WRAAF’s greatest champion honoured with an OAM

It’s been 70 years since the Women’s Royal Australian Air Force (WRAAF) was founded. Among its first 50 recruits was Shirley McLaren – now a vibrant and determined 89-year-old who has just been awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for her services to the veteran community.

1 April 2021

The WRAAF was established in 1950. Eighteen-year-old Shirley was a physical education teacher holidaying in Byron Bay with five friends when she saw a newspaper ad inviting young women to join. She didn’t hesitate.

‘My friends and I all applied,’ she says. ‘We’d always done everything together – like the Australian Air League. We all went to join the Air Force, but I was the only one who passed the medicals.’

Along with its Army and Navy counterparts, the WRAAF was established to free up serving men to fight in Korea. It was the successor to the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (1941–47), which was set up during the Second World War. 

The WRAAF remained in existence until 1977 when it was absorbed into the mainstream RAAF. The 70th anniversary of its first swearing in of recruits was on 29 January this year.

When Shirley completed basic training she was promoted to corporal and became a drill instructor. That became her role for the next four years, during which time she was promoted to sergeant – the highest non-commissioned rank women could attain (though women could hold be commissioned officers in the WRAAF).

‘It was definitely a full-time job. I was virtually on duty seven days a week. There was no leave for the recruits, so I didn’t leave the barracks either. I was the mother hen. It was often their first time away from home. They felt homesick and couldn’t even sew or wash their clothes.’ 

It was a job she adored.

‘I loved the comradeship of the women. I adored the drill and the phys-ed. It was like being paid for recreation. I had found my niche.’

In 1953, she met Roy McLaren at a dance at the Albert Hall in Canberra when both were stationed at nearby RAAF Fairburn. They were soon engaged and the following year, Roy, an RAAF airframe fitter, was sent to Korea. It was a difficult time for Shirley.

‘I missed him terribly. But when he came back in late 1954, by great good fortune he was posted to RAAF Williamtown [north of Sydney] where I happened to be posted.’

This good fortune lasted precisely three weeks. Shirley’s officer-in-charge told Shirley that she did not think their relationship would last and, presumably to be sure, posted Shirley 1,000 kilometres away to Point Cook near Melbourne.

‘I was not a happy Vegemite,’ says Shirley. 

But the officer was wrong. In 1955, Shirley and Roy were wed. Married women could not serve with the WRAAF so Shirley had to resign. She was as philosophical then as she is now.

‘I knew the rules when I joined. I was brought up in an era that said if there are rules, you obey the rules.’

Fast forward to Christmas Eve 1972. Shirley, Roy (now a warrant officer) and their three young kids were holidaying in Tathra on the NSW south coast. Shirley and Roy took a boat out on the water but on their return, Roy collapsed and died from a heart attack.

By mid-1973, Shirley had relocated her family from Melbourne to Canberra, found work as a preschool assistant and, generally, put her life back together.

‘This is where you come up fighting; you come up very, very strong,’ she says. ‘You have to be to survive.’

RAAF friends provided support, not just then but over the coming decades. It’s one of the reasons her enthusiasm for the WRAAF and RAAF remains undiminished.

‘Lifelong friendships; that’s what the Australian Defence Force is all about. If I was 18 again now, I would join the RAAF. It was a wonderful life and I loved every minute of it. I would encourage anybody to join.’

She remained a preschool assistant for the next 32 years. It stood her in good stead when she was approached to take part in the ABC TV series Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds. It shows Shirley as a very active and inspirational octogenarian.

Over the years, she has made enormous contributions to the veteran community, and remains tirelessly dedicated in her roles with the WRAAF branch of the RAAF Association, the War Widows Guild, Legacy, the Defence Force Welfare Association, among others. 

For years, she successfully fought to ensure that members of the WRAAF were awarded the Australian Defence Medal, which she now wears with enormous pride.

She is also the recipient of an Air Force Gold Commendation award, and had the honour of presenting two medals at the Invictus Games.

In the 2021 Australia Day Honours List, Shirley was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia. Coincidentally, her son Noel, a Navy veteran, received an Australian Fire Service Medal in the same list. They will both be invested with their awards on the same day in May.

‘That absolutely blows my mind,’ says Shirley. 

You can see Shirley in action in Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds on iView, in particular Series 1, Episode 4. The WRAAF website is www.wraaf.org.au.

Group photo of young women in uniform

Shirley (middle, seated) shortly after joining the WRAAF.

Young women marching near plane on tarmac

A diagonal march as part of the first WRAAF passing out parade, RAAF Richmond, NSW.

Young man and woman at dance

Shirley and Roy at the Winter Dance, RAAF Fairbairn, ACT, 1953.

Photo of elderly woman with middle-aged man

Shirley with her son Noel after a surprise ceremony at her retirement village in northern Sydney when she was awarded the Air Force Gold Commendation.