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Anzac Day: The pregnancy, the wartime call-up and the love letter thrown from the train

Hawke’s Bay woman Isabella Anderton, young and in love, said goodbye to her husband six times, expecting him to be sent off to serve in World War II.

But after the half-a-dozen times on final leave, when the time came for Charlie Anderton to actually depart and join the war effort in Egypt, there was no time to say goodbye.

Isabella, now 99, would have had no idea he had gone were it not for Charlie’s quick thinking in throwing a letter out of the train as it left the Palmerston North platform, and a healthy dose of luck.

A passerby picked up the heartfelt letter and posted it to Charlie’s wife in true Kiwi spirit.

Shortly after Isa read it, she realised she was pregnant with Charlie’s child.

The war so upended New Zealand society that tales of young women like Isabella’s are common. But what she has always played down is her own involvement in the war effort as a Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) member.

As her pregnancy progressed, the air force veteran left her role at the WAAF headquarters in Ohakea, where she received and dispatched messages to different parts of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and returned to her parents in Waipukurau.

WAAF was formed to enable the RNZAF to release more men for service overseas during World War II.

Within 18 months, the authorities also created a Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps and a Women’s Royal Naval Service.

Serving in the RNZAF for two and a half years, Isa said she was disappointed not to pass the three-year mark.

“That is when you get a medal presented, but I didn’t make it because I fell pregnant with my first child, Ross,” she said.

Unable to contact her husband, who went on to be awarded a Military Medal for his bravery in battle on land, the news of her pregnancy had to wait until his arrival in the Middle East.

The pair’s wartime love story began when courting in Palmerston North while Charlie was stationed at Linton Military Camp and Isa at Ohakea.

After marrying in Waipukurau in June 1943, the couple found it difficult to spend time together, being based at different camps.

“I’d wait for hours at the train station for him to come in and for us to spend time together, sometimes I’d be there until 1am,” Isa said.

Isa never thought she was doing anything out of the norm during the war: “It was a job and I just felt I was doing my part.”

Her daughter Judy MacDonald said Isabella plays down her wartime contribution, like many from the time.

“She has been a master of underplaying herself, but has been the quiet achiever,” she said.

“She has a very pragmatic attitude towards life, which has been a strength for her through the ups and downs.”

While Charlie was serving in Egypt and Italy, working at night in a bulldozer making crossings for the troops, Isa was tending to her sick baby.

“We had the Plunket nurse in those days, who more or less gave up on him, she couldn’t do any more – he didn’t seem to be able to keep the milk down,” Isa said.

“He went into the Karitane Hospital in Whanganui and was a totally different baby when he came out.”

Charlie returned home from war a “changed man”, but Isa had changed too.

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