WWII digger and penfriend fell in love via letters, now students keep tradition alive


April 24, 2019 15:08:38

Like a page straight out of a romance novel, Rodrick and Ella Gowan’s love story began when a teenage girl sent a postcard to a young Australian digger serving his country overseas in WWII.

She was a gregarious 16-year-old who began writing to soldiers as part of a school project in Launceston in 1940.

He was a reserved 18-year-old sergeant, serving in New Guinea as an army signaller.

While they were thousands of kilometres apart, the pair developed a strong bond through the written word.

That bond would see the digger make it his mission upon his return to meet the girl who wrote to him.

Their daughter, Carmel Torenius, said what began as a simple exchange of letters between fellow Tasmanians, quickly became a love affair that would last a lifetime.

“The girls would write to the boys overseas — and in those days, they put their name and address — and my mother’s postcard found its way to my father,” she said.

“He must have corresponded back, and they must have written to each other for a couple of years while he was over there until he returned after getting sick with malaria.”

Ms Torenius said once her father had recovered, he went searching for her mother.

“He was a very reserved gentleman, so it surprised our family that he had the nerve to find her and meet her,” she said.

“Obviously he did, and it was love at first sight. They then got married and had five beautiful kids.”

Students carrying on the tradition

It was a time when a postcard from home was priceless, with letters the only means of communication between homesick soldiers and their loved ones.

The public was encouraged to write to servicemen to keep their spirits high over years of gruelling wartime.

Now, more than a century since the initiative began in WWI, a Tasmanian high school has reignited the tradition.

As part of a project with the Sorell History Society, students at Sorell School have written more than 1,000 postcards to troops serving overseas, which should arrive in time for Anzac Day.

Society president Graeme Evans said the latest letter-writing campaign was rooted in strong tradition.

“Back during the world wars, they had a terrible time with artillery — being fired at a lot, and a lot of their mates would’ve been killed or wounded,” he said.

“They’ve been lucky enough to still be alive, and to receive something from home would’ve meant a lot.”

He said the letters were signed by students of all ages, with messages of encouragement, hope and thanks.

“I’m sure getting something like a postcard from someone who is in school would be really big for them,” he said.

“They [the troops] are away from home, away for Anzac Day, a lot of them are away for birthdays and Christmas and they’d be missing their family and friends.”

Writing letters a ‘dying art’

Sorell School teacher Mel Symmons said while snail mail might have become less popular in the digital age, she hoped a letter would be as meaningful for today’s troops as it was during the world wars.

“I have siblings who have all served in the Defence Force, and I know how important it is to receive messages from home — particularly letter-writing which is a bit of a dying art at the moment,” she said.

“Some students were even interested in finding out who would receive them, so they could address the envelope because it’s not common to do anymore.”

Student Joe Birch said he was keen to show his appreciation to servicemen and women and thank them for their sacrifice.

“I think the diggers will feel grateful to receive a postcard to show we’re appreciative of what they’ve done and are continuously doing to keep us protected,” he said.

Some of the postcards are on display at the Sorell RSL.












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1 Comment on "WWII digger and penfriend fell in love via letters, now students keep tradition alive"

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