Unsung ANZAC Hero in Chermside: Malvene Dicker and Her Secret Role in the Vietnam War

Malvene Dicker (nee Cornwell), an 80-year-old former Australian Women’s Air Force teleprinter operator and Chermside West resident, had a vital and top-secret role during the Vietnam War. 

Stationed in the Lower Blue Mountains, Ms Dicker spent about eight months handling sensitive communications from Australian forces in Vietnam. Her work involved processing critical information, ranging from battle strategies to air strike plans, disseminated across Australia’s military network. 

This crucial role was bound by strict secrecy, with severe penalties for any breach.

Women as Teleprinter Operators During the War

In 1941, due to shortages in RAAF ground staff, women were recruited as wireless and teleprinter operators. The Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) was formed to address this issue. The War Cabinet had been considering this since July 1940, but approval was only granted on February 4, 1941, with the Advisory War Council concurring the following day. 

Women's Royal Australian Air Force
Photo Credit: OldTreasuryBuilding.Org

Due to legal uncertainties, women were recruited as auxiliaries on renewable 12-month terms under the Air Force Act. This decision soon prompted other armed services to establish similar women’s units. By October 1944, the WAAAF had expanded to a peak strength of 18,664.

The WAAAF was disbanded in 1947 after World War II. Its role was taken over by the Women’s Royal Australian Air Force (WRAAF), which was established in 1950. The WRAAF continued in operation during the Vietnam War era.

Malven Dicker of the Women's Royal Australian Air Force
Back row L-R:   Richard (Dick) Pick, Jack Spratt, Howard Marsh, Andrew (Shorty) Dearman, Barry Kirwin, Dennis Henstridge, Bob Snedden.
Front Row L-R:   Yvonne (Yogi) Yow Yew, Joan Madson, Betty Harding, Pattie Stout, Carole Martin, Malvene Cornwell, Jenny Finn.
Photo Credit: Radschool.Org

During the Vietnam War, members of the WRAAF were not deployed to Vietnam, but they played critical roles within Australia and at overseas bases where Australian forces were stationed, such as in Malaysia and Singapore. Their contributions included clerical, administrative, and support roles, which were essential to the operations of the Royal Australian Air Force during this period.

Malvene Dicker, Post-Service

Despite the high stakes of her military role, Dicker viewed her contributions as part of a broader effort, a mere cog in the expansive machinery of war. 

Born in Toowoomba a day after the D-Day landing in 1944, the path taken by Malvene Dicker seemed aligned with military service from an early age. Initially working as a copy girl for Brisbane’s Courier Mail, her career took a decisive turn when she joined the Royal Australian Air Force in 1962, training as a teleprint officer at Signals.

Malven Dicker of the Women's Royal Australian Air Force
Photo Credit: Radschool.Org

Post-service, her engagement with a fellow serviceman, who returned profoundly changed from Vietnam, led to a cancelled marriage.

Malven Dicker Chermside West
Photo Credit: Radschool.Org

Dicker then pursued a career as an air hostess, eventually settling down to raise a family that includes two daughters and six grandchildren.

Now residing at the TriCare aged care facility, Dicker reflects on her service with a mixture of pride and disillusionment regarding the Vietnam War, which she regards as a futile conflict. Yet, nearly six decades later, she holds no fear of retribution for her once-classified work, even as she steps back from the physical demands of the Anzac Day march. 

Her life is a tribute to the many Australians whose quiet contributions underpinned historical conflicts with service and sacrifice.

Published 22-April-2024