Loves lost

War kills.

Bereft lovers must decide how they will proceed—alone, or with new partners.

Finding someone new can be challenging enough, but the phantom of a dead hero whom ‘age shall not weary’ has doomed many post-war relationships.

Their marriage was very happy, but each retained keepsakes of their former lives.

  • Signalwoman Merle Downie spotted her sweetheart, Private Robert ‘Bob’ James, when the ‘Glorious 9th’ Division—heroes of Tobruk and El Alamein—made their victory march through Melbourne on 31 March 1943. Merle ran alongside Bob for the length of Swanston Street and—at a rendezvous later that evening—determined they would one day marry.

    A year later Bob James was in New Guinea trudging through torrential rain towards a RAAF signals tower. In his hat, three eggs—a bribe for the signal’s telegraphist. At RAAF headquarters, Melbourne, Signalwoman Merle Downie received a telegram which read: ‘Yes or No?’ Merle replied: ‘Not on duty’. A few hours later, Bob repeated his question. Merle’s answer? ‘Wait.’

    Bob and Merle married at Toorak Presbyterian Church on 6 January 1945. Their marriage lasted the rest of their lives and was very happy, but each retained keepsakes of their former lives. A prayer card addressed to Bob from ‘Minnie’ was a treasured keepsake from his time in the Middle East. Merle, meanwhile, kept a stack of letters from boyfriends along with a note explaining the tragic fate of each.

    Related objects:

    • Bob and Merle's lost loves

Bob and Merle's lost loves


Wedding photograph 6 January 1945
Private Robert James and Aircraftwoman Merle James (nee Downie)

Love letters 1945–46
exchanged between Private Robert and Aircraftwoman Merle James (nee Downie)

Kodak Box Brownie camera c 1940
belonging to Private Robert James

Gilt framed portrait 1943
Aircraftwoman Merle James (nee Downie)

Private Robert James’ dugout ‘Shrapnel Shanty’ 1941
Tobruk, Libya

Personalised wallet and prayer card signed by ‘Minnie’ 1941
belonging to Robert James

Identity discs, RAAF pin and General Service Badge 1942 – 45
belonging to Aircraftwoman Merle Downie

Sixteen letters from Merle Downie's boyfriends 1942 – 45
belonging to Aircraftwoman Merle Downie

Pin with the motto ‘AMOR VINCIT OMNIA’ (Love conquers all)
belonging to Aircraftwoman Merle Downie

Group portrait of War Widows Guild members, c 1950

Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


Major-General George Vasey’s death in an air crash near Cairns, Queensland, on 5 March 1945, spurred his wife Jessie to advocate on behalf of other war widows. Founding the War Widows’ Guild of Australia on 22 November 1945, Jessie Vasey achieved an increase in the war widows’ pension and other benefits, such as free public transport and allowances for children.

The Guild established a nationwide housing auxiliary to support ill and elderly war widows and organised craft groups to keep members happy and engaged. The symbol of the Guild is the kookaburra—an industrious and cheerful bird who mates for life, is fearless and aggressive in the defence of its young.

War Widows Guild bus pass


Mothers' and Widows' badge, 1919


Reviewed 11 February 2022