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Proud to serve: a wren speaks of her service in the second world war and making a difference.

THE FOLLOWING SPEECH, delivered to Havergal College for girls in Toronto in 1995, has been edited for length and clarity

IT HAS BEEN 50 years since I stood on this platform as head of Frances Ridley House. I can't talk about all of the Second World War in just a few minutes, but I can talk of myself in the war. I am your token veteran.

I came to Havergal in September of 1939, the very month that war was declared. I was 14, full of excitement and patriotism; the whole country was instantly consumed by the war. The Great Depression was over so everybody could get a job.

By Christmas time of 1939, my father and three of my four brothers had gone overseas. British war guests began to arrive at Havergal, sent to the safety of Canada by their parents. They were wicked field hockey players.

At my house on that Christmas Eve, the doorbell rang. A telegram in wartime meant bad news. My mother opened it in terror; the president of Imperial Oil wished her a Merry Christmas in the absence of her son.

By the fourth year of the war my youngest brother had been shot down over Germany. His body washed up on the shores of the Zeider Sea. He was buried in Holland.

Another brother, a naval officer, had two ships sink from underneath him and then was bombed while in hospital. He was invalided out. Afterwards, on the streets of Toronto, he was often asked why he wasn't in uniform. My eldest brother was wounded in Dieppe and taken prisoner.

When I was 18 I joined the Navy. I loved marching in the uniform. When the band played I could have marched all the way to Montreal. Once on parade my silk bloomers fell down. I simply stepped out of them and kept marching.

I was shipped to Quebec to HMCS St. Hyacinthe; it was the largest signals base in the British Empire. After six months of training I was a signaler, a wireless operator who could copy Morse code at over 30 wpm. We practiced eight hours a day.

The food was appalling and we slept 50 to a room in the barracks, but the good news was that there were thousands of sailors and, of course, they could dance. I got my dance training here at Havergal in the Assembly Hall at lunchtime.

Being a Wren was rather like being in school, with rules and regulations and officers telling you what to do. In naval terms, here is a sample: "Plunkett lay aft on the Quarterdeck." That meant you had done something wrong and you were to be paraded before an officer or worse, before the captain of the base. I was paraded seven times.

Then the war really started. I was shipped to Vancouver Island, to HMCS Naden in Victoria. We began our secret work. No one knew what we did and we could not talk about it. We were copying Japanese radio signals transmitted in the Far East.

Our radio station was a wooden hut, in a field surrounded by barbed wire, deep in the country. We had Japanese typewriters, so we could not understand the signals. There were five radio stations on the West Coast between Alaska and California. We sent our messages to Washington by Teletype to be decoded. We worked watches at eight to four, four to twelve and twelve to eight; a week of each as I remember. I believe we were paid $30 per month, and supplied with our uniform and the ghastly food. We felt safe, cared for and vital to the war effort while in uniform.

Well, we know who won, so to end my story I came home, went to university, left to marry an airman who had jumped out of two Spitfires, and lived happily ever after.

May I leave you with a message? I believe that with privilege comes responsibility. Serve your country. There are a thousand ways to make a difference.

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Title Annotation:PERSPECTIVES; speech from a veteran of the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service
Author:O'Brian, Ann
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Article Type:Speech
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Nov 1, 2016
Words:684
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