Every army has them and they are usually called camp followers. The ladies of the night perform a vital function that is often overlooked in history books, which tells you a lot about the people who write the books because there’s no shortage of information. It’s not hard to find, as I discovered when I agreed to help with an oral history project to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea.
Oral history is what you learn by talking to old people about what they did when they were young. It is important because it records things that don’t get written down when they happen … sometimes for good reasons. The oral historians who recruited me to their team were professionals with academic reputations to defend. I had nothing to defend and didn’t share their inhibitions about delving in murky corners.
The Battle of the Coral Sea was fought in 1942 from bases in northern Australia. Tens of thousands of virile, young American troops flooded into a region from which most women and children had been evacuated. Not surprisingly, they found themselves desperately short of female company.
The academics lacked my sort of contacts. While they were interviewing former mayors and church leaders, I got talking to the father of one of my diving mates. He was a police officer in 1942, aged twenty-four and based in Townsville, which was the main garrison city at the time.
He told me about the Curtin Express. I’d heard the name before and thought it was some sort of coffee shop. The truth was far more interesting. The name referred to a train authorised by Prime Minister John Curtin, in 1942, to solve the problem of loneliness amongst the troop. The Mob (Aussie for organised crime) lent a hand and passed round the word that a train would leave Melbourne on a certain day and travel north to Townsville. Any female person could travel free of charge.
The train became known as the Curtin Express and the ladies who travelled on it were called Curtin girls. I interviewed some and was told about others. One was a formidable woman who used the proceeds of her wartime endeavours to found a business empire.
That was explosive stuff. I’d unearthed information about the murky past of people who had carved out highly respected places for themselves in the post-war years. The academics didn’t want any part in it.
They weren’t interested in the ladies but I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Their remarkable story had to be told in some way, even if that meant casting it as a work of fiction. That’s how my novel The Suitcase was born. It is a mystery thriller set in the recent past (CLICK).