GENERAL ARTICLES

AIR WOMEN

Buttons shining, boots shining, eyes shining, air women work for victory to let more men fly for victory

THELMA LECOCQ November 15 1942
GENERAL ARTICLES

AIR WOMEN

Buttons shining, boots shining, eyes shining, air women work for victory to let more men fly for victory

THELMA LECOCQ November 15 1942

AIR WOMEN

Buttons shining, boots shining, eyes shining, air women work for victory to let more men fly for victory

THELMA LECOCQ

UNTIL A year ago the prospect of women in the R.C.A.F. was little more than a dark and horrid rumor. Today stations which have no Women’s Division are clamoring for it. Commanding Officers who’ve had fifty or a hundred posted to their schools are literally pleading for more. In less than a twelve-month period the girl in Air Force blue has made a perfect three-point landing.

And she’s done it with odds against her. Civilians were inclined to look on uniforms for women as a heap of nonsense. The R.C.A.F. regarded her entry as a petticoat invasion. The W.D. knew all that but she didn’t let it get her down. Like the men, she had taken an oath to serve His Majesty for the duration, and longer if need be, within Canada and beyond. She’d joined up for the most part for one of two reasons. Because she had a brother, husband or sweetheart, sometimes killed or made prisoner, on active service. Or because she was the only member of her family free to serve. Her idea was to do a man’s work and free him for overseas. Nobody was going to stop her.

She knew from the start she’d have to be as good or better than a man at her job and she worked at it. During her basic training she drilled and studied, sometimes till she had neither time nor strength to write home. Then she drew on her ninety cents a day to wire the family she was still alive. When she was posted, she travelled to a station, sitting up all night on a train, singing to keep her spirits up. When she arrived, it was as she’d been trained, “with buttons shining, boots shining and eyes shining.” No matter how tired she was she snapped into her drill with a precision that amazed the male sergeant from Missouri. She saluted with such unfailing regularity that officers who had to return it began to wonder how long their arms would last.

Today there are 7,000 W.D.’s and at least 5,000 of those are veterans posted at stations from the Pacific Coast to Newfoundland as well as in Great Britain and the U.S.A. They look back with amusement on those early weeks of training and first days of posting. Their Air Force discipline, like their Air P\>rce uniforms, has become a part of them. The important thing now is that they’re doing a job. As weather observers and transport drivers, as cooks and hospital assistants, as workers in more than forty trades, these women in blue are part of Canada’s fighting machine.

All of which makes them a pretty grimsounding bunch to anyone who hasn’t met them. But there’s nothing grim about the W.D.’s, except, perhaps, their unspoken determination

to do what, they can about this war. A good many of them, at least fifty per cent, enlisted at the ages of nineteen or twenty. An amazing number are pretty. All of them look as though they enjoyed life, and they do. It wasn’t easy at first. Many had never been away from home before. All of them must have been a little shaken by an oath which might be binding for years and from which marriage might not release them. Most immediately upsetting was the fact that many a girl who’d always had a room of her own found herself sharing a barrack room and bathing and dressing with sixtyseven others, most of whom were strangers.

Debutantes to Language Professors

DURING THE initial four weeks’ training there is a good deal of the quiet misery of homesickness and an occasional outburst of tears. By the time the W.D.’s are posted at a station there is

none of that. They learn to do without walls, sleeping in double-decker beds. They rush for the “absolutions” room in the mornings, knowing that to be first to tub, shower or basin is all that matters. They turn the uniform blue of their clothes racks into personal wardrobes by the addition of bright housecoats. And they transform their blank, painted lockers into private dressing tables by setting out pictures of family and boy friends.

With all that the barrack block is by no means a homey place. There’s nothing cosy about a room twenty feet wide and two hundred feet long. No personality in two-storied rows of iron beds. But what it lacks in homelike atmosphere, the barrack block makes up for in its rich offer of companionship. Girls who’d never left the home town, and whose friendships had been pretty much restricted to the folks next door and up the street, find they have friends from a thousand miles away in space. Others just as remote on the social scale discover

In the space of a single barrack block you’ll find a debutante who now drives a military transport and thinks it’s more fun. A domestic who’s worked since she was fourteen and never had time for a party or a beau. A professor of languages who studied at Munich and the Sorbonne. A coffee-packer who’s turned her deft fingers to ammunition. A tailoress who’s cutting her cloth the size of airplane wings.

From a standpoint of education the R.C.A.F., Women’s Division, demands nothing more elaborate than high school entrance, but it draws in plenty of degrees and an impressive number of talents. One R.C.A.F. instructor was badly shaken to find himself faced by a class which included fifteen B.A.’s, three M.A.’s and a bunch of schoolteachers. It has attracted several artists and musicians. A few newspaper women and advertising writers. Two golf champions. Two swimming champions. High-jumping and running champions. A couple of licensed pilots. A parachute jumper. A girl who’s good at breaking horses. Another whose hobby is jujitsu.

These girls have come from every part of Canada to join the W.D.’s. They came from farmsand towns and cities. Two of them travelled from the far north by postal steamer. They include Indians, as well as a good number of New Canadians such as Ukrainians, Dukhobors, Serbs, Poles and even pacifist Mennonites. In their ranks, too, are Englishborn girls. Six or seven South Americans. A few West Indians. A girl from British Guiana who was studying medicine in Alberta. An evacuee from Shanghai who includes Russian among her languages. An American girl who came rushing across the border when she suddenly recalled she’d been born in Toronto.

Day Begins Before Seven

THESE GIRLS from everywhere don’t just meet for a social cup of tea. By joining the Air Force they’re thrown together for the duration, for twenty-four hours a day, except when they go on leave or are off the station on an evening’s jaunt. They begintheirday beforeseven, roused by a bugle, an alarm clock or a quiet shake from the corporal if some of them work on shift. They run like mad to the showers. Dress, and polish their shoes and buttons. Make their beds, sweep and tidy the space around them. An hour from rising time they’re in the mess hall, in line with the men for their rations of fruit juice and cereal, bacon and eggs, and milk, tea or coffee. They carry their food to the women’s tables. Sit side by side on the long benches. Eat their meal. Line up for a counting of noses. And are off to their jobs till noon.

Those who used to be schoolteachers and clerks in shops go off to equipment where their capacity for detail fits them for keeping track of the stores. Ex-factory workers go off to clean spark plugs or pack ammunition. Dressmakers settle down to fabric work and doping on plane wings. Filing clerks cope with a new kind of detail, recording the flying hours of even the smallest gadget on every plane on the station. Fast typists with the right kind of touch operate teleprinters. Medical students work side by side with domestics as pupil nurses caring for the sick. Stenographers who have a sense of integrity, and don’t talk, handle confidential matters. Rich little girls brought up to drive the family car get at the wheel of M.T.’s or of gas tenders if they’re lucky.

Naturally the R.C.A.F. fits the W.D.’s into the type of work they’re used to. Dietitians and cooks continue to be dietitians and cooks. Waitresses become mess women. Stenographers continue with stenography. But there’s a place in the Women’s Division for countless girls who are keen and bright but have no special training or talents. A housewife is taught to run a switchboard. A schoolgirl is given a course in the printing and developing of photographs. A salesclerk learns fingerprinting. Certain ones are picked to study at the Dunlap Observatory in Toronto to assist

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“Cloudy Pete,” the meteorological observer. Others are sent to classes with the men to become ground wireless operators and win a handful of lightning for their sleeves.

From eighteen to forty-one women can find a place in the R.C.A.F., provided they have the educational qualifications and can pass the medical tests. They are recruited like the men, at the same stations but by a woman recruiting officer. All come in on the same basis as AW2’s (corresponding to AC2’s) for four weeks’ initial training followed by examinations and aptitude tests. From there some (who have certain technical civilian training) go to administrativecourses with a view to becoming specialist officers if they make the grades. Others take trades courses of one kind and another. A great many are posted to stations immediately, under the heading of General Duties which may be anything from cleaning to clerking.

The pay for “A-Wubble-U’s” (air women)—one, two and leading— rises from the lowly ninety cents a day to $1.50. The N.C.O.’s and warrant officers (called under officers in the W.D.) are paid from $1.15 for a Grade D corporal to $3.50 for a Grade A under officer No. 1. Officers’ pay ranges from $2.85 a day, for an assistant section officer, to $6.70 for a wing officer. Wing officer is the female equivalent of a wing commander, and the highest rank in the W.D. W.D.’s never receive allowances. And it is only in the medical branch that the pay equals that of officers in the R.C.A.F.

“More Conscientious Than Men”

VERY FEW of them kick about the jobs they’re put to. Their idea is to replace men for active service and that’s what they’re doing. One station put two women at a switchboard and released two men, one to become a pilot and the other a radio operator. The same station is sending its ground wireless operators into the air and replacing them with women. When women cooks are posted, the men are free to remuster for ground crew. Women hospital assistants in Canada mean the men are free to be sent overseas. The men are only too anxious to train them. One sergeant is giving his undivided attention to the girls packing ammunition. A corporal is never too busy or too tired to instruct

the girls in fabric work or doping. They’re fully aware that many an Air Force man with a bright new “Canada” on his sleeve owes his chance to go over to a woman who’s fitted into his job.

And the women do fit in. At routine and tedious jobs they’re found to oe more conscientious and less restless than men. As messengers they’re smartly on the run. As hospital assistants they pop up smiling with temptingly set trays. As cooks they make the food as appetizing as they can. As mess women they try to arrange the plates attractively and don’t slosh the gravy. Whatever job they’re on they make a brisk entry cleaning cupboards and putting things in order. Inspirationally, too, the women are a help. Invariably their arrival is heralded by an outbreak of buttonpolishing among the men. At one station where the W.D.’s made their first appearance at church, the place was jammed to the doors and the padre commented good-naturedly that he saw men there he’d never expected to see.

When work is over—at five or when finished—there are plenty of high spirits to make a lively evening. Where the station is near a town or city, both men and women are free for a jaunt to the bright lights provided they are in by 10.30 or by midnight if they have a late pass. The girls are not permitted to thumb a ride but if they’re walking along the highway and someone offers them a lift there’s no objection. Even with a lift, ninety cents a day doesn’t allow for many trips and most of their fun is had right on the station.

All the stations have movies, blood and thunder or comedies preferred. Some are free, others from ten cents to a quarter. Most of them prefer to pay and see a good picture. Once a week there is a dance and the men give way on the matter of a wet canteen to fit in with the W.D. regulations of no alcohol. Frequently there are a few heartbreaks connected with these dances. Air women may not have dates with airmen either above or below them in rank. An “A-Wubble-U” would not be allowed to attend the sergeants’ dance no matter where her heart was. Neither would a section officer. It is rumored that on occasion a sergeant has climbed up into a pilot officer’s uniform and a pilot officer down into a sergeant’s, all in the interests of a dance and romance.

Boys Meet Girls

ALTHOUGH the women’s barrack block is definitely out of bounds to men, a station provides plenty of opportunity for men and women to meet. Some of them have common club rooms and canteens in addition to their own separate ones. All have drill halls where pingpong and badminton are played, libraries where both may go for books, and “Y” Hostess Houses where girls may invite their boy friends to have tea. Every station develops its quota of romantic attachments. A few of these have resulted in matrimony with the wife, like the husband, continuing in the service. More of them have ended in sad partings when one or the other was posted elsewhere. An R.C.A.F. station is one place where there are no surplus women. At its best it gives the girls a break of seventy men to one woman. At its most meagre the ratio is ten to one. For any girl this would be the experience of a lifetime. None of the W.D.’s seems to be unnerved by it.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the abundance of men, the W.D.’s do not scorn to have good times among themselves. Each station has a women’s canteen with games room and writing desks. Some of these are finished through the courtesy of rich sponsors and run to broadloom rugs, pale maple furniture and luxurious chintzand leather-covered chairs. Others, wangled out of canteen profits, make do with kitchen chairs and a juke box, but either way the place is always full of noise and laughter. Even after the hefty Air Force meals, the girls always have room for a bit more and the canteens do a rushing business in coffee and sandwiches, ice cream and cookies, soft drinks and fruit juices. Prices tend to be a bit lower than in stores and all profits go into extra messing to buy fruit, ice cream, dry cereals and other treats not included in the rations.

Much of the chatter in the women’s canteens would make a civilian wonder if she could be feeling well. They develop a language of their own, calling themselves “A-WubbleU’s,” their officers “Ma’ams,” the officers’ quarters the “Hen House.” When they talk about “ice bags” they mean their hats. “Teddy bear suits” are dungarees.” “Glamour boots” are the four-buckle black Continued on page 28

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overshoes issued for winter. With the women as with the men, “I’m Jo” means I’m on duty. Being “off the beam” is being dead wrong. Most alarming to the uninitiated are “She’s going broody” and, “She’s hatching,” which explain the state of mind of the senior officer (a) when she’s expecting a new batch of recruits and (b) when the recruits

arrive and have to be coped with.

In spite of the uniforms, the military discipline and the strange lingo, the girl in the Air Force is not very different from what she was in civilian life. Even if she’s never worn them, she finds herself hankering for frills. She misses having a home and tries to make up for it by gardening and picking wild flowers for the mess table. At stations where pets are allowed, any stray dog or cat is sure of a welcome. The girls on one station figured that if they’d all been allowed to bring their pets they’d have eight horses, fifteen cats and thirty-two dogs.

Discipline and Hair-do’s

THOSE WHO said women would cause trouble on a station have been proved dead wrong. Breaches of discipline are mainly minor ones such as lateness or untidiness. The untidiness is rarely slovenliness because, lacking a fashion interest, the W.D.’s are no slackers when it comes to boot and button polishing. In the interests of glamour, though, they’re inclined to let their tresses flow in spite of the Air Force regulation of no hair on collars.

Hair-do’s are one of the chief problems in the life of a W.D. Ninety cents a day doesn’t allow for many permanents or trips to the hairdresser and so far, except on remote stations, hairdressers have not been installed. Apart from that, the R.C.A.F. provides most of the

necessaries of life including medical, dental and optical care with free glasses, and even upper sets to any girl who needs them. Uniforms, greatcoats and even stockings are issued and are renewed when considered “unserviceable through reasonable wear and tear.” An allowance of an initial fifteen dollars, and three dollars a quarter thereafter, is made for underwear. Shoes are repaired without charge. The ninety cents a day can be made do, the girls say, provided you don’t go to town for too many forty-eight’s. The real struggle is for the girl who’s posted far from home although the railway rates for service personnel are considerably reduced, at least for annual leave.

Most of them like to get home on leave but generally they are willing to be posted anywhere. A girl from Vancouver is stationed in Newfoundland. A girl from Winnipeg finds herself posted at Moncton. One from Halifax is in Mossbank, Sask. Some of them in less than a year have been at as many as five different stations in all parts of Canada.

Quite often they are lonely, specially during their training in a big city. People who are quite ready to do the kind thing about a completely strange airman, rarely give the airwomen a thought. When they are invited out, it’s usually by the neighbors at a country station, or by someone who has friends or relatives in the Women’s Division. The only real complaint the W.D.’s have—and it’s more of a hurt than a complaint—is that civilians take a dark view of them. A man in uniform is regarded as a man making a sacrifice. A girl in uniform is looked upon as a girl showing herself off. The W.D.’s don’t like that. They’re proud of their Air Force blue. And they’re doing what they enlisted to do—releasing men for overseas service.