Five Fascinating Flashbacks to Wartime Women

Because my focus is on women’s lives during World War Two, I’m always delighted to unearth little-known stories about their adventures. Here are five of the best.

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                   1. Karen Hermeston

This petite photographer achieved monumental significance by becoming the first female photographer in the Canadian Army. Her name was Sgt. Karen M. Hermeston of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC for short).

In 1941 the Canadian Army’s Public Relations Branch established The Film and Photo Unit. This was made up of seventy-four men and women familiar with the art of photography and film-making, based at three locations: England, Italy, and Western Europe.

Women weren’t allowed to go into the field of combat, so Karen remained in England. But she earned the respect of her peers through her talent and dedication to her craft. She is pictured above with her beloved Anniversary Speed Graphic camera. (Photo Credit: Library and Archives Canada).

To see photos of Karen at work, click here: Canadian Film and Photo Unit.

And here's a story by Sam Koffman, one of the staff writers from the Canadian Forces newspaper, the Maple Leaf, written in November 1945.

                      Meet "Hermie"

She's “Hermie” Hermeston, a determined little gal from Northern Ontario, who has spent over four years in uniform snapping pictures of her sister CWACs, the red braid and the plain khaki – the only female photographer ever used by the Canadian Army.

“Hermie” Hermeston is only a bit of a girl really, that slight, perky CWAC sergeant you see at all the big events, aiming her camera at the brass and the other ranks alike. She may be squatting on her knees, lying prone on rafters, climbing ladders or dropping into pits – anyplace or position for a good picture. When the Canadian Army's Film and Photo Unit sends Hermie out on a job, some clear and interesting "shots" are a certainty.

When Karen Hermeston joined the CWACs, among the first way back in 1941, she was willing to do anything to get that uniform on. But in back of that Englehart, Ontario, girl's pert head was a single plan, centred around a camera. She had had a bit of studying in interior decorating at the Ontario College of Art, Toronto, but photography was her passion.

Hermie got the uniform all right, and for one day was a storewoman, one month a seamstress, a receptionist for two days, and finally a definite job as draftswoman, attached to the Engineers. Her own hours – and a few stolen from her bench – were spent flitting about Ottawa with her own Rolli camera, snapping pictures of CWACs and others, which she sent to Mayfair, Chatelaine and other women's periodicals. Three successive monthly editions of Mayfair carried a full-page spread of Hermie's photos.

But even this success could not get her a job as photographer with the Army's Public Relations outfit. “A woman! Never! Wouldn't do!” said the brass. So she settled for a position filing other photographer's works for PR and continued to take pictures with her own camera.

Then came the first break. The Montreal Standard used a layout of photos taken by Hermie of CWACs training in Kitchener. A tour of CWAC training camps across Canada followed. Hermie was given "flash" equipment, and unofficially she was PR's only photo-girl.

In October, 1944, Hermie crossed the Atlantic, coming over ostensibly to photo CWACs in Italy and on the Continent – but she ran into a familiar bottleneck. PR officials overseas echoed the “no girls” as photographers.

But she did get out on jobs where CWACs only were concerned until gradually her presence at Film and Photo was taken for granted; she took her turn on all types of assignments. Photoing the body of a dead soldier behind the Beaver Club was among these. Nor had she attended many boxing shows before hopping onto the ring-edge to flash fighters in action.

There are no angles about photography that are strange to Hermie. Her camera at the ready, she'd walk through the lines at an inspection, shrugging off the wolfish remarks of officers and men.

In Ottawa she crawled underneath trucks for pictures of new inventions or inside a tank to twist herself into a knot for a photo required by Munitions and Supply. Generals or privates, they are all the same to Hermie – just pictures, and her directions are given in crisp, businesslike tone.

To Hermie many CWACs owe the thrill enjoyed by their families at seeing the daughter in a hometown paper, though here in England photography is a rough-and-tough go. Infrequent sun outdoors and poor lighting indoors necessitate long exposure and minute application to each picture taken. “But it means a lot to those girls, and, then, the boys like getting their pictures taken too,” opined Hermie.

Post-war ambition? Well, Hermie doesn't really know yet. She could probably tie up with a newspaper photo agency. Or she might go to New York and study fashion pics. “Maybe I'll even get married,” she added haughtily.

                                                   * * * * *

I wasn't able to find out what happened to Karen after the war. If anybody knows, please drop me a line!

Meanwhile, here’s a great photo of Karen riding on a soldier's shoulders during the VJ-Day celebrations in Piccadilly Circus, London, on August 10, 1945. (Photo Credit: Library and Archives Canada).

NOTE: After this was posted, I spoke with Karen's niece, Maggie Hermeston. To read about what her admirable aunt did after the war, visit the April 2016 blog post and scroll to the bottom: Karen Hermeston After the War


     2. Manitoulin Island Women's Memorial

Manitoulin Island has a population of just 13,000 people. But that hasn’t stopped it from creating one of the best memorials to wartime servicewomen in Canada.

I learned about it through an email from Dawn Munroe, who writes her own blog here: Famous Canadian Women. She stumbled across this memorial on a driving trip, and it moved her to tears.

I didn’t even know where Manitoulin Island was until I checked my map. It is the largest freshwater lake island in the world – measuring 2,766 square kilometres, located in Lake Huron, and dotted with small communities that are accessible to the lakeshore only by bridge. The nearest big city is Sudbury, about 180 kilometres away.

By calling the local branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, I tracked down Linda Bowerman, the Memorial Project Co-Chair and one of the ardent volunteers who spearheaded an effort to raise enough money to create this memorial back in 2001.

Most towns have a stone cenotaph, bearing the names of the local men and women who died in war, but Manitoulin has gone above and beyond.

Firstly, the main cenotaph on Manitoulin Island is large and impressive, with a stone statue of a soldier, surrounded by flowerbeds and flags.

Then there’s a separate Merchant Marine Memorial, dedicated to the men who transported vital supplies across the U-boat infested Atlantic.

There’s also a third monument, dedicated to all veterans by the students of Manitoulin Area Schools.

But that still wasn’t enough for Manitoulin Island. They wanted to honour women specifically, and they did so in a spectacular fashion. Near the main cenotaph is the Women’s Memorial -- five individual granite headstones, each five feet tall and three feet wide, standing in a group. 

The centre stone, larger than the others, bears the Manitoulin Women’s Memorial plaque with a message of thanks to women, and the other listing the names of every local woman who served.

Even more unusual, the bronze memorial plaque also pays tribute to women “who served on the home front, supporting the troops each in her own way, for together they made a difference.”

The other four stones are dedicated to the memory of women who served in the four branches of the armed forces: Canadian Nursing Sisters, Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division, Canadian Women’s Army Corps, and Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service. Here's a photograph of the stone on the left, devoted to Canadian Nursing Sisters.

The money was raised from service clubs, businesses and individuals, including one twelve-year-old boy named Cody Hammond who donated five dollars. “He said his great-aunt was one of the ones to be honoured and he wanted to contribute. That really touched me, that a twelve-year-old boy would make such a gesture,” Linda said.

The memorial was unveiled in 2001 and happily, nineteen women veterans who served during the Second World War were able to attend the ceremony and see their contribution honoured.

The local newspaper, The Manitoulin Expositor, also put out a special 24-page edition containing stories and photographs of many of the women from the island who served in uniform, in both world wars.

Manitoulin Island, I salute you for this tremendous effort! Many larger centres in Canada can learn from your shining example.


                   3. Mary Greyeyes

The first aboriginal woman to join the Canadian Armed Forces in World War Two, Mary Greyeyes achieved minor celebrity for this publicity photo.

For years it hung in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa with the caption: “Unidentified Indian princess getting blessing from her chief and father to go fight in the war.”

But this just wasn’t true. Several years ago Mary’s daughter-in-law Melanie Fahlman Reid of Vancouver interviewed her and got the real story. 

Mary was from Muskeg Lake, a Cree reservation just north of Saskatoon. Her brother Dan was already in service. It was the Depression, there wasn't much to do, so she thought she'd join, too. Here’s a photo of Mary and her brother Dan Greyeyes.

This is an excerpt from the article that appeared in The Tyee newspaper, written by Melanie Fahlman Reid.

          What Does This Photo Say?

Mary went down to Saskatoon and took the dayliner to Regina, she told me. She was met by a sergeant and she had to go and get a test. She was the fourth woman to get the test and she was nervous. Everybody ahead of her had gone to school. Mary had gone to a residential school, and of course natives weren't allowed to go past Grade 8 in those days. So she didn't have a good education, she thought.

They were just starting to recruit women into the army in Canada, and each one, each woman ahead of her, was rejected. Mary went in and she took the test and she passed. And she became the first native woman in Canada -- full status Cree -- to join the Canadian Women's Army Corp.

When she enlisted, they didn't really want her in the barracks. There was a lot of racism against natives and it was all kind of hushed up. But she said, ‘I knew what was going on.’

So she boarded outside the barracks. One day her sergeant and two Mounties showed up and said, "We'll give you a good new uniform and a good lunch. We want you to take a picture.”

They drove out to the Piapot reserve. The man standing there is a man named Harry Ball. He's a World War One veteran. He wasn't the chief of the Piapot reserve (at the time he was a councillor, and later became chief), but he was a vet. And he happened to be hanging around.

The regalia that he's wearing was cobbled together by the Mounties. They went into people's houses and pulled out a blanket here, an old headdress from a powwow there. And they found a pipe. The stem on it was pieced together with some tape and a bit of twine one of the Mounties had.

And they told them to pose. And this picture is apparently an Indian princess getting a blessing from the chief of her tribe.

Now Harry is from Piapot. Mary is from Muskeg Lake, Cree. And they didn't know each other.

This picture was published in the Regina Leader-Post, and it went viral, I guess, in those days. It appeared all over the British Empire to show the power of the colonies fighting for King and country.

Mary was shipped to England and became a laundress at Aldershot, which she hated. And when she asked her sergeant for a transfer, her sergeant wrote on the papers -- which I have -- "Does not speak English."

So they shipped her off and she went to headquarters in London to become a cook for the war centre. She was a big deal. She got to meet Princess Elizabeth, she got to meet the Queen Mother, she got to meet the King. She said every time they needed an Indian, there she was. She was known as the Indian.

Her picture was in a lot of London papers. And the headline of my favourite one reads: "She's a full-blooded Indian but now she cooks for palefaces." So she was always the Indian. She'd get proposals from what she called ‘limeys.’ Limeys would write her letters, some of which we have, offering to marry her.

Mary stayed in the army, she was asked to stay on in England after the war ended. And she finally shipped back to Canada in 1946, at which point she was discharged and went home.

                                                        * * * * *

As a result of Melanie Fahlman Reid’s efforts, the caption on the photo now reads: “Library and Archives of Canada, PA 129070. Private Mary Greyeyes, Cree, from Muskeg Lake, Cree Nation, Canadian Women's Army Corp.”

To read the whole unabridged story from Mary’s daughter-in-law, click here: What Does This Photo Say?


  4. Dorise Neilsen, Member of Parliament

I had never heard of this woman until recently, although she served as the Member of Parliament for my home town of North Battleford, Saskatchewan. I came across her name because she was an ardent advocate for the rights of women during World War Two.

Born in London, England, in 1902, Dorise arrived to teach in Saskatchewan in 1926, unprepared for pioneer life. After a short teaching stint, she married a farmer, Pete Nielsen, and raised three children in a two-room shack. While working dawn to dusk, she wrote letters about economic conditions to newspapers and got involved in grassroots political movements.

In several northern Saskatchewan ridings, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, Social Credit and Communist supporters joined forces as “United Progressives”, and Dorise, recently recruited by the Communist Party, ran under the “United Progressive” banner.

She campaigned in overshoes because her shoes had worn out, and was elected just as the bank foreclosed on the family’s mortgage.

In Ottawa, where she was the third female M.P. ever elected and the first to be raising young children while in office, her main concerns were poverty, children’s welfare and civil liberties. She urged that the post-war family allowance cheques be issued in the mother’s name, and called for a federally funded day care program.

She also demanded better pay for women in uniform. When the women’s branches of the armed forces were set up in 1941, women performing the same duties received two-thirds of the men’s pay.

In the House, Dorise asked the Minister of National Defence to justify this difference, which she called a relic of the Dark Ages. “We have overcome . . . discrimination with regard to religion and race, though not altogether, but we still do suffer in this country from sex discrimination,” she said.

She raised the issue of unequal pay again and again. By the end of the war, women’s pay had risen from 67 percent of the men’s pay, to 80 percent.

Defeated in 1944, Dorise worked in Toronto for the Communist Party, but the leadership regarded her as a prairie populist who “lived by emotion rather than by knowledge.”

Separated from her husband, she returned to England in 1955. Then, in another dramatic move, she and mining engineer Constant Godefroy moved to Mao’s Communist China, where she taught English and lived until her death in 1980.

If you would like to know more about this passionate feminist, you can read her biography, written by Faith Johnston in 2006 and published by the University of Manitoba Press: A Great Restlessness: The Life and Politics of Dorise Nielsen.


5. What Did You Do in the War, Grandma?

Finally, I discovered this newspaper article in the Daily Mail in Britain, featuring some of the most dramatic photos of women in wartime that exist – most of them British.

I’ve said it before. British women really paved the way for the rest of the Commonwealth countries and the United States as well. They not only served in vast numbers, but they spent the entire six-year war on an island just a stone’s throw from the enemy, fearing for their homes and families.

In the first photo, a sergeant is pictured drilling civilian members of the Women's Home Defence Corps, in the use of rifles during the Battle of Britain in 1940. I can easily picture them using those rifles if necessary!

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Here members of the Women's Royal Naval Service, based at the enormous British naval base at Portsmouth, move a torpedo towards a loading bay used by one of the Navy's U-class submarines. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)


Women weren't allowed to fire guns, but they worked as armourers, loading and aiming them so the men could take over. Here an officer in the Women's Royal Naval Service examines her rifle while training to become an armourer at a Scottish Royal Airforce Base in 1940. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

To see more of these stunning photographs of women at war, click here: Women Helped to Win the War.

I hope these stories amused and educated you about the various roles performed by women in the Second World War. If you have any of your own, I would love to hear from you.

Happy St. Patrick's Day to all my readers!

                                                           * * * * *

               STAR WEEKLY AT WAR

The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a colour illustration with a wartime theme appeared on the cover each week.

There's no caption, but don't you think the man in the cowboy hat looks like Ronald Reagan? Here he watches in amusement as a CWAC, a member of the Canadian Women's Army Corps, takes aim. 

To see my entire collection of Star Weekly covers, click: Star Weekly At War.

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  • I have a one-hour powerpoint presentation describing wartime women in uniform, and the little-known practice of aerial photographic interpretation. And I come dressed in my wartime vintage duds! To contact me about speaking at your organization, click: Contact.

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Chapters Ottawa

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Address: 47 Rideau Street, Ottawa

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Noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, June 25, 2016

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