World War II

George Post:  When the war broke out, was this a major calamity in the community? Do you remember a lot of young men joining up to the war effort?

Well, I was a graduate and working in the Operating Room at the time. My sister phoned me up, and said they’d dropped a bomb on Pearl Harbour.  I said “Oh,” I didn’t get the impact of it at the time.  I was quite grown up, and working in the Operating Room at the Vancouver General. When it first broke out, I just remember this now, we had to paint all the windows black in the operating theatres where we were, and we had to stay there the first night. It was absolute folly when I think of it. If they dropped a bomb, all those windows would have shattered us and cut us all to pieces. But we had to stay on duty and sleep there. People were in a bit of a panic. Everybody was on duty all night, for two nights we did that.

George Post: The outbreak of war with Japan then, had a lot more impact in Vancouver than did the outbreak of war in Europe?

Yes, excuse me, I thought you were referring to that. No, the outbreak of war in Europe didn’t have the same impact. I’m sorry, I misunderstood. No, when the war broke out we knew;  there were the reserves, and the people went marching off, and so on.  And my father as Reeve was very involved in raising money for the war effort, and so on. No, that was really quite different. It seemed quite remote at that time, didn’t it. Although people who had been in the Reserves, of course, became active and went over.   I joined up ’43, the war started in ’39, so it wasn’t until some time after that we got involved, of course.

George Post: Did you have brothers who had been in Cadets and were in the military?

Yes, my second eldest brother that was the lawyer. We used to play soldier, that was another one of the games we played, and I was a Red Cross nurse. Yes, I remember that now.  He signed up right away and he was in Vancouver at the Headquarters. He had a bright mind, a good organizer. He told me when I was going overseas, because it came through his desk. He kept on wanting to get overseas, so they sent him to Ottawa, and he never got overseas. And he never forgave me. He said, “You got overseas and I didn’t.” And of course he was good, at Headquarters. And I said, “That’s your problem.”  He was a Captain. He would have had hisMajor, I guess, if he had stayed longer.

George Post: Tell me about your own decision to join up. What brought that about?

Well, it was actually the supervisor in the Operating Room where I was working, she called me in one day.  Miss Jamieson, a great big imposing lady, she scared the bejeezus out of the doctors. She’s the only person that ever could do that. She really controlled that, that was her operating room. And she called me in one day and she said something about, “You must go down and sign up to go.” She said, “I didn’t sign up to go overseas during World War I, and I missed something. I want you to do it, and think about it.” And that was Miss Jamieson. And so I thought about it, and thought about it, and then I didn’t tell my parents or anybody, but I thought, “Gee it is exciting”.  Everybody is doing it, so I went down and signed up.

George Post:  All of your classmates volunteered?

Yes, I think. It was the Royal Canadian Medical Corps that we were in, and there were a number of them. Last night I was at the Defence Medical Officers that went overseas, we have this dinner thing, with their wives and so on, every so often. The nurse, Hallie Sloan, that was in my class, we’ve kind of stuck together, and she was there last night.   There was no shortage of volunteers, and the people that were disappointed were the ones that never got overseas.

It was a great experience, when I look back on it. The whole experience, from the time we signed up, and then we went to Victoria to be trained in how to salute. I have to laugh…

George Post: You were given some military training then?

Oh yes, not all the provinces or commands. But we were given,how to salute, how to march, and then we shipped from Victoria.  I was posted to Number 19, and left to Sussex New Brunswick. And we trained for eight hours a day, during an eight hour period, walking, marching, carrying full backpacks, 40 pounds on our back,

George Post: Would you be given rifle training?

We did rifle training in Victoria. We weren’t supposed to, but the Chief Medical Officer decided that we should know how to shoot.  So we had both rifle practice and pistol practice. Yes, I don’t know of any other commands, I must ask the nurses, that were given that training. And he told us that we had to remember that if our patients were in danger from an enemy we had to shoot, whoever it was that was threatening them. Obviously Germans.  And I just thought, and wondered if I could. I really often worried that I wouldn’t be able to shoot, and I kept saying, “I wish it would happen and then I’ll know what to do.” But that seemed to me like an awful thing to do, and I always forgot where the pistol was. They were always supposed to have one that was within range, and then we had to lock it up. It was kind of complicated, but it worked out.

George Post:  You mentioned early the train trip across Canada from Victoria to Halifax, or to Sussex first. Was that the first time you had been east from British Columbia?

Yes it was. Because I remember when we were on the train, our first stop was Jasper. It was lovely, we were in uniform, and this dear elderly couple sat with us at the breakfast table. Those were the days when they had the white table cloths, and we went to breakfast with all the silver and so on, and you were assigned. I don’t know if they do that now or not, but there was an elderly couple and they were assigned us, and after about the second day we became very good friends and we would talk together and so on.  I remember they always ordered a steak, and I thought, I guess they liked steak. And then when we got to Winnipeg, they said that there were photographers waiting out there.  So we got all our buttons polished, and we were just great, so we were allowed off first in Winnipeg for the stop.  And the cameras were still there. And when this dear couple got off the cameras flashed all over, and the reporters rushed up, and it was Pierre Monteux and his wife.  They were coming from San Francisco back to Philadelphia, and they wanted to come through Canada to see the Rockies and to eat some good food. They didn’t have steaks like we have back in the States apparently. So we didn’t know that. I remember them telling me, that the pips that you wear on your shoulders, “When the war is over you must make those into earrings.” They were lovely people. And we had some good conversations. I didn’t know who it was until we got to Montreal, or to Winnipeg rather, and it was too late. And they stopped in Winnipeg, I think they did something, had a concert or two there.

George Post: The travel during the war of course would have been an amazing opportunity, quite apart from the military service. But I suppose it was the first opportunity many young people had to leave their home towns, and a shame it was under such sad circumstances.

Yes, it was a real experience. I would never have gone. Of course they were so crowded too, until we got to Winnipeg we had to sleep two in a bunk, that was kind of hard, because in war time that was all they had. At Winnipeg some got off, so we had more room. But it was a wonderful opportunity for the kids that came from the little towns all over the country, went off to war, and they saw things that they never would have seen otherwise.

George Post: Have you retained lifelong friends who you met in military service?

I have, they were the ones from Vancouver, that’s where I joined up. Each May and in November we have reunions of the nursing sisters, and we also have them here (Ottawa) but all the ones that I went overseas are in Vancouver. In my own unit, I think there are about six or seven of us that are still able to get about, and some that came as reinforcements are also there, but the original ones we still have this Nursing Sisters dinner in May. We have it about the same time in Ottawa, so I have to rush from the one to the other, take them both in.

George Post: Varied career. I’d like to pursue this a little bit further.

Well, we went to Sussex New Brunswick and we were treated like ordinary soldiers. Our one unit was the hospital unit.  There were three other units, and we drilled for eight hours a day, standing at attention, saluting, marching, marching, saluting, standing at attention. And we lived in H-huts which were very primitive. There were 36 of us in each hut. We ate the rations with the other ranks, and they just said we were soldiers like the others. Well, no one was going to treat anybody any differently, we didn’t expect it, but it was pretty basic and pretty crude. And then one day, well the people in the village knew the shoemaker. We had to have double leather on our shoes doing all the marching. And the shoemaker said, “You are going to be going overseas on Monday.” And we said, he doesn’t know, but we went overseas, and we marched to the ships in Sussex New Brunswick. We were taken by train to Halifax, and we were left off on the siding in Halifax, and our ships were in the harbour.

Our Colonel made us march with our 40 pounds, it must have been about four or five miles, to the ship. And going past us, in trucks, were the infantry corps. All the men who were going on the same ships with us were put into trucks, and here he had us marching!

I remember my friend Sally, who still lives in Vancouver, she fell down beside me. It was rough gravel, and I bent to pick her up, and he said, “Stop it, as you were!” and I wasn’t allowed to touch her. People had to just walk around her body until the First Aid people came and picked her up, and on we marched. And then we were on the ship for five days and five nights. And there were 8000 troops on the ship. There were 80 women and the rest were men.

 Relaxing on the deck of the troop ship "The Empress of Scotland
Relaxing on the deck of the troop ship “The Empress of Scotland

It was the Empress of Scotland. It was only supposed to take, I don’t know how many.  We went without convoy because we went over in ’43. The earlier ships had convoys but they didn’t have enough ships for that, and they had determined, or they told us, that it’s better to go alone because you can zigzag all the way across. And we zigzagged all the way across.

But there was 17 of us in one little cabin that was for two people when the ship was in its glory. There were 17 of us. We were stacked up like this, and if I wanted to turn over, I’d have to poke the sister above me and say, “Turn over, Muggly!” and she’d turn over and we both turned over together. So we were really treated like troops. We only had breakfast and dinner, two meals a day, and if you lost your breakfast that was it for the day. And it was a good thing we were young in those days, we could take it quite well, we complained a lot.

Then we found out that some of the officers knew how to bribe the people in the kitchen, and they would take things off the table and sell it. We would put little rolls or muffins in our uniforms, and they would say, “Take that out, Sister!” They could see them, because it just bulged out. We wanted to save it for the rest of the day.

So we zigzagged. We were one day out when a German plane came down, you could see the crosses on the wing.  Swooped over, and they gave the whistle that we were to run down. We were sitting there, looking at this airplane thinking it was so nice; it was making all those loops, because that is the salute that we had when we went out.

It was a German plane. Oh, the OC troops was very, very cross with us. Sally had left her lifejacket below, and I didn’t have mine on. Oh, we disgraced the whole thing.  Because there were just 80 women and the men were able to move faster. But nothing happened, they didn’t strafe the ship. He said, “If they had opened their guns there would have been a hundred of you lying there dead.”

When we got to Liverpool, at the docks in Liverpool, they started to play ‘O Canada.” Oh, that was so emotional after five days at sea. And then the men, they were on our ship, the other ranks, were tossing chocolate bars out at the girls, with little notes on. And the girls somehow were getting messages back to them with their numbers. They were early at business, and then, this was written up in the book someplace, then suddenly there was this barrage of balloons and I said, “Whoo, we don’t even have balloons in Canada!” Well, the officer that was with me just grabbed me and took me round to the other side of the ship. They were condoms that were going up, and I didn’t know. I was a bit naïve. (Laughter) Guess they were all issued condoms and they had them all blown up, a great barrage of condoms.  Really! And to think that I didn’t know, we were much more naïve in those days, I’m sure.

And then we got onto the trains in Liverpool, just tiny little trains to the ones in Canada, and then we went to Marsden Green. We took over from one hospital that was going overseas to France, and we took over from them at Marsden Green. And that was a good experience.

George Post: Had you been given training in Canada about running a field hospital?

No, not really any more than we had.  There were always the people were there ahead of you, and you learned from them. There was always somebody.  I actually learned a lot from the Sergeant Majors and the other ranks, they were usually there, and as officers we would move on. The greatest difficulty, I remember, was getting enough sterile supplies. When we were in Marsden Green in England we could autoclave them, then sometimes you would run out when you were in the field. It was a good experience, but it was a sad experience. To see these young men coming back all broken up. It really was sad. These bright young men.

George Post: Was Marsden Green a large hospital?

There was the Oval, and about forty tents… About 400, 500, 600, I think we were considered medium sized. There was a whole oval, and all the huts came off around the side.  I was in charge of the operating room there. Well, I was told when we were on the ship, the matron called me and said, “You will be in charge of the Operating Room when we land in England.” And I said, “Matron, no… I’ve know operating room work well in Canada, but not to be in charge.” You just simply go and do these things and the greatest problem as I said was with supplies. It wasn’t with the teams that were doing operating rooms. The men, the other ranks, do the scrubbing, and the sisters did the waiting on them. And they would come in wave after wave. We were only there about three days when the first convoy came in, And they said there would be first the walking wounded, then the wounded, then the seriously wounded, whatever it was. But I didn’t know what they were all talking about. The sergeant shouted this stuff at us. So they just brought them in on stretchers, and the seriously wounded ones would come into the operating room.

George Post: You would have whole shifts of surgeons that would come in around the clock?

Well they did, but sometimes there was so much to do that they would keep working for 16, 18 hours to get it cleaned up, and then they would rest off.  We were supposed to work 12 hours on and 12 hours off. But I was in charge of the operating room, and I didn’t want to leave when the operating was going on. It sounds like you’re being sacrificial, but you weren’t. You were all there together, you were there with friends, and you are working hard. It wasn’t something that we were being very brave about, it was just the work was there to be done. Just as you would here in Ottawa if there is a job to be done, you get on with it and do it.

George Post: And how long did you stay at that hospital in England?

Well, I was there for 18 months. No, I wasn’t there for 18 months, I was there for 10 months, and then the other part, was when I was overseas. But they have this story that they had written up too in the same little book, that was about the man who was in Marsden Green. Every once in a while the chief of the whole surgical division overseas would come and inspect the hospitals.  Brigadier MacFarland, I remember, was the Brigadier that came to watch our surgeons operating and to give them what help he could, and advice. And there was one man, they wanted to amputate his leg, he was in the corridor ready to go in.  He said, “Sister, sister don’t let them operate, don’t let them take off my leg, I’ll die, I can’t face my wife without my leg.” I said, “Well I can’t promise anything, we’ll just see what is going to happen.” He said, “Please tell them!” and I said, “Well, they’ll do what’s best.”  I couldn’t promise him anything.  When they took him at the operating room, and scrubbed him up, the other ranks would do this, and expose his leg, and Brigadier MacFarland said, “Oh”, just looked at it. I said, “Brigadier MacFarland, this boy told me that if you took off his leg he’d die.” And he said, “What, what did you say Sister?” He was very gruff. I said “He told me that if you took off his leg he would die, he couldn’t go back to Canada and face his wife.” And Brigadier MacFarland listened to me, first time a Brigadier listened to me, he was a surgeon of course, one of the highest surgeons in that whole area.  He said, “Put a pad on it, put him in a plaster cast, send him priority to Canada.” And when I got back, I didn’t think he knew my name or anything. When we landed on the way back, we were going to the Far East, and we got off the ship in Halifax. Then we went to Montreal and then we had to change in Montreal and I heard this man in this dark night station in Montreal saying, “Sister, sister,” and nobody knew so finally he shouted louder and louder and this man came on crutches over, and he said “I made it back to Canada.” Now I don’t know how he knew my name, how he knew what ship I was on, or what train I was on, and I said “You made it back.” And he said “Yes, and with two legs.” I don’t know if they were ever saved. But wasn’t that amazing? I didn’t have the sense to ask him how he knew my name, and how he was there. But they have quite a network, don’t they.

George Post: Did you ever go to France? Serve in France?

Yes, we went overseas to France, we went all the way up to Nijmegen in Germany, and then we were sent to the Far East forces. I got up to Nijmegen.

George Post: In Nijmegen you would be right at the front with the field hospital at Nijmegen?

Yes, that was the furthest I got.  That was the last one, that was all the way up, the furthest east that the Canadian troops, in Oldenburg. And then I was sent back with the Far East Forces. But we got to Vancouver and they dropped the atomic bomb, so that was the end of that. And then I was sent to Prince Rupert – where I was born!

George Post: So you came back from Europe just shortly after the European war ended?

That’s right.

George Post:  And did you come back with a shipload of injured people?

No, we came back, I keep forgetting, you know, now we would fly back.  No, we came back on trains. There were injured people there, but that was not our assignment on our train. We just went back.

George Post: That must have been very, very hard work, the work in field hospitals.

Well, it was very emotional you know, overseas. I think in some ways it was just as hard when we were in England. The first time we were there we were sent on a course to London. How they ever sent us, I could never figure it out. And we were going along to Sunday morning, we were going with some officers, we were the two Canadians, and the church was bombed, just at that minute, yards from us.  And the whole side of the walls of the church collapsed. And of course then you are not allowed to stand and stare if you were a civilian, you had to move on. They just moved so quickly, just bringing bodies out, just like cords of wood. And there was a friend of mine, Kate Freek, that was in London at the time, she was British. She remembered that well, it was one of the great tragedies. Whole families were wiped out. And I couldn’t believe it, here they were picking up people just like cords of wood. I guess there would be 4 or 5 hundred people in that church, and every one was killed except the Minister. He had the canopy above him, and so he was saved. So you see, there was death all over, wasn’t there. Terrible.

Sometimes I say I feel a greater impact, when I talk about it at this period in time, than when you were there. Because when you are there you are working, you are doing something, you have a goal. When you reflect on it you realize how serious it is sometimes.

George Post: Were the nursing sisters in danger themselves? Were some of these hospitals struck with shells or bombs?

Oh yes, some were. I think there were only six or ten Canadian nurses that were killed in the Second World War, and there were some more in the First World War. Some of them due to illness. I think there were two nurses on one of the ships that were torpedoed just off of Newfoundland, and they died. I think there was six or eight.

But they were in the same danger as all the others.  Except not the combat soldiers that were at the front lines. The nurses were always behind the front lines. Or of course on a ship, everybody was there together.

George Post:  Well we all think, from having seen the television series MASH, that we know about field hospitals, but I’m sure that the Second World War was a lot different than that.

Well, there were many similarities. Of course that was all glamorized with people coming in. But it was the same, people being brought in, in convoys. We didn’t have helicopters wherever I was, but they were brought in, in convoys.  I didn’t watch it a lot, because it brought back too many memories.  But the people there were all trained to look after the people, they dramatized it very well, all the ones I saw.

I don’t know whether you saw, there was a recent one (TV program) that Halley Sloan was in that talked about it, and then Angels of Mercy, the one that I was in. Have you seen that one? Oh, I have a tape if you ever want to see it. We talked then about our experiences, and they were both well done.

We were so fortunate that so many people asked us to recount our experiences and especially the war ones now, I think I have done two or three of them. And the Angels of Mercy, I would say that the best one was at the end, Leonard Cohen sang ‘Angels of Mercy’ and I like his voice very much.

George Post:  You were saying that you would come back to Canada expecting to go to the Far East and then ended up in Prince Rupert. Were you still in the service in Prince Rupert?

Yes, I was sent. I was in the hospital, which was so interesting because I was born there. Half the hospital was military, the other half was civilian, and I only had about two or three patients there, I remember it was so easy. It was not a difficult assignment.  I guess I was there for four or five months, I can’t remember how long. But oh, it does rain in Prince Rupert, and it was such a hard life to adjust to after the excitement and the movements of being overseas. And then comes the little Prince Rupert with a civilian hospital, with only two or three patients. It was a big adjustment you know, and as I say now they’d have counsellors all around, But not many mental breakdowns I know of in the sisterhood, but there were some. I remember they passed through our unit, but not many. But it is a big adjustment to make.

George Post: And when did you leave the service?

I left the service, I went to McGill. The war ended in ’45, and I was back home on leave when the war ended, and I thought “Oh darn, I’m not going to Japan.” Isn’t that awful. So I left the service. We were all demobilized, I think in the period of probably six months. I went to Prince Rupert, and I think that’s probably all. It’s a great process, of being demobilized. I might be wrong on the length of time, it is a little hard to always remember exactly.