Battler who has helped put women on the front line of Anzac Day march

Sheila Van Emden, who worked for the WAAAF during WWII, plans to join the Anzac march this year. Photo: Steven Siewert
Sheila Van Emden, who worked for the WAAAF during WWII, plans to join the Anzac march this year. Photo: Steven Siewert

With her silver Spitfire earrings and decorations adorning her blazer, no veteran could be more delighted to see women leading the Anzac Day march in Sydney on Wednesday than Sheila Van Emden.

At the age of 91 she has spent more than 30 years battling for recognition for those who she believes haven't quite had their share of the limelight for their wartime service.

She originally served in the Land Army, whose members weren't allowed to march until 1986, and only then thanks to the intervention of Mrs Van Emden.

She also served in the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) and, in recent marches along with other representatives, she tagged along somewhere near the back. She said: "We were always put behind the squadrons and we were always behind the RAAF nurses. We were the last."

Sheila pictured with an Australian Wirraway aircraft on which she worked during the war. Photo: Fairfax

Sheila pictured with an Australian Wirraway aircraft on which she worked during the war. Photo: Fairfax

But this year things will be different with the announcement that women will lead the way in Wednesday's march.

Despite having both legs heavily bandaged as a result of a reaction to a wartime accident in which her body was doused in aviation spirit, she plans to join the Sydney commemoration.

As men went off to fight in the Second World War the call went out for women to replace them in key roles in industry and agriculture. Sheila and sister, Beryl, living Erigolia, travelled to Sydney to enlist. The qualifying age was 18 but somehow she managed it at just 15½. She was sent to Leeton and her sister, Beryl, also under-age, to Griffith.

"We were picking fruit, castrating pigs, watering vegetables and we grew acres and acres of potatoes and carrots and spinach," she said.

"When it rained we were sent to work in a big cannery but what happened then was that the cannery girls that were working on the onions would let the Land Army work on the onions – particularly if there was a dance that night."

Sheila as a young woman serving with the WAAAF. Photo: Fairfax

Sheila as a young woman serving with the WAAAF. Photo: Fairfax

At the time, living in a dormitory with other girls, she met her future husband, Jack, now 95, who was an instrument maker in the RAAF stationed at Narrandera. He would travel to meet Sheila on his DKW motorbike.

Speaking at their apartment at the RSL Anzac Village in Narrabeen, he said: "They used to lock the girls up in the dormitory at night. We'd hang around seeing if there was a way in but there never was."

In a letter of March 1944 in which she learnt she had been awarded two service stars for her Land Army work, she is described as a "pioneering member" of the organisation charged with maintaining food production.

She added: "When Julia Gillard was prime minister in 2012 she said we deserved a proper medal.

"When she was coming around presenting the medals, I stood up and I said to her that I used to have red hair like her too – but mine came from a bottle. She said we redheads had to stick together. I wasn't really one of her followers but still ..."

Sheila holds a pair of Spitfire earrings made by her husband from coins. Photo: Steven Siewert

Sheila holds a pair of Spitfire earrings made by her husband from coins. Photo: Steven Siewert

With her experience working on tractors, Mrs Van Emden later transferred to the WAAAF as a flight mechanic servicing engines on Wirraway fighter aircraft at Uranquinty near Wagga Wagga.  When she arrived she was told 14 women had replaced 12 men going off to serve.

"It was a bit of a slight we felt but we laughed about it," she said.

Of the Anzac march, she added: "I was the one that got the Land Army to march in the first place. We would go into Sydney and all the fellows would say: 'Why aren't you marching?' That went on for years and years. We said we weren't allowed to – the RSL wouldn't let us march.

“I wrote a letter to every country town where they used to get the girls together to march. In a small country town they wouldn't have had anybody if it wasn't the Land Army marching.

"Then I knew there was a big RSL meeting coming up and I was there I had said to the men, don't forget that you have got to stand up for us. It was only brought up right at the last minute and it was passed – that would have been 1986, the first year the Land Army marched. Even though I had served in the WAAAF by then, I was asked to carry one of their banners.

"I think it is very good that women will now be marching at the front and I think it is about time.  I believe they will be taking them in golf buggies or taxis because so many can't walk now."

Mrs de Emden and Jack have put their names down to go with others from the veterans' village in a fleet of taxis.

"I am hoping to go in the march and that will make me very happy. It's about time women were at the front."