Jean Nysen (McKenzie) was the 87th woman inducted into the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) during World War II. Born at sea aboard the TSS Jervis Bay in 1922, Jean’s life story reads like a history book about the Royal Australian Navy, the WRANS and even Australia’s involvement in aeronautics for aeroplanes and spaceflight.
Jean’s father, Donald McKenzie, was a Warrant Officer in the Navy at the time of Jean’s birth. Only nine years prior, on 4 October 1913, Donald sailed into Sydney Harbour on board HMAS Australia, the first time the Royal Australian Navy fleet entered the harbour after King George V had granted the Commonwealth Naval Forces the title of ‘Royal Australian Navy’ in 1911.
He was a Leading Telegraphist on board the flagship, HMAS Australia, a battle cruiser, the only one we ever had. So he was able to enjoy the entrance into Sydney Harbour, which was a great thrill.
In November 1922 Jean’s father and mother (Ella) boarded the TSS Jervis Bay in Sydney.
My father was required to go over to England to do a course with the Royal Navy and my mother was expecting a baby at the time, but they found that there was, one of the bay liners, the new Commonwealth steamers, which was on its maiden voyage out to Australia and they heard there was a very good doctor on board, and so the shipping company then made sure that they had a nurse with midwifery experience. And they boarded the ship, I think it was the 27th of November 1922 and I was born down in the Southern Ocean on the 1st of December, before the ship reached Adelaide. My father went ashore at Adelaide and registered the birth and so my birth certificate reads Semaphore Anchorage Outer Harbour, Adelaide.
Once the ship reached Fremantle Jean was taken ashore and baptised. The ship’s captain suggested they name her after the ship, so she was baptised Jean Jervis McKenzie.
Jean’s younger brother Donal was born during their two years in England and they returned to Australia on board the Jervis Bay in 1925. Jean and her family went back to England, on board the Jervis Bay, in 1927 and then returned again to Australia two years later on board the ship. Jean’s father, however, returned to Australia in 1929 on board the HMAS Canberra. It was the ship’s maiden voyage.
Jean was, to say the least, a well-travelled child. She was also fortunate to have fairly liberal parents who allowed her to participate in many activities that would have been seen as ‘adult’ activities in the 1920s and 1930s. One such event was a flight over Sydney Harbour in 1933.
My father was always an inventor, so he was known as an ideas man. And in the Navy there was a colleague of his called Lieutenant Commander Eric Kingsford-Smith, who was a brother of the famous [Sir] Charles Kingsford-Smith, who was the pilot of the Southern Cross. And he was about to do a trip to New Zealand, so his brother rang my father and said, ‘[?] is going on a trip over to New Zealand. He wants to know if you can think of some way he can drop something from the plane which will float on the water.’ In order to take their bearings or something like that. The word I remember from the age of ten was assess the drift, whatever that is.
He always liked to include me in interesting happenings and so he thought for a while and he said, ‘If you get those very thin bottles that chemists use, scientists and so forth for experiments, and fill those with aluminium powder, drop them from the plane, they should break on impact and leave a patch on the water and you should be able to get a bearing from that.’
So we went out on the Sunday afternoon and I helped them fill the bottles and then eventually we boarded the plane and went off round to sea and all around Sydney Harbour, which was fascinating because I had never been in a plane before and I had never seen Sydney Harbour from up there! And anyhow, I don’t know what went on in the front of the plane because I was in one of the only about two seats in the back anyway. Weren’t even fixed to the ground [floor], you know.
So I was fascinated because I found I could open the window and put my hand out to feel the force of the wind, which was really quite interesting. Anyway, they came back and landed after about half an hour and I found that the idea hadn’t been successful because the glass didn’t break in the flasks. So my father’s next idea was, ‘Well you will just have to get some of those little brown paper bags and put some of the aluminium powder in those, a few pieces of metal so that they will drop, and that should work.’
And as far as I know that’s the way they navigated over to New Zealand the following day.[i]
[i] An article titled ‘Tasman Sea flight: the navigator’s log’ published in the West Australian, Monday 16 January 1933, p. 8, corroborates this story. Article can be found on Trove at: http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/32565656.