Jean Claude Fortin, on the right, in EnglandJean Claude Fortin
Jean Claude Fortin, on the left, at a Remembrance Day ceremony.Jean Claude Fortin
"at that time, there had been a plebiscite over conscription and Quebec had voted against it. So the people in Ontario didn’t think very highly of us."
I grew up working in the bakery with my brothers. In my family, we were four generations of bakers. Some of them even went to the United States. At the time, we didn’t have a lot of career choices. The air force represented adventure; travelling, going to Europe. I remember when I heard people talking about Europe, I thought to myself that I would go there one day. So that was how I satisfied my curiosity.
We worked as ground crew. We were assigned to an aircraft and we were responsible for its maintenance. All of the little tasks and inspections we performed, we would note in the log book. We would mark our initials and our name beside the work and maintenance we performed. When we worked on flights, my job included warming up the engines and changing the spark plugs. We often had problems with the spark plugs, because they were radial engines, Pratt & Whitneys.
I left from Halifax; they sent us to New York on the [HMS] Queen Elizabeth. Elizabeth II, I think. It was about nine days at sea. Not quite nine days because we were on 24 hours; there were about thirteen or fourteen thousand of us on the ship And they were loading 24 hours a day; different times and different groups. Because each group did pretty much the same thing, the same work. We had the 20-hour inspections, the 30-hour, the 40-hour, the 50-hour. With the log book, we simply had to fill in what we had to do. One sergeant was in charge of each group of mechanics.
We had recreational activities at the stations where we were as well. There were softball teams, football, things like that. There were also movies to distract us. Every three months, we were allowed two-week leave passes with transport and rations paid. It allowed us to travel to see other cities. I pretty much travelled to all of the main cities. I often went to London because you could always meet up with other Quebecers in London, at the Beaver Club [Canada House]. The English people there were very nice compared to the English-speaking people in Canada. Because, at that time, there had been a plebiscite over conscription and Quebec had voted against it. So the people in Ontario didn’t think very highly of us. When I went to St. Thomas, Ontario, Quebecers weren’t very popular.
At that time, everything was concentrated on the war effort in England. All of the women worked. Some women worked on farms, helping the farmers. Other women worked in factories, most women worked in war factories. It was May 10 or 11, I believe, when the war ended [May 8, 1945]. I was in London on leave for two weeks when it happened. In London, people were in the streets, it was pure joy. I was happy, it had been almost three years that I had been in England; 1943, 1944, 1945. I was eager to go home. I went back to my family, they were very welcoming. I still had my place and I continued to work in the bakery.
Last year, I went to England with my daughter, to the area where I had spent those three years. It had completely changed. The base is now a camp ground, like here in Montmagny [Quebec]. The woman in charge of the camp ground realized that we were Quebecers. She said she receives a lot of Quebecers and she talked to us for a bit. The officers’ hall and the showers are still there, but the runways are gone; you can’t even tell where they were.