War years changed women, society
A small-town girl from Huntsville, Ontario, she joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) at 18 in July 1942. Two and a half years later, after postings in Canada and England, she arrived in Antwerp to begin working as a postal clerk in the living room of a commandeered house.
Within several weeks, a silent Luftwaffe buzz bomb destroyed a nearby building. As Armstrong helped evacuate people from the rapidly flooding basement, a panicked civilian mistook her for a Nazi soldier and attacked. Fortunately, a passing pair of servicemen pulled the hysterical man off her.
“If it hadn’t been for those two English sailors, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you,” reflects Armstrong, 79, who now lives in Saanichton, British Columbia.
But her war experience had positive aspects as well. On a combined sick and annual leave after the bombing, the talented amateur artist was able to spend two weeks studying at the world-renowned École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
For many other Canadian women who spent the war years at the front or at home in factories or on farms, the war years were a similar mixture of horrible lows and marveous highs. And that crucible of intense experiences forever changed their attitudes and, indeed, those of society at large.
A few people thought females who signed up for military service were “camp followers,” acknowledges Orpha (Peggy) Galloway of Gladstone, Manitoba, whose book Women of the War Years tells the stories of almost 200 Canadian women. Fortunately, those opinions were in the minority. Most people wholeheartedly supported women’s efforts to help on the home front and in service.
“I can’t recall anyone … ever saying anything derogatory about it,” says Galloway, 74. “Everyone’s aim was to help the war effort.”
Galloway spent the war years on her family’s farm, milking 28 cows and taking on other duties formerly handled by her brother, who was serving with the 12th Manitoba Dragoons.
“Believe me, I would have preferred to be where the action was!” she admits. However, she didn’t resent staying home because she was proud to be helping the war effort.
Irene Fedell (DiPiero) echoes that sentiment. She worked at the Canada Car and Foundry Company plant in Fort William (now Thunder Bay), Ontario, for four years, welding pieces of Hawker Hurricane aircraft.
While juggling shifts at the plant, she also cared for her ill mother. But, she says, “It was such an honour. And it was not work, it was pleasure because you were doing something for your country.”
In support of the war effort, women took on roles that their mothers never dreamed of pursuing.
“In those days, women were just supposed to stay home, cook and have children,” remembers Fedell, 81, who still lives in Thunder Bay.
The war expanded those boundaries. In taking on non-traditional tasks, women developed confidence in their abilities and a sense that they could contribute to society in other ways than the role of wife and mother.
“We learned a lot, we were very good at it,” says Fedell. “Without us, they couldn’t have built planes.”
Work at the Fort William aircraft plant wasn’t easy. Canada Car operated around the clock and, on the night shift, Fedell used to rub her wrists on the water cooler to stay awake. Throughout her shift, she inhaled gases from the acetylene torches.
In addition, some of the male employees weren’t keen about working with women-to put it mildly. One of them used to block the women welders when they tried to get to the time clock to punch out for the day. To teach him who he was dealing with, Fedell welded his lunch pail to a worktop.
“The whistle goes, and we’re ready to punch out, and he went to grab his lunch pail, and he made three somersaults and landed,” she recalls, the glee still evident in her voice more than half a century later. “He never bothered us afterward.”
However, many men, both in and out of the services, appreciated the women’s efforts and treated them respectfully. Part of that respect may have stemmed from the fact that women were going through many of the same deprivations their male colleagues faced.
Jasmine Pocock (Jackson), who served as a wireless operator with the Women’s Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, recalls the unappetizing breakfasts she ate after coming off the night shift: cold baked beans and “coff-tea,” a mysterious beverage that tasted like a mixture of coffee and tea because it was made in poorly cleaned urns.
“And then you had to go to bed for a few hours, because you were back on duty at 12 noon,” adds Pocock, 76, who now lives in Ottawa. “It was just awful. Some of the girls couldn’t take it at all. Made them sick.”
Despite the drawbacks, Pocock enjoyed her RCAF life. And early in the morning of New Year’s Day, 1945, she had an experience that made it really worthwhile.
As usual, she and another wireless operator were monitoring incoming military communications. They listened on headphones-each ear was tuned to a different frequency-while a speaker broadcast a third frequency.
“I heard this very faint little signal,” she remembers. “Just a little tiny crackly thing. And I wondered if it was a mistake. I turned off the other earphone, turned the speaker down — and I heard it again.”
Pocock informed the authorities, who dispatched a rescue team who saved the crew of a downed aircraft. “I was the only operator who’d heard them,” she says with quiet wonder. “I felt, ‘Well, if I’ve done nothing else for the war, I’ve done that.'”
War time romances
Many young women spent the war years eagerly awaiting communications of a different sort. Thora Emery (Mahns) traded letters with her then-boyfriend, Earl Emery, for five years while he was serving overseas.
While he was overseas, she joined the Women’s Royal Canadian Navy Service (WRENS) and was posted to Halifax. On September 9, 1945, a colleague excitedly informed her that Earl was due to arrive on a ship that day.
“I said, ‘No, he isn’t. I’m supposed to get a telegram when he comes home,'” recalls Emery, 78. “He sent the telegram but it never arrived.”
Even though the Nieuw Amsterdam was steaming into port, the officers took Emery out on a small tender to meet the ship. Six weeks later, the Emerys were married in Halifax, the bride adorned in borrowed finery.
Found soldier’s obituary
Their story ended on a cheerful note. But for many other Canadian couples, wartime romances did not have a happy ending.
Manitoban Hazel Moffit (Lang) came to Toronto at age 16 in 1941 to work at the John Inglis Company plant, making Bren guns. One of her roommates was dating a man who was serving overseas, and one night the two girls found his obituary in the evening newspaper.
“I sat with her all night,” she recalls sadly. “We never slept all that night.”
She says that early experience brought her closer to her friends and also made her more self-reliant.
“I’ve always been kind of able to look after myself. And I think that was part of living (in Toronto),” says Moffit, 75, who now lives in Dawson Creek, B.C. “It makes you more independent than always having family to lean on.”
Jasmine Pocock, the RCAF wireless operator, also says that her wartime experiences affected her children to some degree.
“I know it probably shaped me a bit and probably shaped my attitude toward my kids,” she says. “I did say to my girls once or twice, you know, don’t make such a fuss about some little thing. You’ve never danced with somebody one night and the next day, heard they’d died.”
Post war opportunities
But the war also had happier influences, she adds. Pocock returned to her studies at McGill University after the war ended and discerned new electricity in the academic air. Returning veterans were more excited about education, she says, than were their younger colleagues fresh out of high school.
The 1940s also gave women, in particular, a much broader idea of the opportunities available to them.
“A lot went on to things that they had never planned on doing, you know, the writers and the postal clerks and the dental technicians,” says Thora Emery, the former WREN.
“After the war, they had an opportunity to go back to college, which a lot of them wouldn’t have. It made a big difference in everybody’s life.”
Changed society forever
The change in women’s perspectives during the 1940s was one of the reasons Galloway compiled Women of the War Years.
“The book acknowledges the vital role that women played in the war effort-unknowingly, the pioneers of a movement that would see the status of women improve,” she says.
Women’s efforts during the war years changed Canadian society forever. Once people became aware that women could weld planes, drive trucks, decipher codes or save ships at sea, the seed of women’s liberation was planted.
“Attitudes changed–you know, not quickly, but they certainly changed,” says Armstrong, the CWAC who served in Antwerp.
“It was a whole new ball game when everyone came home after the war.”