Iris Terry

Aircraftswoman, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF)

“We often worked through the night to ensure the men were fully prepared for combat before they boarded the ships taking them to the front line.”

One of Iris Terry’s favourite perks of being in the Royal Australian Air Force during World War II was seeing Australia from the air.

Pilots, whose planes had been serviced at RAAF Base Richmond, were required to fly a test flight. Often, they would invite one or two servicewomen along for “the joy ride”, Iris explains.

Iris was looking forward to one of these flights on 20 December 1944 but was so busy stitching aircraftmen’s uniforms that day she stayed diligently at her workstation. Two of her closest friends went on the flight instead – and were killed instantly, along with the pilot, when the plane crashed.

Had Iris died that day she would have been 27 – another war statistic. Yet she survived. And in May this year she turned an incredible 103!

“I may be old, but I can still do this,” she says proudly as she performs a spontaneous jig. It may not score high on one of the TV dancing shows but it would certainly make her a crowd favourite because most centenarians are lucky to be standing, let alone so nimble-footed.

Born Iris Pfitzner in Griffith, NSW, in 1917, she and her twin Edna were two of eight siblings. Her father Adolph was a country vet and her mother Isobel was “a woman of infinite practical accomplishments” who taught her daughters the value of sewing and ran a home laundry to supplement the family income during the Depression.

When the Second World War broke out virtually the entire family tried to enlist. But her father, Iris says, was considered too important for the home front and was politely told to stay serving the Griffith agricultural community.

Four of Iris’ siblings, including Edna, joined the Australian Army. Iris was the only one to choose the RAAF, which she joined as an aircraftswoman in April 1944. When asked why she didn’t choose the Army, Iris says “I loved the Air Force, and their uniforms were better”.

Even before Iris left Griffith she was a talented seamstress. During her Air Force career, she and other women stationed at Richmond, had the sole task of providing men on the frontline with beautifully tailored uniforms and whatever other equipment they needed.

“We often worked through the night to ensure the men were fully prepared for combat before they boarded the ships taking them to the front line. The women all formed a close bond and we were often given as little as 24 hours to fit an entire squadron. Which is why losing friends, like the two women killed in the plane crash, was so emotional.”

Once the war was won Iris was expected to return to the Riverina, but she told her parents she was staying in the capital. “I just love Sydney. There is nowhere else like it in the world.”

Soon after being discharged from the RAAF, on 18 December 1945, Iris met Emerson Terry, her future husband. He had been in the Army but was back working as a master builder. They married a year later. Iris wearing a wedding gown made with the help of a friend from Griffith.

Some of the gowns, suits and exquisite outfits she made during her career as a seamstress were worn by judges, barristers, businessmen and even Prime Ministers.

She doesn’t recall the names of her clients now, except one: Paul Keating – “the boy from Bankstown”, who was easily the most fastidious about his suits. Since she never received a complaint from Keating, she presumes he liked “the cut of her cloth”.

She still has the same zest for life. In November last year, Iris took to the stage at Fairfield RSL sub-Branch’s fundraising rock and roll lunch to dance to ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’, popularised by Bill Haley & His Comets in 1955, when Iris was 38. And she’s right: she definitely still has the moves.

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Iris Terry, 2020