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The old guard: veterans' news & views.

ON MAY 18, 2005, Minister of Veterans Affairs Albina Guarnieri hosted Celebrations of Canada's Women Veterans as part of Year of the Veteran events scheduled throughout 2005. More than 75 women volunteers from all military service branches attended the event, including members of the Red Cross and currently serving members of the Canadian Forces. As Minister Guarnieri said during the event, "We are here to celebrate our women veterans. They are women of substance, of courage and history." Among the speakers was Helen Rapp and below is an abridged version of her presentation.

This is wonderful event, and I would like to thank our Minister of Veterans Affairs and the staff of the National Arts Centre for a job well done. To gather together so many women veterans who served during WWII is quite a feat. And to give us the opportunity to meet and talk with the young women in our Armed Forces now is an added bonus. We appreciate your efforts very much.

When we think about our wartime service, some 65 years ago now, many of our memories are bittersweet. It was a very sad and frightening time and our lives were drastically changed by the war. Families were torn apart with the men leaving to join the military, boyfriends were leaving and you didn't know if you would ever see them again, or your brothers, fathers or husbands.

It was a very exciting time and the women left behind wanted to do something to help with the war effort. And they did. Over 260,000 women left their homes to work in factories across Canada making planes, trains, guns, tanks, ships, and ammunition. In fact, they took on every and any kind of job that would release a man for active service overseas. And they did a terrific job.

But some of us wanted to do more. And we did. Approximately 50,000 women joined the military when our government finally, in 1941, decided to allow women to serve in our Armed Forces in non-combat positions. The important place of women in the British Armed Forces helped sway the government as did the idea of our taking over jobs held by men who were needed in the rapidly expanding Canadian forces overseas.

Of the 50,000 women who joined the military, some 7,000 women joined the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service--the Wrens. Another 17,000 joined the Royal Canadian Air Force (they were called WDs), while 22,000 women joined the Canadian Women's Army Corps and were referred to as CWACs.

Our terms of service, aside from being in support non-combat positions, were for the "duration of the present conflict plus one year," which meant that some personnel would be kept on to process troops returning from Europe and elsewhere after the war and back into civilian life.

At first the jobs open to us were primarily office work: driving, quartermaster stores, and food services. As we proved our worth, however, the types of jobs open to us expanded. For example, we could become wireless operators, cipher and decoding clerks, vehicle mechanics, photo technicians, and medics, to name just a few. By the end of the war women were working in some 70 trade and non-trade jobs.

Most of us began our military career as privates, went through basic training, had special training courses, and then advanced in rank and trade pay according to where you were and what you did. Our ranks were the same as the men, but we received only two thirds of their pay for similar work; eventually it was raised to 80 per cent. But we did not complain. Our generation accepted the fact we were paid less than men without thinking about it. We were where we wanted to be--in the military. We were ready to go anywhere they wanted to send us. Most, if not all, wanted to go overseas, but of course many of us didn't for various reasons, with the primary one being that your boss did not want to release you and have to train someone else to take your place.

Some 3,000 CWACs did serve outside the country and overseas, mainly in clerical positions. The first group was posted to the Canadian Joint Staff in Washington in 1942. Later that year, 350 members were sent to Canadian military HQs in Britain. As the army present in England grew so did that of the Corps. Eventually, our members served where the army went--into France, Italy, Belgium, and Germany. They and the women who served in the other branches of the military qualified for campaign medals in those theatres of war--just the same as the men.

At the end of the war in 1945, the Canadian government did not foresee the need for women in peacetime armed forces. As a result, the last members of the women's branches of the military were discharged on September 30, 1946.

Many of us would have stayed in if it had been possible, but it wasn't to be. We had other jobs to do now that our armed forces were repatriating our men back home and back into civilian life.

We look back on our years of military service with a great deal of pride and satisfaction and remember the good and fun times and the people we met. We had a job to do and we did it well. We proved to the old military establishment of 1939 in Ottawa, particularly the army, that there was a place in our armed forces for women who wanted to serve their country in that way. We set a precedent that opened the door for you--the next generation--the young women in our Canadian Armed Forces now. And we are very glad to meet you.

Editor Les Peate notes: All too often when we honour our veterans we tend to forget that they are not confined to the male gender. From the ATS girls who manned (womanned?) the ack-ack guns to the housewives who interrupted their routine lives to work in war factories, we could not have done without them. This will be, I hope, the first of a number of tributes to the ladies. God Bless 'Em!
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Author:Peate, Les
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Aug 1, 2005
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