How Will You Remember?

Today is a day of Remembrance.

We asked Studio Tour artist Grace MacPherson if she would share memories of her experience serving Canada during World War II. 

In 1943, Grace MacPherson was 18 year old Grace Gauntlett...

Studio Tour artist Grace MacPherson, RCAF WD, 1943-45
"If you had good marks in your final year at school, you could leave early to join the Armed Forces. I went and saw a film, “We Serve That Men May Fly.” It was all about serving in the Air Force, and I thought that if I enlisted I would be sent to England. My brother John was in the RAF and was ferrying planes between Lagos and Britain. Later he was posted to Burma. At age 18, I enlisted and my mother didn’t really approve of what I was doing.

The Air Force was recruiting women to take over jobs, allowing the men to serve overseas. I was happy to be chosen for training as an operational clerk. This was a very selective course and top secret. We would be getting information from radar stations and plotting it on grid maps so they could be identified as friend or foe.
The enlistment poster that inspired Grace to join

We heard we were going to the West Coast, Victoria and were stationed in a lovely old home. It was at one time earmarked as a government house. It was called Kildonan House in the ritzy Rock Bay area. The officers lived in the house and we had barracks, which were built on the extensive grounds.

We had four shifts; the operational room had to be manned 24 hours a day. I was on D shift and about 12 of us living and working together became a happy family. We had a lot of time off, as the work was considered stressful, and our work area was located in the basement of the Belmont Building, across from the Empress Hotel. I would have to be checked by service police when I entered and left.

We were connected to several isolated radar stations on the West Coast: information was relayed to us by radio telegram. We plotted it in on a grid map. If the identification couldn’t be made, Fighter Control would send up an aircraft to check. Sometimes a plane from the training base would get lost and it was through the radar and the Filter Ops that they were located and saved. Another time a plane went off course and was headed for the mountains, and they were alerted on time. There was an aircraft detection post on top of the Belmont Building, and we manned it during the day shift. We had to identify, if we could, anything that we saw. We also took calls from civilians who were also looking out for aircraft activity.

Our time off gave us the opportunity to travel up and down the island, to Vancouver and to the States. Our commanding officer would give us a letter of introduction, and we could go and get second priority on the planes. First priority was the wounded. We flew from Seattle to California and across to St. Louis. Another time we just hitchhiked. Everyone was kind to those in uniform. We never had any trouble we couldn’t handle.
Here, Grace (2nd from the right) and her fellow WDs pose for a photo that later appeared in the newspaper.

Once coming home on leave I used every form of transportation: ferry, train, plane, bus, and hitchhiking. Stopping at Thunder Bay, and looking out of the window, I saw the faces of young, fair-haired boys waiting in the bus beside us. They were German POWs waiting to be transferred to one of the camps.

 VJ-Day came and we paraded in Victoria. It was an exciting day for everyone. We went to a service at Beacon Hill Park—lots of service personnel there. The speeches were getting a bit too long so someone set fire to the grass and that caused a diversion. There was a big dance in one of the hangars. Aircraft took off and bombed the station with toilet paper!

Shortly after, I was given my discharge and I went to Vancouver for the final paperwork. I received $210 for my two-and-a-half years in the service. I was happy to be going home, though not regretting one moment I spent in the Air Force, to serve “that men may fly.” Maybe I didn’t get to England, but I found good friends, travelled across Canada by train and the United States courtesy of the government. We were told that our presence on the West Coast saved many lives, and prevented many serious accidents and loss of life."

In 2008 Grace attended a WD reunion in Ottawa; she stands beside a WD plaque that was unveiled at the War Museum

To Grace and the thousands of other Canadians who have served, we thank you.