When Japan entered World War II, one of the immediate effects was the increased threat level to New Zealand – no longer were we at the “utmost ends of the world” – our country was now a front line target. With so many Kiwi men still serving with the military in Europe, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs) set about manning the coastal and anti-air defences of the New Zealand homeland. Their appointed Chief Commander was Lieutenant Colonel Vida Jowett.
Vida Jowett had an active career leading up to her appointment in the WAACs; she first served as Secretary of the Samoa Patriotic Society from 1917-1918, then after moving to live in Wellington, became involved with the Royal New Zealand Society for the Health of Women and Children (which is now known as Plunket). She established the Eastbourne sub-branch and later became President of the Wellington branch. She was also a member of the Dominion Council.
In 1940, she also helped to set up Woman’s War Service Auxillary (WWSA); a civilian organisation with official status to liaise between women’s organisations and government departments. It recruited women to work in military camps throughout New Zealand as clerks, cooks, waitresses, and it helped to select women to work in the service clubs in the Middle East.
When the army accepted women into its ranks in July 1942, Vida Jowett’s efforts as an administrator were recognised with her appointment as Chief Commander. These newly employed women served as drivers, radio operators, signallers, welfare, and clerical workers, as well as in the defence of the country. In total, 5000 woman served in the unit and 17 are officially listed as died on active service. The WAACs became part of the NZ Army in 1948. In 1944, Jowett was appointed an Officer of the British Empire (OBE, Military Issue). To mark the occasion her portrait was painted by the official army artist, Peter McIntyre.
Perhaps the greatest tribute to the work of the WAAC and Lt. Col. Vida Jowett was the retention and integration of women into the New Zealand Army after the war. Today nearly 2000 women serve in the Armed Services and represent New Zealand across the globe as part of all New Zealand Military Operations.
Lt. Col. Vida Jowett’s medals are on display in the National Army Museum’s Medal Repository, and her portrait was on display during the Service and Sacrifice exhibition (now closed).