Jean Brims Hubbard, now aged 92, joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) on her day she turned eighteen. Wearing her red and white polka-dotted dress, she is likely the only recruit ever welcomed into the armed forces with a birthday cake!
In all my years of interviewing veterans, both male and female, I have never before spoken with a member of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps. So when Jean Hubbard telephoned me, after reading my monthly column in The Senior Paper, I quickly arranged to visit her at home in West Vancouver and we had a wonderful chat about her exciting wartime days.
Note to readers: Jean passed away on December 7, 2019 at the age of 93 years. Rest in peace, Jean Brims Hubbard.
The Early Years
Jean was born on May 10, 1926 in Canora, Saskatchewan to David Brims, a Scottish immigrant and veteran of the First World War, and his wife Ruth. Her father was a member of the South Saskatchewan Provincial Police, then transferred into the Manitoba Provincial Police, and finally joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Manitoba.
The marriage was troubled, but two boys were born (sadly, both of them died) followed by three girls – Mary, Gladys, and Jean. When Mary was eight years old, Gladys six years old, and Jean just three years old, her parents separated. Her father insisted on keeping the three little girls with him, and her mother left the family and never returned.
While Jean was still young, her father remarried a kind and loving woman named Irene. At the time the Brims family was living in Russell, Manitoba; and later they moved to Hamiota, where Jean went to high school and finished her Grade 11. That same year her father was promoted to Flin Flon, Manitoba.
By then both of Jean’s older sisters had left home. Mary was training to become a nurse in Brandon, and Gladys also studied nursing before joining the Canadian Women’s Army Corps. Rather than enroll in a strange school, Jean found a job at the Hudson Bay Company in Flin Flon. But she longed to follow in the footsteps of her big sister Gladys, who had been in the army corps for eight months.
Jean Joins the Army Corps
Jean decided to enroll in the army corps at the first opportunity, as soon as she reached the minimum age of eighteen years. Her father took her to the station, where she boarded the train to Winnipeg.
“My father was wearing his red serge, and as the train pulled out of the station, he stood at attention and saluted me,” Jean recalls. “I’ll never forget that moment.”
In Winnipeg, Jean stayed at the Fort Osborne army barracks. “The first night I was there, I was sleeping in the top bunk when the fire alarm sounded. I stepped out of bed, fell onto the floor and cracked a bone in my nose!” Jean says. “But I never said a word to anybody because I was so afraid they would send me to sick bay and I would miss the draft!”
The next day – May 10, 1944 – was Jean’s eighteenth birthday, and she began the enlistment process by having her medical exam. The doctor who examined her was the same man who had taken out her tonsils as a child! “He laughed and said, ‘Well, well, I can’t believe little Jeannie Brims is going into the army!'”
Then she was taken into another room where she swore the Oath of Allegiance, promising to serve until the war ended.
“When I got to the words ‘until the cessation of war,’ I suddenly remembered learning about the Hundred Years’ War in school, and I wondered if I would be an old lady when I got out of uniform!”
To Jean’s surprise, she was then ushered into another room where her sister Gladys was waiting for her, along with a couple of officers, a cameraman, and a birthday cake! The cake had one candle on it, indicating her first day in the army.
“Gladys had told them it was my birthday, so they thought this was a good opportunity for a publicity shot for recruiting women, and they had it all arranged ahead of time.” That photograph later appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, and Jean enjoyed her few brief moments of fame.
After the cake photo, Jean was fitted out in her new uniform, loaded onto a truck with a group of other young recruits in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, and taken to the train station. She was on her way to Kitchener, Ontario, for basic training.
(I love this photograph of young Jean, looking a wee bit apprehensive but very proud of her new uniform!)
This publicity photograph shows the uniform worn by the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWACs, for short). It was a smart khaki uniform with brass buttons, worn with a flat cap. To read more about women’s uniforms, visit my previous post by clicking here: Hats, Helmets, and Headgear.)
Their diamond-shaped cap badge bore the words “Canadian Women’s Army Corps,” with three intertwined silver maple leaves.
Even the Star Weekly, a newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star, featured an image of a CWAC on this cover dated February 20, 1943. (To see all my covers, click here: Star Weekly at War.)
Jean Meets the Love of her Life
In a way it was Jean’s bad luck to meet the man of her dreams on her second day in the armed forces, because it meant a very long wait until they could be together.
The train chugging eastward was bearing hundreds of army recruits, both male and female. As Jean recalls: “On the way to dinner that first day, we had to pass through a coach of young soldiers, who greeted us with catcalls and whistles.
“As our sergeant marched us back again through the men’s coach after dinner, the men sang: ‘Be kind to your web-footed friend, for that CWAC may be somebody’s mother!’ The next day we were allowed to visit in the men’s coach, with both their sergeant and ours keeping an eye on us.”
A tall, handsome blond boy started talking to Jean. “All I could think of was that of all the girls in the carriage, he was talking to me!” Jean said. Tom was from Maidstone, Saskatchewan. When he found that Jean had been born in Canora, it was a common bond. (Saskatchewan people seem to find each other wherever they go).
The male army recruits on the train were headed for Camp Borden, Ontario, while the women were heading for Kitchener. Before parting on the third day, Tom and Jean, both of them in tears, exchanged addresses. Once Tom knew where Jean was stationed, he wasted no time in visiting her.
“While I was in Kitchener, Tom and I saw each other only twice when he visited me on weekend leaves. When he received his overseas posting, we spent the last weekend dancing together and then he left with the South Alberta Regiment.” (This was an armoured division equipped with tanks, and Tom served in a tank for the duration of the war.)
When he departed, Tom refused to let her come to the train station with him. Jean was terribly disappointed, but later a friend told her that he didn’t want Jean to see him crying when he left!
Here’s a photo of the young couple, facing a long separation of years before they could see each other again.
Meanwhile, Jean began her basic training, drilling and marching, and learning how to follow the rules along with hundreds of other young women. More than two-thirds of the CWACs took their basic training in Kitchener.
By war’s end, more than 21,000 women had served in the army corps. This poster shows that the Canadian Army respected its female members, who proved that they could do the job as well as any man in a support role, freeing men to join the combat overseas.
Initially, they worked as cooks, cleaners, tailors, and medical assistants. However, their duties expanded to include more traditionally male jobs such as driving trucks and ambulances, and working as mechanics and radar operators. This photo shows a member of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps pumping up the tire on an army vehicle.
Jean Begins War Work With Army Corps
While most CWACs served in Canada, about 3,000 of them were posted overseas. There was no question of Jean going overseas, since you had to be twenty-one years old to qualify for an overseas posting. So she volunteered for secretarial training, wisely concluding that this would be a useful skill in later life.
The twenty girls in her secretarial class marched one hour in the morning from Kitchener to Waterloo, spent the day studying, and marched back again. Jean earned her Lance-Corporal stripe for getting everyone up in the morning and ready to depart! (As in the men’s force, stripes on your sleeve indicated rank – one stripe for Lance Corporal, two stripes for Corporal, three stripes for Sergeant, and so forth.)
Jean’s class then transferred to Glebe Collegiate Institute in Ottawa to learn shorthand. “Our coffee break was always the same – big jelly doughnuts with powdered sugar!” Jean recalls.
While there, Jean and her friend had a personal tour of the Parliament Buildings, thanks to the Speaker of the House, James Glen, a lawyer from Russell, Manitoba who knew Jean’s father from their mutual courtroom cases.
Several months later, Jean completed her training and was posted to the Central Mechanization Depot in London, Ontario, and that’s where she spent the duration of the war, working in administration. Known as Canada’s largest Army garage, this is where all the army’s trucks, tanks, and other vehicles were taken for servicing and repairs.
Jean doesn’t appear in this photograph, but you can see how eager and excited the young women were to be part of the team. As they put it, this was a “total war” and nobody wanted to be left behind.
Jean came home only once on leave, for her sister Mary’s wedding. This is a splendid photograph of the three sisters — Gladys, Mary, and Jean. You can see that Gladys on the left, with two stripes on her sleeve, has already achieved the rank of Corporal, while Jean hasn’t earned any stripes yet.
And their proud father, RCMP Sergeant David Brims, took the opportunity to have a formal portrait taken of himself with his three lovely daughters, from left: Jean, Gladys, and Mary.
It was one of Jean’s proudest moments when her father, wearing his red serge uniform, saluted her on the train platform as she left to join the Canadian Women’s Army Corps.
While in London, Jean earned her second stripe when she was promoted to Corporal, bringing a small but welcome pay raise.
By then her sister Gladys had her third stripe, making her a Sergeant.
Here Sergeant David Brims, wearing his three stripes plus a gold crown, shakes hands with Sergeant Gladys Brims.
And here’s another photo of Gladys seated in the family living room, reading a letter. It is rare to see an interior photograph taken in those days — I suspect because the lighting was often so poor.
Jean Goes for a Joy Ride
It wasn’t typical for women back then to ride in airplanes, especially not women serving in the army rather than the air force, but Jean had the thrill of a lifetime when serving in Kitchener.
She made a friend in the armed forces named Gord Cameron from the nearby men’s barracks, and one day he asked Jean to come to the London airport for Open House Day.
“We joined a conducted tour and I noticed Gord speaking privately to our guide. Then he took my arm and led me over to a small two-seater airplane sitting on the tarmac by itself. Gord told me he had gotten permission to sit in it. He boosted me up into the seat behind, and then he got into the pilot’s seat in the front and started the engine. The next thing I knew, we were taking off!
“We flew all over London and when we went over the women’s barracks, my friends were all standing outside waving white towels because Gord had told them ahead of time about the surprise!”
Here’s a photo of Jean with her friend, Gord Cameron.
Gord wanted to marry Jean, but in spite of the airplane ride, she kept her feet on the ground and refused his proposal because she was still carrying a torch for her Saskatchewan soldier.
“I wrote to Tom and send him packages of cookies and candy. I even made him a record of our song, I’ll Get By. (Here’s a more recent recording of this beautiful song, by Connie Francis. To hear it, click: I’ll Get By.)
Jean laughingly recalls: “Tom told me later that he didn’t have a phonograph needle, so he had to use a sharpened toothpick. My singing wasn’t the greatest, so I can only imagine how the record sounded!”
After the War
Jean was demobbed in February 1946, six months after the war ended. She returned to Manitoba and found work at the Hudson Bay Company in Winnipeg, after taking a refresher course in shorthand, while she waited for Tom to come home.
The South Alberta Regiment had been deployed to France in 1944. Tom participated in the liberation of Holland, and spent the last weeks of the war fighting in Germany. After the war ended, he returned to Holland for several months.
Finally, the long-awaited day arrived in June 1946, and Jean went down to the Winnipeg train station. “I was wearing my best outfit, and a little hat with a veil.” The couple had a happy reunion and Tom immediately asked Jean if she could come home with him to Maidstone and meet his family.
Jean arranged time off work, and the pair took the train to Saskatoon, where they were met by Tom’s family and driven to Maidstone, about 250 kilometres away. Tom’s father was the grain elevator agent in Maidstone.
However, they were still not reunited permanently. Jean returned to her job in Winnipeg, and Tom was accepted into the Forestry program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. They didn’t see each other again until Christmas 1946, when they met in Maidstone for the holidays.
“There was a Christmas cracker on the tree and Tom told me to open it. Out popped a diamond solitaire ring!”
They decided not to be apart any longer, so Jean left her job in Winnipeg and accompanied Tom back to Vancouver. She lived at the YWCA downtown while Tom lived on the UBC Campus at Fort Camp (an old barracks used as a residence for military students).
Jean found work as secretary to the Assistant Manager of Birks Jewellery store downtown, while they waited for their wedding day. They set the date for September 10, 1947.
Jean Says Yes to the Dress
When Jean was a teenager back in Hamiota, she had a good friend, also named Jean Kelly. “We would walk along the railway tracks leading out of town. We picked pussywillows and wild roses, and enjoyed listening to the wild bird songs. We talked about school, our families, and naturally, boys. We promised each other that the first one married would loan the other one her wedding dress.
“By 1946 my friend Jean was already married and living in Brandon, Manitoba. When we were planning our wedding, money was scarce, so we only invited our parents and a few friends who lived in Vancouver. I intended to wear a suit that I could use later for work.
“A few weeks before the wedding, I received a parcel from Jean – her wedding dress, veil, and long, lacy gloves. The dress fit perfectly! I felt like a princess as I walked down the aisle of Christ Church Chapel in downtown Vancouver, holding my father’s arm.
“I hadn’t told Tom about the dress beforehand. His smile and the look in his eyes told me that I looked as beautiful as I felt!”
Surely there was never a more handsome groom than Tom Hubbard, nor a more beautiful bride than Jean Hubbard!
Tom finished his degree and became a registered forester. The Hubbards lived in Nelson, B.C. for thirteen years, then transferred back to the coast in 1969, when they purchased a mountainside home in West Vancouver with a spectacular ocean view, the home where Jean still lives alone today.
Sadly, Tom spent only a year in his new home before dying of lung cancer in 1970.
With three children to support, Jean found a job at the federal government’s Customs and Excise branch in Vancouver and worked there until her retirement in 1981. She also married again, to a wonderful man named John Cooper whom she met through her work. The couple purchased a camper and travelled extensively throughout North America and Europe before he died in 2005.
Today Jean still enjoys watching the ships in the harbor, and raising flowers and vegetables on her sunny deck. Both of her daughters, Carol and Linda, live nearby on Vancouver’s north shore; while her son Dave lives in Edmonton. She also has three grandchildren.
From her second marriage to John, she also has four stepchildren, four step-grandchildren, and four step-great-grandchildren, and still considers herself part of the Cooper family.
Of her days in the army, Jean says: “It was a privilege for me to follow in my father’s footsteps. He served in the Canadian Army during the First World War, and he was gassed at the Battle of Vimy Ridge and took months to recover. He then went on to serve our country as a member of the RCMP. We had big shoes to fill, but I know he was proud of all three of us girls.”
I took this photograph of Jean holding a portrait of her handsome young husband Tom. Although she turned 92 years old in May, she is sharp as a tack with a great sense of humour, and it was an absolute pleasure to meet her.
Thank you, Jean Brims Hubbard, for your service to our country!
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STAR WEEKLY AT WAR
The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. Each week it produced a colourful wartime illustration on the cover. This one shows the same little boy who appears on several other covers (does anybody remember if he had a name?) marching off to enlist. To see my collection of Star Weekly covers, click here: Star Weekly at War.