I was 12 when I conducted my first ‘real’ interview.
My Grade 7 teacher had asked the class to find the most interesting person in our lives, ask them a series of questions, record their answers, and share their stories.
I’d heard that my Great Aunt Betty had served in World War II. Eager to learn more, I took my pen and notepad to her Corunna home.
“It was all exciting,” she recalled. “It was 1942. I was 21-years-old.”
Elizabeth Gagen (née Proctor) served in the ASO 2nd class Royal Canadian Air Force, Women’s Division — or “the WD Girls” as she called it — between 1942 and 1946.
“The Canadian Air Force sent me there to be an Administration Clerk,” she told me at the time. “I worked in England and I visited Scotland, Ireland, France and Switzerland.
“I went on a boat trip on the Queen Elizabeth,” she added. “During the time I was there, Canada’s prisoners were being taken home because the war was over.”
Aunt Betty was among more than 17,000 Canadian women to serve in the Women’s Division of the RCAF. Though initially trained for clerical, administrative and support roles, many became parachute riggers, lab assistants and worked in electrical and mechanical trades, according to Veterans Affairs Canada.
Here on the farm, we still have a copy of Great Grandma Jeffrey’s ‘Victory at War’ edition of the London Free Press, dated May 8, 1945.
The headline on page 10 reads: “Women In War — Victory Impossible Without Them.”
“Canadian women became front page news during the war,” wrote F. Beatrice Taylor. “They demanded mobilization and became a part of the army, the navy and the air force. They became a new type of factory worker, fulfilling duties which because of the skill, strength and endurance required, they had not before been thought capable of carrying out.”
Few women in Canada didn’t perform some sort of wartime task. If they didn’t put on a uniform in the CWACS and Wrens and W.D.’s, they worked at machines in war plants or became blood donors, canteen workers and transport drivers, the reporter noted.
“They packed prisoner of war parcels, taught classes, knit socks, rolled bandages, gave lectures, checked prices, drilled like soldiers, studied nutrition, cooked jam for Britain, stitched layettes for bombed babies, collected clothing for destitute people in war torn countries,” she wrote.
Though Alzheimer’s disease eventually robbed much of her memory, Aunt Betty never forgot her enlistment number, which she often recited: WW306996. I still keep a copy of my interview with her.
As we remember Canada’s military contributions this Remembrance Day, may we also remember the women who served in so many different capacities.
As Taylor noted: “These are the spectacular feats which brought womanhood into a new focus under the tragic glare of war.”