Browsing through some old papers the other day, I came across a perspex swan. It’s the type of pretty, purposeless object that attracts a child and in fact fits neatly into a child’s hand. I held it often as I explored my mother’s dressing table and examined her trinkets.
However, it was a group of letters that attracted me the other day, rather than the swan, and I immediately remembered the connection. There are about a dozen letters. Some written by my father – to his new wife, his parents and siblings. Some from them to him.
“We are making a few souvenirs from parts of a Jap Zero that was brought down near here,” my father wrote from Milne Bay in September 1942. In a later letter he described “a lovely little broach” he was making from part of a plane’s windscreen, “a boomerang with a kangaroo on top”. He encouraged his sisters to send descriptions or drawings of what they wanted, it didn’t matter how difficult, hard ones were more interesting, he said. I began to remember not just perspex objects but more impressive ones – especially planes made of brass.
You could tell my father was proud of his creations. One item he had promised to a sister, he decided not to post, in case it got lost. Imagine! He thought it was safer in a war zone than in the post! “The boys say it is the best souvenir so far,” he reported. Made from brass casings, it was an ashtray with a matchbox holder attached and a plane on a stand, embedded in the ashtray. The plane swung around as did the propellers. I know the details of it because he included drawings. I also remember it, vaguely. He did two similar souvenirs, one representing a Kitty Hawk, the other a Beaufort Bomber.
A little research made me realise there was quite an industry at Milne Bay in 1942 and 1943 – making souvenirs and keepsakes from Zeros. The men serving in armoured corps workshops, as my father did, were at the centre of the industry because they had access to tools. To make broaches, rings, bracelets and lockets, they filed pieces of perspex into particular shapes and sometimes inset them with specks of shell. They used a drill, an iron press and a flame to embed a metal fastener. Then they polished the trinket with emery paper (or a piece of cloth lubricated with oil and fine sand) in order burnish every scratch. Perhaps they engraved it before posting it home to wives and girlfriends.
It became a minor craze – making, collecting and selling these items. Some shrewd soldiers got in on the act by spruiking for the makers and so earning a commission. I know my father made quite a number of objects but it’s too late to ask whether he made any money.
I should think the main benefit was relief from boredom. They might have experienced some hairy times up there at Milne Bay, but a lot of time was spent sitting around.
Those sweetheart souvenirs were probably more important for those back home. Little objects like my swan would have been tangible reminders that their men in the war zone were OK and even engaged in ordinary activities.