew up in Country NSW. After schooling, she moved to Sydney and worked at David Jones as a Press Relations Officer. A most exciting job. Maharaja of Mysore, Rolling Stones, Tony Bennett, Tom Jones
Her Father was Superintendent of Police in the North Eastern District: he had been Mounted Police. In Newcastle she accompanied her father to the Winter Ball at RAAF Williamtown . This is where she met her future husband Garry: he was in a striking uniform and was walking around with a bottle of Champagne under his arm. She and Garry were married the following December(1969).
Her first encounter with the hierarchy of the RAAF was when the Commanding Officer’s wife invited her and another new wife for afternoon tea. She was “lectured” formally on her responsibility to her husband and to the RAAF. Lesley says she adhered to these requirement, within reason, until Garry retired. He has always maintained he didn’t know what hit him that day.
Lesley believes conditions have improved enormously over the years for families of servicemen and women. In the 70s/80s, she visited the airmen’s homes on numerous occasions, and found it hard to believe the poor conditions.
Garry served 30 years in the RAAF and then they went farming!! The Rural Fire Brigade was one of Lesley’s main interests and she spent many years on the Education Advisory Panel.
She was talked into being Researcher/Secretary/Treasurer of 77 Squadron Association, and then Fighter Squadrons Branch. During this time she worked solidly in support of veterans and their families. She had close contact with 77 Squadron RAF and wrote a book for them “Killed in Service”.
Lesley now provides all the research for Air Force Association NSW. For example her current work is trying to locate the family of Flight Sergeant Kenneth Morrison killed whilst piloting Halifax JD126 over Arum, Holland on 10 July 1943.
And so her Air Force associated life continues – just differently
More Background Info
LESLEY GENT OAM
· Born Wellington NSW
My father was a Mounted Policeman so we moved fairly frequently - good training for a RAAF marriage. Mounted men always looked rather dashing - maybe that is why I fell for someone in uniform.
· One of the earliest lady rally drivers. - Oberon forest
· Had some exciting jobs before settling down to life as a RAAF wife. – Press Relations Officer at David Jones, Sydney. Met and worked with some amazing people – Donald Campbell, Rolling Stones, Tony Bennett, Maharajah of Mysore.
· Met Garry at the 1969 Winter Ball at Williamtown. - Father was Superintendent of Police for the North Eastern District and while staying with my parents in Newcastle I accompanied my father to the Winter Ball at Williamtown . So started my long association with the RAAF. Met Garry at the Ball - he was walking around with a bottle of Champagne under his arm and I thought hey, hey.
· Wedding plans worked in around flying. We were married the following December - I was given a choice of two dates for the wedding, The Christmas break as there would be no flying owing to the resurfacing of the runway or the following Easter as the Base closed down, and again no flying.
· Meeting the OCs wife and lectured on our responsibility to our husbands and to the RAAF. My first encounter with the hierarchy of the RAAF was when the CO’s wife invited myself and another new wife for afternoon tea. We were then “lectured” on our responsibility to our husbands and to the RAAF. Now Margaret and myself were not young girls at this stage and both had been out in the wide world and to be told that I think we were both bug eyed. One of the more memorable points we were told is not to argue or for that matter disagree with our husbands - the fear was that they would be distracted when flying, I guess worried about the argument, and might have an accident. I have never worked out if it was the loss of a pilot was the worry or the loss of an expensive aircraft. Considering the RAAF was not paying my wages I was rather taken aback. -
I adhered to this command, within reason, until 14 years later when Garry retired. He has always maintained he didn’t know what hit him the day he retired.
· Thoroughly enjoyed moving - I know some partners didn’t like it but I had never known anything else and looked forward to the posting lists coming out.
Williamtown - Butterworth – Williamtown – Canberra – Williamtown.
· I was shocked at how little the RAAF pay was in those days –If I remember correctly I was earning more than my husband. That is one thing that has improved greatly and a lot to do with agitation by wives. Some airmen were classed as living below the poverty line. ie some General Hands had their RAAF wage supplemented by the Government. The housing was pretty ghastly back then especially for airmen and their families. Some of it was definitely sub-standard. I can remember when Garry was CO 77 visiting airmen’s families out at Thornton, just out of Maitland, when there was a push to improve their housing. And being amazed at the housing conditions some airmen and their families were living in. Housing supplied by the RAAF was, to my mind and others, sub standard, Stoves not working, one home built on piers had no steps so the washing was taken out through the carport and around to the back yard. I visited the airmen’s homes on numerous occasions and found it hard to believe some of the conditions. Conditions have changed enormously for families of servicemen and women. Mainly for the better.
At Wiliamtown there is no Base housing - Now service personnel can choose their own home and rent subsidised. A shame really as there was always a support network right at hand when the Squadron was on detachments or there had been an accident. Also someone to pick the kids up from school if mother was held up at David Jones or wherever
· Three years at Butterworth - It wasn’t all that bad as I could escape to Singapore when Garry was on detachment. I would drive, by myself, to Singapore. Sometimes stopping at KL but not always. One trip there was an alert because of the Communist activities. Pulled up by the Malaysian army on the northern side of KL were they tried to tell me I wasn’t going to Singapore - My command of Bahasa was on a match with the Majors command of English. He telling me I wasn’t going to Singapore and there was me saying I was. Finally all was sorted as what he was trying to say was I shouldn’t be driving to Singapore. On the other side of KL another tent full of soldiers – they checked that I had safely made it through.
The Causeway at Singapore and the Customs sometimes caused some angst.
· Spent two weeks in Changi Hospital – Staffed by British Army Nurses. Tough!! But then they had to be as they were dealing mainly with men and you know what horrid patients men can sometimes be. Princess Margaret came to visit one day as she was Colonel in Chief of the Royal Highland Fusiliers. She had a very young Australian Aide and he was trying to match HRH in the alcohol stakes. I think his Commanding Officer thought rather poorly of the young chap as he wasn’t fit to accompany HRH the next day.
· Garry served 30 years in the RAAF having joined as an apprentice and when he reached that milestone we went farming!! The Rural Fire Brigade was one of our main interests and I spent many years on the Education Advisory Panel. Garry leaving the RAAF was somewhat sad - for me it had been a wonderful 15 years
· The RAAF, however, was still in Garry’s blood and when, just six months after retirement the RAAF offered him a job back at Williamtown in the lead up to the FA18s, he couldn’t pack his bags quickly enough. The job was for twelve months that turned into five years. In the meantime Alexander and I were living on the farm. It wasn’t too bad but so, so far away from the city with the theatres and more importantly the shops.
· We returned to live in Newcastle after our son went to Sydney University. Garry began his long association with Legacy and 77 Squadron Association and I went to Sydney University to study Ancient Greek and Rome, a passion I still have to this day, driving down and back each day.
· Talked into being Secretary/Treasurer of 77 Squadron Association a job I held until it disbanded to fall under the umbrella of RAAFA. During that time I worked solidly in support of veterans and their families and absolutely loved it. Made some wonderful friends amongst the veterans – men like Dinny O’Brien, John Seaton, Jake Newham and Ray Seaver and their wives. World War 2 men, almost all gone now, added another depth to my understanding.
· The difference between the men and women who fought in Europe with Bombers and Spitfires and those who in 1942 formed 75, 76 and 77 Squadrons and moved to the Islands is not just about planes. The men in Europe were defending the Mother country and talk about it as such - the men in the Islands were defending their own country.
· I also continue to have close contact with 77 Squadron RAF and researched and wrote a book for them “Killed in Service”.
Research for Bomber Command is often very varied and my current work is trying to locate the family of Flight Sergeant Kenneth Morrison killed whilst piloting Halifax JD126 over Arum, Holland on 10 July 1943 his plane was hit by flak and crashed at Witmarsum and exploded. The remains of all the crew were buried by local inhabitants in the Wonsersdeel (Witmarsum) Protestant church yard in a communal grave. The remains were recovered after the war and in 1952 Kenneth was reinterred at the Jonkerbos War Cemetery, Gelderland, Netherlands Collective grave 20. Row H 1-7 where he rests with his friends.
Pieter Yntema’s aunt remembers the plane flying past her window in flames. Petier and his brother had to mow the lawn where the plane crashed.
The work continues for veterans and as they grow older they are more interested in being in touch with old comrades - RAAFA helps with this. The old and young veterans and their families need support in many ways – and selfishly it gives me great satisfaction to help them.
Although I had very little to do with the RAAF when Garry was in my association with the Air Force and service people is stronger now than twenty years ago.