Blessed with fortunate life full of love, family, friends

Dawn Flanagan on her 90th birthday with a picture of her in the Air Force.
Dawn Flanagan on her 90th birthday with a picture of her in the Air Force.

DAWN Flanagan says she's enjoyed a fortunate life with plenty of blessings; her family, her friends and beloved pets among them.

Celebrating her 90th birthday at home in Calliope on February 20, the years melted away as Dawn (nee Corporal Kneipp) and two of her closest friends, Olive Jardine and Elsie May Shaul, sat down for a chat about the life they remembered as young women serving in the Australian Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) during the Second World War.

When they met, it was 1944 and the girls were in their early twenties.

They shared a hut at the No. 5 Service Flying Training School for the RAAF in Uranquinty, west of Wagga Wagga in Southern NSW.

Corporal Olive McNeil, as she was known back then, remembered how tough the conditions were for the young women, many of who were living away from the comforts of home for the first time.

"We all lived in an unlined galvanised tin hut. We had to put up hessian curtains because there was nothing covering the windows. The floorboards were bare and it was so cold in winter, if you left your socks on the clothesline overnight, you could snap them in half the next morning," said Olive, who now lives in Sydney with her husband.

It was so hot in summer, the girls took three to four showers a day, and there were terrible dust storms and if the windows weren't closed in time, everything would be covered in a deep blanket of dust.

And when it rained the mud would be almost unbearable.

But the terrible conditions did little to dampen the spirits of the young women and there was plenty of fun to be had.

Including a lot of swearing, according to Olive.

"Some of the girls were swearing and I said - that's enough of that, and I was going to charge them a penny for every time they swore... well, two girls would say, 'here's a shilling's worth'," said Olive.

"They would come and stand in front of me and swear as many words as they could think of... in the end we had a lot of money," she laughed.

"In those days, the shilling was a lot of money. We didn't know what to do with it ... so we decided to give Dawn a party for her 21st birthday."

But when the day came, there was no way to entice Dawn to her surprise party, recalled Elsie May Shaul, now living in Banora Point.

"We didn't know how to get her to the rec hut, so I said there's been a fire in the rec hut, did she want to go and have a look?" said Elsie May.

Fortunately that got her there and the girls were able to present Dawn with her 21st key to happiness, which she still has today.

Dawn says she remembers how wonderful it was to have so many friends around, especially at a time when she was grieving for her fiance, David Gray, a RAAF pilot who had been killed in action overseas.

After the war, the young women were sent home and Dawn returned to Glen Innes where she met her husband Peter Flanagan and raised three children.

"When I came home I was very lonely, I missed all my friends," said Dawn.

"But Peter was a good husband... he had horses and I loved horses... but he died many years ago," she said.

"I've got lots of blessings in my life.

"I like the country life, love birds, and dogs. I'm an animal person."

The friendship between the three women has endured almost 70 years and often great distances, but is still as strong today as it has ever been.

Dawn was born on February 20, 1923 in Glen Innes.

She moved to the Clarence Valley two years ago with her daughter Wendy Gordon to be closer to her other daughter Kerry Flanagan and her grandchildren.

Dawn's uniform is now in the museum at Glen Innes.

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