Vicki La Prairie, who was a visual signaller during the war, was asked to signal once again for the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City on June 1, 2008.Vicki La Prairie
Vicki La Prairie (third from left) walking with other military women while on leave in Los Angeles, California, United States of America, 1945.Vicki La Prairie
Vicki LaPrairie's image was used on panels at the Naval Museum of Quebec to promote the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City in 2008.Vicki LaPrairie
Vicki LaPrairie's image (of her as a visual signaller during the war) was used on panels at the Naval Museum of Quebec to promote the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City in 2008.Vicki LaPrairie
"I was told, the people were so riveted, it was like watching a ping pong game. They’d look at the signaler on the ship coming in and they’d look at the little Wren, yours truly, and they were just fascinated."
Our [Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service] basic training was at [HMCS] Galt and we were very well trained there. And then we were sent by train, the visual signalers, to the [Royal] Canadian Naval Signal
School in [HMCS] St. Hyacinthe, Quebec, where I have nothing but admiration for the instructors I had and the marvelous, marvelous training we received at that signal school. Every day, bad weather or good, we were out learning. And our muscles of our eyes were, I’ve told this several times, it was such a strain on our eyes. And this was, they started us at the basic speed of reading Morse Code and then every week, they’d up the speed. And when they upped the speed, our eyes would pour with water, it was such a strain. And we’d just get trained at that speed and it was upped again.
But finally when we reached the perfect speed, and why did we have to have such strong muscles? Because we had to read Morse Code at such a rapid pace at a great distance on ships. But we were so well trained that we were totally confident when we left the signal school. And, of course, it was semaphore [system of flag signals], we had to know the whole fleet signal book off by heart. We had to, by telescope, be able to identify different flags on different ships. We were beautifully trained.
Well the first posting was in Halifax. And I could tell you about two things. People ask you, are there any highlights? Well, there definitely were. And I was in a hurricane. There were always two of us on watch, one to signal, the other to write down or give us the messages, what we had to send. And anyway, this hurricane, a freezing rain came and one of us had to go up, climb up a ladder, onto the flat roof above our tower. Our tower, of course, we didn’t signal from the tower, we were always outdoors. But that was the refuge, you know, we could take in bad weather, between signaling. And so I volunteered to go up. And, of course, I was in my bell-bottom trousers, sheepskin, fur-lined mitts and it was in December; and I got up there and the rain was freezing on my eyelashes. I had to keep taking the ice off my eyelashes and there were five ships trying to signal to me. And how did we get the message? I had to signal, answer the signals and say, so that the other Wren could write down what the ships were signaling to me. And there was a voice pipe and as fast as I would shout what I was reading, she’d say, repeat, repeat ̶ the wind was taking my voice right out. But anyway, five ships collided in harbour because they broke their smaller ships; they broke the ropes that were tying them to the jetty [landing pier]. It was a dreadful, dreadful night.
The biggest ship that ever entered the harbour at that date, hove into view. It was an afternoon and there’s a saying in the navy, loose lips sink ships. So nobody ever talked about it out loud but some, I don’t know how it happened, but every rooftop in Dartmouth across from Halifax seemed to be, I didn’t know that, I found, because a signaler, the job is you’re riveted to the signaler onboard the ship. I heard after. So I see this ship and I happened to be outdoor, it was my turn to take it. So I give the signal and rapid fire, I literally drew that ship in and told it where it was going to anchor. Because how does a ship coming from an ocean know where it’s going to dock? So that’s what part of our job was, to … And it was top secret work. Nobody was allowed in our tower and we had a map, we knew every ship in the harbour, when they came in, when they went.
So there I was, and apparently I was told, the people were so riveted, it was like watching a ping pong game. They’d look at the signaler on the ship coming in and they’d look at the little Wren, yours truly, and they were just fascinated. They didn’t know what they were seeing but just, it was because of the size of the ship. And unknown to me, one of my instructors was onboard that ship; and he was looking through a telescope to see if he’d recognize one of his pupils and he did. And when they docked, he later on came onboard. And there were three submarines that they’d managed to catch, German submarines, down below our tower docked and he asked us, he said he’d like to take us onboard. So I didn’t, no matter what side of the war they were on, a submarine is a terrible place to be. It’s so cramped. But anyway, I will never forget being out there with taking this signal from this immense ship; and it was a beautiful afternoon. So those are two highlights in my life as a Wren.
Interview date: 8 November 2010