"I liked being in the CWAC. As I said, if they had kept the girls on, I would have stayed on. I met a lot of good friends, males and females, and a lot of them I’m still friends with."
I grew up in Ottawa [Ontario]. I went to Glebe Collegiate [Institute] and then, from Collegiate, I went to Ottawa Ladies’ College and I went to business school here, in Ottawa. Then, on December 17, 1942, I joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps [CWAC] unbeknownst to my parents.
I was working in the government and my girlfriend, Lois Todd, who is now Lois Hooper, she lived in […] near Richmond, we joined together without even telling either of our parents. We had our medical and we signed up and became Canadian Women Army Corps groups. I was working in the Metropolitan Life Insurance and I went in and gave them my notice and I started in recruiting here in Ottawa. I went to Kitchener [Ontario] in February 1943 and took my basic training.
I wanted to do something because there were a lot of boys that couldn’t go overseas or couldn’t join, so I figured if I was one of the girls, I could release those boys to join up and go overseas. So that’s how I did and I ended up recruiting here in Ottawa.
I enlisted here in Ottawa, had my medical here at 60 Queen Street and then we went out to Kildare Barracks, which is on Laurier [Street]. It’s still there, the building is still there, but it’s not being used as the barracks now. We were fitted out for our uniforms and then I was a member of the CWAC.
I was there until I got out in October 1945, but during the summer months, I was sent out of Ottawa because I had to go out and give speeches to try and entice the men to join the military. I was never sent to talk to the girls. I was always giving speeches to the men from Ottawa, Kingston, Deep River, Renfrew, Pembroke, and speak just to tell them why it was in their interest to join the military--that they would be doing a service for their Country.
Our driver in the jeep would come and pick me up. I was living in barracks until it was decided that-- my colonel said, “You’re leaving at different hours of the day and night. I want you to go out on subsistence.” So I moved back home with my parents and the driver would pick me up and we would either leave early in the morning, afternoon or suppertime and go. And most of the time it was to militia factories or places where they were working for the war effort and sometimes it would be high schools, but not many. I would just get up and introduce myself and say that I am here to try and talk you into joining the military and do your bit for your country. And some of them would come back to me after and say, “Where do we go? Can we join up?” And I would give them the address just where to go. Sometimes there was a recruiting unit in that area, but most of the time, the boys had to come to Ottawa.
Sometimes I had to stay at a hotel because it would be late. And we would come back the next day. Or if I had two or three engagements in that same area, the Colonel figured there was no sense coming all the way back and driving back the next day, you know, especially like Deep River, Pembroke and that way. They were so close that there was no sense coming back and going back up.
And there were three of the girls with me that were in the CWAC. They lived at home with my mother and dad and me too, so we were all good friends. At night, there would be blackouts and you’d have a blackout inspector go around and if your drapes weren’t pulled, you’d get fined. So everybody had to have their drapes pulled so maybe the nights when ... I guess they were just testing the alarm systems and everything, the alarms would go around the city and you knew then to pull your drapes. So, maybe the nights that I was home or my mother and dad were home, we’d have to pull the drapes in the living room.
People would come to my mother’s door at noon and ask for food. Or they would cut the grass or chop wood or something. Well, we didn’t need things like that. My mother would say, “No, I will feed you. Come on into the kitchen.” And they’d say, “No, we’ll sit on the veranda here.” My mother must have been the only one in the neighbourhood and it must have been word of mouth, because she had people there asking for food at least three times a week, and my mother never turned anybody away. I don’t remember, I guess they were thrifty, and they stayed and had the rations or whatever to feed people and my mother was always having people at her house. She was a great entertainer, she loved people and she liked to entertain. In fact, my father used to say, ... “I think you’re doing too much.” But she was one of twelve kids in England, six boys and six girls, so I guess she was brought up that you have a big family, you’re always looking after somebody. So she never turned anybody away. The girls that were there were always looked after pretty good and I can’t say that we had to do without. And if mother knew that somebody didn’t have any food, she’d make up a basket and take it to them.
I liked being in the CWAC. As I said, if they had kept the girls on, I would have stayed on. I met a lot of good friends, males and females, and a lot of them I’m still friends with. I have no complaints except some of the food in the barracks. Of course, that was terrible, but I mean, I guess it was the same all over. But I really enjoyed it and I liked living in barracks. At Kildare Barracks there was, I think, eight of us in the room. We were all in upper and lower bunks and I didn’t mind that. That was my first experience of going into basic training, living with a whole bunch of other girls or other people, because I was always on my own growing up. I mean I was the baby, but I didn’t mind. You got to know girls and you met a lot of nice girls, and some of them I’m sorry, I’ve lost track of. And some of them have died.
Interview with Sergeant Eleanor Cowburn FCWM Oral History Project
George Metcalf Archival Collection
© Canadian War Museum