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Irene Maria Armstrong

My Service Days During World War II

This story is submitted by Colleen Pidgeon of Head Office in Charlottetown. This text is an extract covering wartime service from an essay prepared by her mother entitled, "My Service Days During and After WW II." Her mother, Irene Maria Armstrong, served in the Women's Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force for approximately two years from June 1944 to August 1946.

"When I was 18 years old in early 1944, I was working for the Department of the Navy doing book corrections. I decided to join the RCAF, Women's Division. After completing the necessary forms and the physical at the Recruiting Office in Ottawa, I was sworn in and told to report to the Recruiting Centre at Rockcliffe the following Friday. I returned to work to tender my resignation. My Director, a member of the Navy during the First World War said, "Oh no, you can't leave us and go to a junior service; you're a traitor!"

I returned to the Recruiting Office to tell my tale of woe. "Hold on a minute," responded the Officer in charge, "Do you have a hat?" He was planning to take me to Parliament Hill; in those days, a woman could not enter the Parliament Buildings without a hat. I had a kerchief to match my dress and he said that would be fine. We took off for Parliament Hill, and he asked me how my father voted. I was too young to vote, and did not know how my father voted. We went to see the Recruiting Officer's Member of Parliament. While I waited in the Secretary's office, the Officer told my story to the Member. He then invited me into his office and asked, "Did the Director call you a traitor for joining up?" "Yes," I replied. "We'll see about that!" was his answer. "You go home, give me your phone number and I will call you before 3 p.m." True to his word, he called with instructions. "Take the afternoon off and submit your resignation seven days hence. No discussions, and any hassle, call me." He wondered if I would be better off joining. I had a $56 a month take-home pay at my government job which I was giving up for room and board, a uniform, and $0.90 a day to become a WD (Women Department) in the RCAF.

I reported to Rockcliffe one week later in June 1944. Another recruit from Ottawa that day, Ethel Coombs, was my bunk mate at Rockcliffe. (We have remained friends and recently enjoyed ourselves at the latest WD Reunion in July 1998 in St. John's, Newfoundland). After basic training, my chosen trade was Hospital Assistant, a forerunner to today's Nursing Assistant. I was posted to St. Thomas, Ontario, to the Technical Training School (TTS)., an establishment built by the Liberal Government of Ontario under Mitch Hepburn as a 250-bed mental hospital. It was not occupied when the Second World War broke out so the Federal Government took it over to be used as a trade school. Everything was undercover so there were 17 miles of corridors, there were bars on all the windows, and the bathrooms were built to suit the needs of mental patients.

We wore our name badges on our uniforms and so I had Armstrong printed clearly on my badge. My introduction to the war-wounded occurred shortly after my arrival at the hospital when a patient was brought in who had been pulled from a burning aircraft in England. He arrived in St. Thomas from Ottawa after a 23-hour journey on a stretcher in the baggage car of a train. I was asked to give him a bath and to make him lunch. His head was bound in a bandage through which I could see a small red mark. He had an arm and a leg in casts, but I could not see his other arm. Was it there? It was. It was attached to his abdomen so that new skin could grow on his fingers. I bathed him where I could and tried to make him comfortable and made him a bowl of soup in our limited kitchen.

I was transferred from the Burn Unit to a ward of Rheumatics and Arthritics so did not see my burn patient. A few weeks later, I went to a movie and this fine-looking fellow said, "Hello, Armstrong." I did not recognize him until I saw the small red mark on his forehead. He teased me and said, "Didn't recognize me with my clothes on?!!" What a wonderful job of reconstruction the doctors had done for my first patient. I worked there for eleven months and have many fond memories of my days in St. Thomas including weekend passes to London, and Louis Armstrong and other big bands playing at the dance hall in Port Stanley.

After D-Day, we received many more wounded patients. They were unhappy young men whose fighting days were over now, and who had to gather their strength to fight their disabilities and get on with their lives. I was on leave when the war ended in Europe. St. Thomas personnel were quickly dispersed and I was posted to Lachine, Quebec, where once again, I was welcoming home troops who required further hospital treatment before being discharged. Some of these were walking patients who could get a day-pass to Montreal. Often I would ask, upon their return, "Did you have a good day?" "Oh, yes," they said, "we went to the Gaiety." One weekend afternoon, I was visiting my aunt and we decided to go to a show. "Let's go to the Gaiety", I said. She dressed in her fur coat and I wore my RCAF uniform for the outing. She was new to Montreal and did not know any more about the Gaiety than I did. It was a Burlesque Theatre complete with a strip show! My aunt and I laughed about that for years. When she could no longer talk, I reminded her of our afternoon and it always made her smile. I never asked those fellows again if they'd had a good afternoon!

In Lachine, we had two shifts to work. One was from 0700 to 1700 while the other was from 1700 to 0700. We could generally split the night shift from 2400 to 0600 with the Duty Nursing Sister. An essential night task was to keep the cook stove going in the kitchen. We would make a big pot of coffee at midnight and at 0300, still in our hospital whites, we put a pail of coal on the fire and hoped it caught and burned well to have a good hot fire when the cooks came in at 0530. You were bound to catch the wrath of the head cook if the fire was not ready!

I went to Trenton, Ontario, from Lachine where, in June 1946, I met my husband. The day I got discharged in August 1946, he gave me a diamond ring. He was staying in the RCAF and, once we were married, I resumed my life in the Service but as a dependant!"

Irene Maria Armstrong
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