Remembering the war: a child’s view

If you were a child during the Second World War, then you have vivid memories of sugar rationing, adults huddled around the radio listening intently to the news from the front and, in some parts of the country where high security was deemed necessary, black blinds being drawn at dusk.

One community where those memories are particularly strong is the community of Ajax, Ont. That’s because before Ajax was a town, it was the site of a huge munitions plant owned by Defence Industries Limited (D.I.L.) and 600 government-built houses for the plant workers, all carved out of farmland on the edge of Lake Ontario. Known as Dilville, the little community was made up of families who all arrived roughly at the same time so that parents could work at the plant. The war was why they all came, and the war effort was their livelihood.

Moving to town
Marilyn Temple started school the week Germany declared war on the Allies in September 1939. Although she was just five, she remembers coming home from the one-room schoolhouse to the family farm and finding the adults in her life traumatized by the news. “I remember the bg black headlines in the paper. I remember the evening news at 6:30 on the radio. It was brutal.”

Then, three years later, her dad announced that he’d taken a job at the munitions plant being built a few miles west, and he sold the farm so they could all move to Dilville. They were one of the first families to arrive to one of the little bungalows lined up along muddy streets so deeply rutted that parts were covered with boardwalk. Past the houses were the high barbed-wire fences that enclosed the plant itself.

There was a schoolhouse and a community centre and, a year later in 1943, the only store opened. The Ajax Marketeria was one-stop shopping for food, clothing and supplies. “That was our little world, and everything was governed by the D.I.L. whistles and rationing,” she remembers.

Butter, sugar, coffee, meat, soap and gasoline were all rationed. Temple remembers her mother being very strict. “Because my mother had four children, there was no wasting,” she says. “To this day, I can’t put sugar in tea. And I do not have a dryer; my clothes are hung out on the line summer and winter. That was just the way we were brought up.”

Not everything was rationed. Local farm-fresh produce was abundant, and everyone was encouraged to grow a Victory Garden. Temple credits her petite size and glowing good health to the basic but nutritious diet of her early years that included lots of fruits and vegetables.

And the few special treats she did enjoy as a child were the stuff of vivid memories she carries to this day. Asked to describe one, she whispers, “Eskimo Pies.” When her father found out a shipment was coming to the plant, he took the family down to the cafeteria for one. “Oh, that lovely smooth chocolate taste that we had not had for years,” she remembers.

Friendships forever
Geraldine Davidson grew up with Marilyn in Dilville and has a theory that the war years brought children closer together just as it did the adults. Cars were few and far between, and gasoline and rubber were rationed so everyone walked instead of drove. Kids all walked to school, forming fast friendships along the way.

Without cars, the streets were safer and children played outside together – at least until the curfew siren blared at dusk, which was the signal that children were to be off the streets and home. Shortly after curfew, in each house, the black blinds were drawn. Davidson recalls “how we used to run like hell to get home before the curfew.”

“I don’t know what it is,” she says, “but we all remember so much of those days. Maybe because it was a unique time and we all lived so close together.” Even today, her life still centres around the friendships she made as a child growing up in Dilville.

Working – and playing – hard
Local city councillor Joe Dickson – along with his parents and 10 siblings – lived in a four-bedroom wartime house. His strongest memories are of his mother constantly working to keep the house running smoothly. Each kid had one pair of socks — “The darning never stopped,” he recollects.

But as a child, living in a newly built town had its attractions especially in the form of the magnet truck. Because the roads had been constructed quickly using debris along with gravel, they were full of nails and pins and sheet metal. Once a week, a big truck with a magnet on the back drove through town picking up whatever metal had worked its way to the surface to the constant delight of all the small boys. The other joy of Dickson’s childhood was the hours he spent on the local pond, playing hockey with his pals. Hockey players dominated one end of the pond, while the other end was dedicated to skating.

Women in the workforce
Not just families moved to Dilville to work in the war effort. Young single women from across the country were billeted with local families and worked in the munitions plant. Louise Johnson was 21 in November 1942 when she took the train from Saskatoon to work in Dilville. She got a job weighing explosives to be loaded into brass casings.

“I worked on this little guy, the 3.7 shell,” she says pointing to a photograph in a local history book. The shell, an anti-aircraft explosive, was then assembled on another line and measured three and a half feet with a deadly tapered nose cone.

The plant was run with military precision. When the employees, mostly women, arrived, they changed into uniforms and work shoes. The bright plant facilities with gleaming hardwood floors were spotless.

Understandably in a plant where explosives were made, matches and cigarettes were forbidden. “A lot of the girls chewed tobacco because they had this nicotine habit and they had a real tough time making it through eight hours,” Johnson says.

The plant ran four lines 24 hours a day, six days a week. On line three, where Johnson worked, the job was done standing. On night shift, the hours between 4 and 5 a.m. “were deadly.” To keep awake, the girls would tell jokes and sing popular tunes like Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree, The White Cliffs of Dover” and “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” For their work, the women made 44 cents an hour (and men in the plant made 75 cents.)

Johnson met her future husband at the plant, and eventually they settled down in town, moving into the tidy solid wartime bungalow that she had shared with a girlfriend and a family of three during the war years. She lives there still.