Olwyn Green

Olwyn Green (nee Warner) was born in Sydney in 1923. She grew up in Ulmarra on the north coast of New South Wales and married Charlie Green in January 1943. Her marriage ended when her husband, Commanding Officer of the Third Division, was killed in the Korean War in November 1950. She struggled to survive this tragedy and built a new life exploring her potential through education. On this journey she began to see her husband’s army career in a new light as she learned about his remarkable achievements. This is her story:

“I met Charlie when I was just 17. I was working in my father’s newsagency in Ulmarra. I had left school early, before I was 14. It was the end of 1939 and the boys who had joined up for the AIF were on final leave. I was working in the shop and this very tall handsome man in officer’s uniform walked in. This was quite a sight for me because I’d never seen anyone in officer’s uniform before. The whole aura of him just took my breath away and I was a nervous little thing who sold him a fountain pen. He walked out of the shop. But two years later I got a letter from him after he’d escaped from Greece and he said that he wrote the letter because he remembered me because the fountain pen came out of Greece with him. So he wrote to me because he still had the fountain pen. He remembered the little girl who sold him the fountain pen.

“We met again when he came home from the Middle East. He was in the 2nd Battalion of the AIF, 6th Division which had been the first division into action in World War II. They were brought home because of the crisis in New Guinea. So they’d come from Ceylon, I think it was August they got home. Charlie contracted typhoid and he was very ill on the way home. He also had, though he didn’t know it at the time, a very swollen foot and that turned out to be a broken toe. Nobody took any notice of the toe because he was so ill with typhoid. The other boys who’d gone from Ulmarra got home ahead of him and I think it was about September before I saw him. I remember I was just 19. My birthday’s in September and he came to see me in the shop where I was working and he took me out to dinner and, a week later we got engaged. It was very quick, but we had been writing for a long time, from 1941, we started writing, from 1941. That was all in 1941/42 so we had a couple of years of letters.

“He couldn’t walk up the Kokoda Track because of his broken toe. His foot swelled to such an extent he couldn’t get a boot on so they sent him back home. He then went as an instructor to a school of tactics and administration in Southport in Queensland. He thought it was a good opportunity to get married. So we married in January 1943 which was about three months later. We had a honeymoon at Tweed Heads and then we went on to the posting at Southport and that was my initiation into being a serviceman’s wife. There were a lot of officers and other ranks. They’re two different cultures really and I was a kid from the country and I wasn’t used to high ranking officers and all the ways of the mess. I felt like a country hick to be quite honest.

“After Southport he went to the Atherton Tableland which meant I went back to Ulmarra. Then he came home for leave and was posted to New Guinea, the Aitape-Wewak Campaign. I think they left late 1944 and not long after he got to New Guinea, he was appointed Commanding Officer of the 2/11 Battalion, which is a West Australian battalion, city of Perth regiment. He was 25 and he commanded a battalion in action in the Aitape-Wewak campaign, which made him the youngest Lieut Colonel to command a battalion in action in World War II. But I was an ignorant kid from the country. It didn’t dawn on me at the time what a remarkable thing it was that a man so young would be doing this. All I was concerned about was his safety and keeping in contact. 

“We wrote daily which brings me to the subject of all those letters we exchanged. I never ever got all the letters I wrote to him back. I never thought to ask him what happened to letters sent to servicemen. But all the letters he wrote me I kept, but after he died, when my life had been turned upside down and I was living in cramped quarters, the letters were stacked in a box in the garage because there was nowhere else to put them. One day, I don’t know what got into me, but I seemed to want to fix up the past and get on with the present and I just put all the letters in a heap and burnt them. And I’ve regretted it ever since, like a moment of madness.

“After the war, he came home. We had great expectations. We both believed in happiness ever after. It wasn’t as simple as that of course. In the first place, there were no houses for returning soldiers. We had difficulty in finding a house and I think he asserted himself to get a little house. Getting a job was another matter. He had been a farmer before he went to the war and it was his plan to become a farmer when he came home and I wasn’t very enthusiastic about that. He got an office job in Grafton, at the Producer’s Distributing Society. It was like a big warehouse where they dealt with produce for farms. He wasn’t happy there. In 1947, I think it was, the 41st Battalion in Lismore was re-raised and he was appointed the Commanding Officer. That was virtually the militia battalion, which he’d been a member of as a junior officer before World War II. He spent only about a year commanding that re-raised battalion when the Army offered him a posting in the Regular Army. And he didn’t tell me. He told me he was going to Sydney to see the Army. Whether they made an offer to him there that he hadn’t foreseen or not, I’m not sure, because they did offer him his rank back if he joined the Regular Army because of his experience. He returned home and he told me he’d joined the Regular Army.

“I was shocked. Stunned. I had a young child, Anthea. It was all a bit overwhelming. I wasn’t in very good shape after the baby was born because I had – we didn’t understand at the time –post- natal depression and I was a bit of a mess. He must have been terribly disappointed in me, I think and he might have been looking for some way to make things better. There wasn’t the joy that we’d anticipated happening in our lives. We still loved each other but we were under pressure. Then I moved down to join him in Seymour in Victoria where he was posted when he joined the Regular Army and we moved into a converted army mess hut. We were as happy as could be – very happy there. It was fun and it was a group of army families living there in these converted huts and we had the task of making them liveable. And there I got a real taste of army wife’s life. Some of it I enjoyed and some of it I didn’t like. We spent a year in Seymour. At the end of that year, he was posted to the Staff College, which is an honour. That’s a course officers do if they’re destined for higher rank of command. Six months into the course at the Staff College, Queenscliff in Victoria, the Korean War broke out. A few weeks after the Australian Army was committed to the war, he was appointed Commanding Officer of the Third Battalion to go to Korea. And that really shocked me. That really shocked me.

“I’ll never forget that day. He came home, and I could tell by the look on his face something big had happened. I think he was aware it would upset me very much. It never occurred to me to think what an honour it was. It indicated great respect for his capability. All I could think about was I was losing my husband, and I might lose him forever. The telegrams were pouring in, congratulating him. All I could think was “What’s going on, why are people congratulating a man that’s going to war?” That’s not my idea of a thing worthy of congratulations. We had only a week, I think. He took me back to Grafton. I went to live with my mother. We had bought a house with his money from the Army. And I had my savings because I’d been working for years. And we put that money into buying a house in Grafton and it was divided into two flats. My mother was living in one side of the house and we had tenants in the other side so I went in to live with my mother in her side of the house. And I’d only been there back four to six weeks, when he was killed in Korea. So there’d been so much change – so many eruptions in my life that it was pretty hard to take all the knocks at the time.

“It is hard to talk about it because I’ve never lost the pain of losing him. The worst part about it all was that I had a premonition he wouldn’t come home. And I’m not too sure that that premonition wasn’t an extraordinary guilt thing already operating in that I felt, after he was killed, he wouldn’t have gone to war if I’d been a bit more supportive and helped him get the farm that he thought that he wanted so badly. A lot of people say, “look he loved the army, he was so good at it, it was wonderful for him.” I can’t be sure of that because in his letters to me – maybe that’s why I burnt them – he used to try and sell me the dream of going on a farm. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted less than going on a farm because I’d spent my youth growing up amongst farmers and all I thought of was milking cows night and morning. And so I had this guilt, if I’d been supportive, he mightn’t have rejoined the Army. 

“His death coincided with the end of my brother’s high school years. He’s 12 years younger than I am. He did his Leaving Certificate year and won a scholarship. My father had then died. So there was only my mother, widowed and my brother was living with her. I had Anthea so we pooled our resources and moved to Sydney. My mother bought the house with the sale of the business that my father had owned before he died. I couldn’t have contributed at the time, because the Army couldn’t find my husband’s will for 12 months. So I did get my pension but I couldn’t settle anything until that will was found. So he was killed in November 1950 and we were installed in Concord in Sydney by the beginning of the University year for my brother to go to University in 1951. He became a civil engineer. He did very well professionally, ended up a professor at an Australian university so we had achieved a lot by the move.

 “When we settled down, I quickly realised I had to get a job. First of all I got a job through Legacy at a firm that an ex-officer that served with my husband was involved with. World War II chaps were all back in their professions and I went there as a shorthand typist. Now I was the worst typist in the world. My shorthand wasn’t too bad, but in those days, if you made an error, you either had to erase it, and they didn’t like erasions in those days, so it meant typing all over again. I thought they hired me on compassionate grounds and I was very very embarrassed about my inability. So then I went for a job working for the sales manager of the Dulux paint factory at Cabarita which was not far from where I lived in Concord. He didn’t know much more about English in those days than I did. Remember I left school when I was 13. So then I thought, there’s no answer for this but to get some education.   

“So I went to Legacy, or Repatriation, I can’t remember which – looking for some means of getting training in something. I went for an interview with a woman at what was then called Technical College. She asked me my details. She said, “Have you got the Intermediate Certificate?” I said “No.” She said “Well, what do you think you can do if you haven’t got the Intermediate Certificate?” I was absolutely devastated. So I came home, I think I stayed awake crying all night and I made up my mind that night that I’d show her what you can do. Then coincidentally, I met a man down the road who was a veteran who said to me “What are you doing?” I said, “I really don’t know what to do, I’m not very well qualified.” He said, “You go to Repatriation department and they’ll pay for you to get an education.” I said, “I haven’t even got the Intermediate Certificate.” He said, “Don’t tell them.” So I went and asked for help to get the Leaving Certificate. They didn’t ask me if I had the Intermediate Certificate and I didn’t tell them. So I went ahead and went to TAFE. That was about 1954 and didn’t get a very good pass but I did pass. Then I went to the Repatriation Department when I finished that and said – Now I want to go to University. They said, “Do you really think you can do University work?” First year, I didn’t do too well. First essay, I put in was in philosophy, the topic was “ethics”. My first essay comments – “absolutely nothing to do with the subject and illiterate.” That was another knock. Somehow or other I got through first year and second year I got a couple of credits. Got through third year, can’t say I got a brilliant pass, but I got through. And so I did get an education of sorts. I graduated in 1958. I wasn’t confident, even though I’d graduated.

“My mother was looking after Anthea. We were all living in the one house. Two bedrooms, there was my mother and grandmother in one room, my daughter and me in another room and my brother was in a sleepout. It was pretty cramped. He was doing well at University. He got a Fulbright Scholarship to go America. 

“I began looking for work. I’d majored in psychology so I thought I wanted to work in that area, but in order to get a job in psychology in those days, you had to have an Honours degree and special post-graduate training. So my first job was a sort of temporary job – psychological assessments of people who are looking for work and helping them work out where they wanted to go and what they’d be suited for. 

“Then I got position in the Child Welfare department as a Field Officer. I had to do 12 months of training on the job with an experienced officer. By the end of the 12 months, I realised I couldn’t go on with that because the work involved supervising delinquent children, taking testimonies from women who wanted their children adopted, mostly unmarried mothers, going into the field and inspecting foster parents’ homes, adopting parents home, writing reports, supervising kids on probation – the seamy side of life. 

“I saw a job advertised for a teacher for English in the Department of Technical Education at Meadowbank. I applied for that and got it. I think I got it because I was a war widow, which isn’t a help when you’re not really capable of doing the job. So we had in-service training but the first few years of doing that job was a nightmare for me, because I wasn’t properly trained to do that work. I finally made it and ended up 25 years with TAFE and rose to Head of Branch, but I was much better at administrative work than I was at teaching. We had to teach a whole range of English. We had to teach it to apprentices and the equivalent to the high-school teaching – short courses preparing students for either, what was then called the Intermediate Certificate or the Leaving Certificate. So it was very basic English for junior apprentices right up to report writing for people who were going into fairly senior positions. It was very very difficult.

“Immediately after I retired I went to Europe and studied French and cooking in Burgundy. I was only 55 and I thought I might get an easy very relaxing kind of job, something to do with food and wine – dreaming again. I had a wonderful time in France. I went to a cooking school, where I learned French and had cooking training from a very accomplished chef. He was also a Chevalier de Tastevin. That means he had all his qualifications in knowing all about wines. 

“I came home in about 1980. I hadn’t been home long and I got a message from Lismore to say that the 41st battalion, the battalion that Charlie had started his army career in, the one that he went back to after he came home from World war II as CO, that they were wanting to build a memorial to him because they’d been looking over his service and realised how extraordinary it was. He’d been a commanding officer in the CMF, the AIF and the Regular Army and they thought this was singularly distinctive. And I thought, golly, 30 years on. That coincided with my enrolling in a course at what was then called the Hawkesbury Agricultural College which is now the University of Western Sydney. They were doing an experimental course in non-directed learning. It was called a Graduate Diploma in Extension. What we did, we all turned up and they put us in a room, just stood there and looked at us and everybody got toey and wondered what was going on. Then they said, “Well, you’re here to work out what you want to do and we’ll help you do it.” And some of them got disgusted and went home. Some of us stayed on and it’s probably one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever done. Then I thought “Well, this thing happening in Grafton. I’ve got to do a project that I’ve got to work out for myself.” I thought, “Well, I’d better find out what it was all about.” I knew nothing about Charlie’s soldiering. So that’s when I began the research for that. When I handed in the project at Hawkesbury, my supervisor said “Why don’t you turn this into a book?” Then I set about doing that. Then I wrote the book and when I finished the book, The Name’s Still Charlie, I thought, I know very little about the Korean War.

“The book was published in 1993. Then I went to the history department at Macquarie University where I was introduced to Professor Duncan Waterson. He said “Go down and enrol.” Even though I hadn’t an honours degree, they accepted me in the Masters Research Degree Course as I wanted to do the research. So I enrolled and I loved it. It was hard work but I loved it. I hadn’t much history training. I was going well, but then I got seriously ill. I must have been in my 70s when I went to Uni. 

“When I went to the University, I realised that I had such a poor background in history. So I spent a lot of time studying history between World War II and the outbreak of the Korean War. That was months of work. My professor was meticulous about research. So I did a lot of background work but there wasn’t much thesis work done. That’s what happened. No wonder I got sick. I didn’t have stress, but I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I didn’t like to proceed while I knew I had groundwork to do. I kept getting side-tracked so I’ve got boxes and boxes of research, going nowhere.

“I was terribly disappointed that I didn’t get my thesis done. I had two cancers, enough to stop me. I’m 80 now and I still have this urge to finish it but I’m running out of time. However, I did get some satisfaction when I went to a book launch one day. One of the directors on the board of the Australia Korea Foundation was present and so were some men from the War Memorial and we got talking and I said “Look, I’ve got all this research I’ve done on the Australians in the Korean War” and I said “I think I ought to put it in the War Memorial.” The director of the Australia Korea Foundation, who was formerly an Ambassador in Korea, said, “Well the Australia Korea Foundation would be happy to help you get this finished.” I said, “Well there’s not much anybody else can do really, except it’s just a matter of getting the work done.” They offered me a bit of secretarial help and they also offered to put the tapes that I’d made on to CDs. It wasn’t before time too because when it came to playing them back, they’d been corrupted quite badly. I worked really hard for about six months and got the majority of the research put into shape. I designed the collection, so that every individual soldier that I’d interviewed had a file of his own with all the documentation that I could possibly collect in his file, pictures, letters, documents, as much as I could get. I think I put about 14 boxes of material in the War Memorial, which is a big collection but I’ve still got about six (6) to do.

“I didn’t want Charlie’s life to be wasted. There’s strongly that aspect to it. Also, once you get the taste for research, it becomes a bit addictive. It’s very enriching work. I think the people who have been interviewed benefit too. I think that certainly there’s a therapeutic element to oral history when men tell their story. The code is that you don’t talk about your war experience but really being able to talk about it is a tremendous relief. A lot of tears, a lot of heartache and allows a bit of pride. They can reflect and say to themselves, you know “I did that.” Yes. I think it’s been beneficial all round, to me and to them.

“It hasn’t relieved my guilt but I certainly understand more of what Charlie achieved. I’ve come to terms with his loss but I can never really be healed of that loss. He was a charming, attractive, wonderful looking man and he was part of me. 

“I’ve got to finish my history collection. I’ll have to make time this year. One doesn’t like to give up having plans and projects. It’s like saying it’s all over. I don’t want to be without a project. It helps to fill the gap. That’s the way I’ve survived. I suppose I’ve sacrificed personal life to a great degree, not altogether. But I’ve had other priorities. I have regrets. I’ve done the best I can to make up for my letting Charlie down, as I see it. I wonder if I’d’ve let him down even more if he’d gone on the farm and I’d gone along, a bitter follower. I don’t know. It’s probable, as the Buddhists say that you only get what you can cope with. I’ve done a lot of reading in Buddhism and I value the teachings that, for example, you only are given what you can handle, can cope with in life. Also the Buddhists teach that everything needs to be regarded as a potential learning experience. You can learn and grow from your experience. There’s something in me that allows me to do that, rather than curling up and giving in.”

  Green, Olwyn. 1993. The Name’s Still Charlie. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press. Olwyn has a Blog – Love and War (Olwyn Green was interviewed in May 2004).
December 2018 – filmmaker Jacques Sheard has used the audio for this interview to make in to a film.  See https://vimeo.com/289815128
Olwyn Green died November 2019.

Below is a tribute from the Australian War Memorial which was posted on her Facebook page shortly after Olwyn died:

Australian War Memorial 

Edna Olwyn Green OAM
21 September 1923 – 27 November 2019

Olwyn Green has long been a source of inspiration and guidance for many of us at the Australian War Memorial, and news of her passing last week has been received with profound sadness.

Olwyn’s contribution to Australia’s military history, particularly in relation to the Korean War, cannot be understated. Following the death of her husband, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Green DSO, in Korea, Olwyn’s journey to understand more about her husband and his service led her to a lifetime of work interviewing veterans, and collecting material relating to the Korean War. The Australian War Memorial became the beneficiary of her vast and meticulously catalogued body of work, known as the Papers of Charles and Olwyn Green (PR00466).

Her work was not only a tribute to her husband, but to the men and women who served during the Korean War. It forms a fitting legacy to her contribution to Australia’s military history.

While Australian veterans of the Korean War have lost one of their champions, Olwyn Green can take much credit for inspiring a generation of historians, researchers, and curators who will continue carrying the torch.