War Brides

By Carmen Burton, Assistant Curator, Queensland Stories, Queensland Museum

Women’s experiences of war are an important part of the ANZAC Day commemorations and traditions. Their stories reshape how we might understand the experience of living through conflict. This year for ANZAC Day, we are honouring and acknowledging the contribution of the young women who were married during these periods of history by sharing a 1940s white wedding dress from the museum’s collection that belonged to a Second World War bride from Queensland. The dress tells the story of Dorothy Carley, a young woman from Ipswich who found herself embarking on a new life as a married woman in a foreign country on ANZAC Day, six months after the end of the Second World War.

It was Sunday roast in Rockhampton and love at first sight

In August 1944, a young 20-year-old Dorothy Tomkins from Ipswich received an invitation to spend the school holidays together with her girlfriend in Ipswich. The Second World War was not yet over and Queensland was still an allied staging-zone for conflict in the South-West Pacific. By this time, over two million Allied troops had entered Queensland for various reasons, such as to await deployment to combat operations, for rest, convalescing or furlough. Many of the troops were Americans operating military bases concentrated around Brisbane, Rockhampton and Townsville.

Dorothy’s friend lived in the local fire station residence and had just become engaged to an American serviceman. During the war, the fire station in Rockhampton had become a site of hospitality and fraternisation where many Sunday tea and roasts were held for American Army troops stationed there. This is where Dorothy met her future husband, John Carley.

For two weeks during the school holidays, John and Dorothy were companions and according to Dorothy, their meeting was ‘love at first sight’. Dorothy recalls John taking her out each afternoon in a borrowed American Army jeep where they would drive to the beach – these romantic dates and the military jeep made quite an impression on her.

After this fateful meeting however, Dorothy returned to teaching and studying and John returned to war-service. The couple kept in touch through letter writing. In December that year, while John was on leave in Rockhampton, and unbeknownst to Dorothy, he asked Dorothy’s father for permission to marry his daughter and by Christmas, the couple were engaged.

During this period, many young Australian women faced extraordinary obstacles from authorities in regards to their relationships with American servicemen. There were regulations surrounding marriage between Australians and Americans. Relationships were cautioned and actively discouraged, while marriage which required permission from a bridegroom’s Commanding Officer, often took months for paperwork to be complete. Twelve months had passed before John and Dorothy able to be wed.  John, who was on leave in the Philippines, purchased a white lace frock and soon after, arrived in Ipswich where he and Dorothy were hastily married in three days.

Dorothy’s mother’s friend, who was known in the family as ‘Aunty’ Mollie Greenhorn, swiftly sewed an underdress for the lace frock along with two dresses for Dorothy’s bridesmaids, somehow sourcing enough materials despite the fact that clothing and fabric were not easily accessible due to wartime rationing and restrictions.

Wedding Bells

Dorothy and John tied the knot on 7th July in 1945, at St Stephens Presbyterian Church in Ipswich. Their wedding reception, a home catered event, was held at Dorothy’s parents home and arranged by Dorothy’s mother. According to Dorothy, a friend of her mother’s, Mrs Harvey, who sat across the table from her, was not at all impressed at the fact she had married an American. Throughout the war, there was a growing uneasiness in Queensland towards Americans because of a social perception that American extravagance, amongst many other things was inappropriate during a time of severe austerity.  

Dorothy and John spent their honeymoon in Port Macquarie. Afterwards John returned to war duties while Dorothy stayed with her parents in Ipswich where she waited for that moment when the war was finally over and she could be reunited with her new husband.  For many war brides, this period of waiting months and sometimes years, led to mixed feelings of anxiety, hope and frustration around an uncertain future.

Dorothy and John Carley on their wedding day with their bridal party, July 1945. Image Courtesy of the Carley Family.

A long wait and a journey across the Pacific

After the war ended, Australian war-brides were relieved when the US War Brides Act was introduced in December 1945, waiving all visa requirements and provisions of immigration law. Australian war-brides were finally granted entry into the US and although this generated much excitement, an underlying level of apprehension continued as they now sought the challenge of finding suitable passageway for their safe transportation across the Pacific Ocean to America, their new home. These Australian war brides became the largest contingent of women to ever be transported around the world.

This was an exciting time for Dorothy, now a married woman, to be able to plan the next journey of her life where she could be reunited with her loved one albeit, in a country where she had never been before, away from family and close friends. On 11th April 1946 in Brisbane, Dorothy boarded the ‘SS Mariposa’, a refitted luxury cruise ship with 700 other Australian war brides to travel across the Pacific Ocean. The women arrived in San Francisco, California on ANZAC Day in 1946. Dorothy then travelled on a train to the east coast arriving in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where her husband John and his family resided.

Dorothy on board the ‘SS Mariposa’ before it departed from Brisbane, 1946. Image Courtesy of Pam Campbell.
John and Dorothy Carley at Mt Vernon, Virginia, USA in July 1946. Image Courtesy of Pam Campbell.

Global Recognition of War Brides on ANZAC Day 2007

In 2007, war-brides were internationally recognised as ambassadors for positive inter-country relations at a reception held at the Australian embassy in Washington DC. Their stories became a special focus for the 2007 ANZAC Day commemorations with their individual journeys and experiences honoured as an official contribution to war history.

Reflecting on the story of war brides on ANZAC Day 2021

Although the experiences of war-brides is varied and diverse, Dorothy’s story reflects courage and hope in a world of ongoing uncertainty – common themes that many war-brides would relate to.  The arrival of the ‘SS Mariposa’ carrying over 700 Australian war brides who arrived in America – their new home – on ANZAC Day 1946 is symbolic of the meaning of ANZAC Day – a day based in acknowledging a past that is entwined in hopes for a better future. The ANZAC Day commemorations in 2007 reinforced the significance of the day for war brides as their contributions to war history were fully realised and acknowledged.

Dorothy Carley’s dress on display at our recent exhibition I Do! Wedding Stories from Queensland in 2021.
Image of Dorothy’s wedding dress in detail showing the front bodice with outer lace and underdress. Dorothy’s dress is one of many objects held in the Queensland Museum Collection.

Further Reading:  Ray Evans (2007) A History of Queensland, Cambridge University Press; Robyn Arrowsmith (2013) All the way to the USA, Australian WWII War Brides.