It’s been 75 years since Joan Sanders Majithia was formally discharged from the Women’s Royal Australian Navy Service, but despite the passage of time she has kept her war time secrets close to her chest, steadfastly honouring the pledge she made when she enlisted.
However, as she celebrates her 100th birthday, the family of the former WRANS Writer have convinced Joan the time is right to reflect on the extraordinary covert role she, and many other women, played during World War II.
“Our work was top secret,” she says from her home in Delhi, India.
“We were very well aware how important secrecy was during the war because it was drummed into us every day.”
Then 23-year-old Joan Sanders joined the war effort in 1944 to ‘do her bit’. The sheep farmers daughter from Victoria’s western districts was full of excitement about the prospect of travel and adventure. However, she ended up serving much closer to home in a role she never imagined.
Talented with numbers, Joan was hand-picked to join a top-secret codebreaking unit known as Monterey, located in an apartment building on Queens Road, St Kilda.
The pretty art-deco building was home to Australia’s version of Bletchley Park, a secret spy unit that was a collaboration between Australian, US and UK Naval forces.
On the outside, the Monterey building looked like a regular apartment block, but inside the apartments had been gutted by American forces to create a series of secret decoding rooms.
A team of 80 women worked around-the-clock in small teams intercepting messages between Japanese command. They would translate the messages and decode them, then alert Allied command as to the Japanese plans.
The unit operated between 1942 and October 1944 and is widely credited for playing a significant role in the allied victories in the Pacific.
“It was very exciting because we all felt we were contributing something special, and of course we swore we wouldn’t tell another soul what we were doing,” Joan says.
“The work was very time consuming and intense, we worked 8-hour shifts, sometimes on the night watch. I liked the night watch because we could get up to a little bit of mischief,” she laughs.
“Nothing bad! But we could do our knitting or chat. During the day there was absolutely no chat and the chatterboxes who got too friendly with the Americans were swiftly taken away. We used to mimic the Americans accents!”
The Monterey codebreakers played a vital role in the Battle of Midway in 1942, their work leading to the destruction of a Japanese convoy of more than 5000 army reinforcements and the death of Japanese Admiral Yamamoto, which proved a devastating blow to Japanese morale.
The women were acutely aware of the threat of Japanese invasion.
“We knew that the Americans would shoot us if the Japanese landed,” Joan says, “because the Americans knew what the Japanese would do to us if they found us and we’d be better off dead.”
It was never a matter of if, but when, young Joan Sanders would follow in her father’s footsteps and serve her nation. Joan was born in India where her father served with the British Army, but the family moved to ‘Lesley Manor’ a prominent sheep station in Victoria’s western districts when she was 18 months old.
Joan was working as a clerical assistant with a chartered accountancy firm when she enlisted in May 1944. She trained at HMS Lonsdale but with her aptitude for numbers and problem solving, she was quickly deployed to Monterey.
“I can still hear the officer shouting to us all ‘pick up your feet now! Stand to attention!’” she smiles. “We were up very early and it was always quite hectic and not a minute was wasted. In winter our hands were blue with the cold.”
Decades on she vividly remembers hearing the news that the war was over.
"There was tremendous celebrations and excitement to think that all of the years of war were finally over."
After end of the war, Joan was visiting an uncle at the Melbourne Club when she was introduced to handsome Indian Air Force fighter pilot Dalip Singh Majithia. Romance instantly blossomed and they married less than a year later on February 18, 1947 at his family’s estate in Gorakhpur.
The couple made a home in Delhi where they raised their two daughters Kiran and Mira.
Dalip Singh Majithia, a highly decorated Squadron Leader who earned a reputation flying a Hawker Hurricane on the Burma front, recently celebrated his 100th birthday too. He is India’s oldest living fighter pilot and still proudly hits 120 golf balls every morning to keep fit.
Many of Joan’s colleagues took the secrets of Monterey to their graves, but in 2010 the veil was lifted when British Prime Minister David Cameron officially acknowledged their efforts.
Those living received a sparkling gold pin with a note that read; ‘The Government wishes to express its deepest gratitude for the vital service you performed during World War 11.’
They were described as the ‘Forgotten Army’.
“We knew what we were doing was important, but we also knew we had to keep quiet,” Joan says. “The mood was always sombre, everyone was terribly involved in doing what they could for the war effort and we had great perspective about what was happening around us, but of course we had fun too. I made some wonderful lifelong friends at Monterey.”
Joan turned 100 in July and enjoyed a small celebration with family, with Covid restrictions, not all of her six grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren could be present but nonetheless she marked the day with style.
“My mother told us about her life in Australia,” says Joan’s daughter Kiran, “We knew the romantic story of her meeting our father and her coming to live in India. She told us she was very happy to have got a job in the Navy office during World War Two, what fun it was and how she had made life-long friends, but that was all she ever said about it. My mother took her vow of secrecy very seriously, even my father knew nothing about what she did during those years. We are very proud of her and my father for the service they gave during the war.”