Veteran Stories:
Elizabeth Helen West

Air Force

  • Photo of a graduating class from the RCAF Wireless School in Queen Mary Road, Montreal, Quebec. Elizabeth is pictured third from the left in the second row.

    Elizabeth West
  • Elizabeth and some of her friends on the route home. The ambulance they were travelling in had to stop and wait for an emergency case.

    Elizabeth West
  • Photo of Elizabeth and friends during an evening out in St. John's, Newfoundland.

    Elizabeth West
  • Photo of Elizabeth in her air training uniform in Ancienne Lorette, Quebec. She is pictured with her sister- in-law Irene West and her brother Randall .

    Elizabeth West
  • Photo of Elizabeth with her brother Alex and friend, Mrs. Martin in Timmins, Ontario June 1945.

    Elizabeth West
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"If we had really thought it through, we had known very well that two seconds in that water, we’d have been dead anyways. So what would be the difference?"

Transcript

Princess Alice, the King’s aunt, was the patroness of the women’s air force [Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in Britain and the Royal Canadian Air Force, Women's Division (RCAF, WD) in Canada]. And I remember one day, we had to stand out in blazing heat, in full uniform, an hour and a half before she arrived. She was delayed by something. We were standing at ease, not at attention, but everybody was fainting all over the place. And after six weeks at [No. 1 RCAF] Manning Depot [in Toronto, Ontario], those of us who were going to do wireless, and I was selected for wireless because when I had been sent to what is today Ryerson [University], but at that time was Wireless Operational Training School in Toronto. And the girls were put up at a private girl’s school. We’d walk down to Ryerson, have our lessons and we were made into a precision squad, top precision marching. And the sergeant who would give the orders, just whispered them if it was meant for you. You had to be on the QT [had to be quiet] and listening intently all the time in order to get what he was saying. A couple of the girls had nervous breakdowns during that, but that was supposed to be good training for us. And then from Montreal, our actual trade training was on Queen Mary Road in Montreal. And just about opposite the shrine actually, just the shrine [St. Joseph’s Oratory]. And funny thing, in Canada, the women were never invited into people’s homes. The boys were because I suppose they all had daughters. To me, the worst thing about the whole thing was never being in a house in two and a half years I was in the air force. And of course, I was in barracks for two years before that with the [British] Commonwealth Air Training Plan. And I had put down for overseas and I was assigned to dismantle. I wasn’t thrilled about that. I really wanted to get over to England, where you were needed. But I was told that I had to supervise a group of girls going over, Newfoundland girls, who had never been out of the country before. And they had extremely strong accents then. They didn’t have television and there was nothing to homogenize their tones of speech. In fact, I had to go down there to a union convention in Torbay [Newfoundland] once, and we were put up at a wooden hotel, this was on New Year’s Eve that the convention was being held, everybody partied at that time. And we were in a wooden hotel in Gander [Newfoundland] and everybody was hooting and hollering and the fire alarms were going off and I figured it was just pranksters. But in a wooden hotel, you couldn’t tell. But I looked out to see how high the window was above the ground and I figured I could survive if I had to jump out. But I wasn’t going to go out in the hall with all those drunken hooligans there. When we went over to Newfoundland, we boarded our boat, it was in January, full uniform and life preservers on. And freezing cold. Dreadful, dreadful storm. And there were submarines around us, but not ours because I had the red lights showing and I reported the red lights to the officer on the deck and he said, “Oh, that’s just submarines trying to entice us over there.” And we managed to get there, but we had to go quite far south because they were chasing us. And it took us five days to go from Halifax to St. John’s, Newfoundland. So that was quite a delay. And if we had really thought it through, we had known very well that two seconds in that water, we’d have been dead anyways. So what would be the difference?
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