When this Manitoba farm girl joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, she proved to be such a whiz at Morse Code that she was assigned to instruct the air crews. Now almost ninety-three, Merle Taylor still practices her dots and dashes every day, claiming that Morse Code keeps her mind sharp.
Merle Taylor of Lochaber, Nova Scotia, wrote to me after reading my column in The Senior Paper, a newspaper widely distributed to seniors across Canada.
We exchanged copies of our books – I sent her my wartime novel, Bird’s Eye View; and she sent me a copy of her memoirs, Until the Cows Come Home.
When my husband and I travelled to the Maritimes recently, I was determined to meet Merle in person. We found her still living on the farm she operated with her husband Fred since 1946, about thirty kilometres south of Antigonish.
After serving lunch to us, Merle took me on a farm tour in her electric golf cart. I loved hearing her stories of life in the air force, and in the decades since then.
The Early Years
Merle Winnifred McIntyre was born on August 2, 1923 to parents Syd and Pearl McIntyre on a rented farm near Pembina, Manitoba, one of three girls and two boys. Later Merle’s parents purchased a mixed farm near Stonewall.
It was a hard life during the Depression, but living on a farm offered the best chance of survival. The McIntyres eked out a living by growing wheat, oats and barley, and raising chickens, pigs, and cattle.
Merle attended her local country school, where she received five dollars a year for working as the caretaker – starting the fires in winter, and sweeping the floor every day.
After she finished Grade 8, her family couldn’t afford to send her to Stonewall for further education, so she completed Grades 9 and 10 by correspondence.
Here’s a photo of Merle as a toddler.
Merle Joins the Royal Canadian Air Force
Merle had just turned sixteen when war was declared in September 1939. For the first couple of years, she continued to work on the farm. Then she found paid employment at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. The Canadian military was using the university’s laundry service, and Merle ironed their uniforms.
She was at home recovering from an illness when her uncle Sandy Horne, a wireless air gunner from LaRiviere, Manitoba, visited the family before being posted overseas. He looked so impressive in his blue uniform that Merle was determined to contribute to the war effort herself.
In 1942 she spent six months working on another farm, seven days a week, ten hours a day! “At the end of the summer, I calculated that my total pay was eight cents an hour,” Merle recalls. When that job ended, she took the bus into Winnipeg and went to the air force recruiting centre, where she studied the list of careers available to women.
“You could be a motor transit driver, a medical assistant, a metereologist in the tower, a cook, or a wireless operator ground (WOG). The position of WOG had recently been added, as a large number of air gunners were being killed in the skies over Germany. These air gunners were being replaced by male WOGs as they were already fluent in Morse Code. In turn, the vacant WOG positions were opened to women,” she explained.
With the image of Uncle Sandy fresh in her memory, Merle applied for a WOG position. She was given an aptitude test, the main requirement being the ability to take Morse Code. “The room was filled with men and smoke,” Merle recalls. One part of the test involved listening to two separate Morse Code signals and detecting whether they were the same, or different.
In October, Merle received word that she had passed the test and was accepted as a wireless operator. Like all the other new recruits in the RCAF Women’s Division, she reported to Rockcliffe, Ontario, for her basic training.
When Merle arrived and was fitted out in her uniform, she was thrilled to wear the very first pair of shoes in her life that fit properly! She was handed the new boxy RCAF hat which the girls liked better than the old pleated hat.
She also remembers that as soon as the girls got out of sight of the base, they rolled their skirts up at the waistband so they were above the knees, then rolled them down again when they returned to base.
This photo shows Merle looking very serious in her new uniform.
Merle Trains as a WOG
After her training, Merle was sent to Number 1 Wireless School in Montreal. There she learned how to use Morse Code, how to signal using lights and flags, as well as other theoretical classes such as the components of a radio.
In Morse Code, a “dot” or “dit” is the duration of one unit. A “dash” or “duh” is the duration of three units. Between words is the duration of seven units. Each letter is represented by a unique series — the letter A is represented by one dot and one dash; the letter B by one dash and three dots; and so forth. The dots and dashes are made by clicking a lever on a telegraph machine called a “straight key.”
Merle still has an old machine, shown here.
The most familiar Morse Code signal is S.O.S., the signal for distress – three dots, three dashes, and three dots.
If you want to hear what it sounds like, click here: Morse Code.
Eighteen words per minute of Morse Code was required to pass the course, and Merle was able to send twenty-eight words per minute and receive twenty-two words per minute. There were fifty-two students in her class, and only twenty-seven of them passed. Merle came third in the class.
This photo shows a group of girls at the No. 1 Wireless School in Montreal in 1943. Merle is seated in the front row, third from left.
Merle Meets the Love of Her Life
Hundreds of WOG recruits, both male and female, were housed on separate floors in a converted mental hospital in Montreal, and shared a recreation room.
One day Merle sat down on one side of a marble pillar in the recreation room to write a letter to her parents, and noticed an airman seated at a desk on the opposite side of the pillar.
“He approached and asked if he could borrow some ink, as his fountain pen had run out. He asked me my name, and then told me his name was Frank MacDonald. The next night I returned to the recreation room. Frank approached me again and asked if I would like to go to a movie the next night.
“The movie theatre was located about one-half mile from the base and as we were walking home, he informed me that his name was not Frank MacDonald but Fred Taylor! Fred apologized and explained that it was the habit of airmen never to give their proper names to women they had just met! It was a joke that provided much laughter when we recalled it in later years.”
That was the beginning of a whirlwind courtship between the farmer’s daughter from Stonewall, Manitoba, and the farmer’s son from Lochaber, Nova Scotia. On May 26, 1943 Fred graduated as a wireless electric mechanic (WEM). His duties included the installation and repair of radios in various aircraft.
Fred was posted to the British Commonwealth Air Training Program’s Number 3 Service Flight Training School in Calgary. By the time he left for his posting, he and Merle had already decided to marry.
Merle Instructs Airmen in Saskatoon
Communication was integral to defending the eastern seaboard of Canada. As Merle was one of the top students in Morse Code, she was assigned to Halifax. But wanting to be closer to Fred, she asked for a position in Western Canada instead.
She was posted to Number 4 Service Flight Training School in Saskatoon, where she became a wireless instructor. Her students were air crew trainees from all over the British Commonwealth, mostly pilots. After their training, these young men would leave for England and join the war effort.
Merle’s students were in her class for six weeks at a time. They were expected to learn how to send five words a minute in Morse Code – a far cry from Merle’s twenty-eight words per minute!
This photo shows Merle at the front of the class, teaching the young men the intricacies of Morse Code. In many respects it was like learning a new language.
Merle Makes a Difficult Decision
Merle and Fred wrote to each other every single day. In July 1943 Merle travelled to Calgary by train where the young couple attended the Calgary Stampede, and purchased a diamond engagement ring for ninety-nine dollars. They also set the date – August 2, 1943 – Merle’s twentieth birthday.
After Merle returned to Saskatoon, she received one of the coveted overseas postings. Although she longed to go to England, she followed her heart instead.
On her twentieth birthday, she was married to Fred Taylor by a minister in Calgary, with the minister’s wife and neighbour as witnesses. The newlyweds spent their honeymoon in a rented apartment before Merle returned to her duties in Saskatoon.
In October Merle discovered that she was pregnant. The military didn’t allow pregnant women to serve, so the air force informed her on December 8, 1943 that her services were no longer required. (Interestingly, there is no mention of her pregnancy on her official discharge certificate.)
Merle was sorry to leave the service after her short but brilliant career, but she decided to devote herself to her family.
This photograph shows Fred and Merle on their wedding day, which was also Merle’s twentieth birthday. You can see their matching red shoulder badges with rays of electricity, showing that they were both in Communications.
Fred and Merle moved into one rented room in a three-storey house at 815-3rd Avenue West in Calgary, and Fred continued his duties on the air base. They shared the house with four other young military families.
In June 1944 Merle gave birth to her first son Sandy, named after her Uncle Sandy Horne. Sadly, her uncle did not survive the war – he was shot down over Germany and reported missing in action on December 26, 1943.
This photo shows the young couple walking down the street in Calgary.
An Unusual Souvenir
Merle has one precious memento from her life in Calgary. As she explains:
“One time Fred’s love of poker got him into trouble. He and some other airmen were caught playing penny ante during their noon break, and Fred was confined to barracks for a week.
“To pass the time, he asked me to send him some radio parts and he would build me a radio. I gathered up the parts at a local hardware store and sent them to the barracks on a bus. A week later Fred came home with a radio, complete with an attractive moulded cabinet that he had shaped out of a piece of plywood. He had cut my initial “M” into the opening for the speaker.
“The radio turned out to be quite useful, as it was almost immediately given to the landlady in exchange for a month’s rent!
“Thirty-five years later, I received a Christmas card from the landlady’s daughter. Included with the card was a note that she had recently died, and left us the radio in her will! So in 1980 my son Sidney, who was working in Calgary at the time, picked up the radio and it made its way here to Lochaber.”
Here is the homemade radio, showing the M carved in the front cabinet, and the inner workings.
Fred Posted Overseas
On April 10, 1945, Merle had her appendix removed, and the following day Fred received notice that he was being posted overseas!
The young family left three days later on a troop train for Halifax. Merle and baby Sandy were headed to the farm at Lochaber to spend the rest of the war with Fred’s parents, William and Lottie.
The journey on a very crowded troop train took five days and six nights. “I had to stop nursing while I was in the hospital. In the middle of the night I was on my way to the dining car to heat Sandy’s bottle. The train gave a lurch and Sandy and I fell through the curtain and landed on top of a sailor who was fast asleep in his bunk!”
Naturally Merle was nervous about meeting Fred’s parents, but they welcomed her warmly. Accustomed to hard work, she adapted quickly to the usual farm chores.
“After growing up on a stony farm in Manitoba, I thought this place was heaven,” Merle said. “There were trout in the river, deer in the woods, and wild strawberries in the fields.”
Here’s a photo of Merle, looking very smart in her coat and hat, saying goodbye to Fred in Halifax.
After the War
By the time Fred shipped out for England in April 1945, the war was almost over. However, since he was one of the last men to arrive in England, he was also one of the last to leave. He returned to Halifax on January 16, 1946 after being away for nine months. Merle joined the excited crowd of women and children on the docks in Halifax to welcome him home.
Fred and Merle purchased their own 225-acre farm near Lochaber in 1946, complete with farm buildings, hens, dairy cows, one workhorse — and a house built in 1889. It was located in a broad valley formed by hills surrounding the long, narrow, Lochaber Lake.
“When we were looking for a farm, I just kept thinking that I couldn’t live on a hill,” Merle recalls. “I had never seen anything bigger than an anthill on the prairies!”
Unfortunately their house was located on a flat piece of land which proved to have one disadvantage – about once a year the basement flooded when the nearby creek overflowed its banks.
Fred and Merle’s life together was busy and demanding, as they worked to create a profitable farm and raise a family. Four more sons – Lloyd, Keith, Sidney, and James – were born at three-year intervals.
Besides clearing more land and cutting firewood, they did whatever they could to raise money, including shooting and skinning squirrels for a Winnipeg company, and growing commercial strawberries and blueberries.
Fred was an expert hunter, and every fall Merle would can two hundred jars of deer meat to eat during the winter. “We could always feed ourselves,” she said.
Meanwhile, Fred took courses in property appraisal, and started to work full-time for the municipality as an assessor, eventually rising to the position of director for the entire region.
Merle Becomes a Businesswoman
As Fred’s career evolved, the bulk of the farm operation passed to Merle, who was also busy raising five rambunctious boys.
In Canada’s centennial year, 1967, she and Fred built a new house on their property closer to the highway. The following year, Merle quit the labour-intensive dairy business, and started a new venture – manufacturing cultured marble products.
Together she and Fred made large items such as countertops and shower stalls, plus smaller items like soap dishes and pen sets. Merle ran this business for another ten years in a building across the road from her house.
After many sleepless nights pondering the options, Merle had named the farm Glenhill Farm after both the glen and the hill on their property, now expanded to 380 acres. She named her new business Glenhill Industries.
In 1978 she came up with another bright idea – growing Christmas trees for the commercial market. Assisted by Fred, Merle learned how to plant, thin, and shear balsam fir and Scotch pine trees so they were the perfect shape. She spent many hours traipsing through the bush, accompanied only by the family dog. As many as 2,500 trees were cut and shipped each November.
Merle Loses Her Life Partner
Tragedy struck in 1981 when Fred was diagnosed with bowel cancer. In spite of various treatments, he died prematurely at sixty-three years old, a terrible blow to Merle and the boys.
Merle ran the farm herself for the next four years. Fortunately her son Sid and his wife Barbara took over Glenhill Farm in 1986. They are currently renovating the original farmhouse, complete with its hand-hewn beams, which was moved to higher ground near Merle’s house.
From her front window, Merle can see the shop across the road, now a gift shop operated by her daughter-in-law, the strawberry fields, and the surrounding green hills that she came to love.
Merle’s Contribution to the Community
In addition to running a farm, a business, and raising five boys, Merle found time to contribute to her community, In fact, her volunteer record is staggeringly impressive.
For many years, she was member of the Women’s Institute, the Curling Club, the Lochaber Seniors, the Lochaber United Church Choir, and the Christmas Tree Association.
Her basement is decorated with dozens of championship ribbons she won over the years for her baking, pickles, preserves and Christmas trees.
Merle is still a marvellous cook, as I can attest. When we arrived at her house, she served us homemade fish chowder (already eaten when I took this photo), homemade buns, homemade scones, homemade fruit bread, homemade raisin tarts, and homemade strawberry preserves (made from strawberries she picked herself).
Merle estimates that she has made 278 quilts, and donated most of them to the needy. She still assembles them using her old treadle sewing machine. Here she is showing me her latest creation, while a pile of finished quilts sits on a chair in the background.
For Merle’s ninetieth birthday in 2013, all five sons helped to compile her memories into a book called Until the Cows Come Home. Merle sold enough copies to pay for a handsome wrought-iron gate on the nearby Murray Cemetery where Fred was laid to rest.
Merle has been honoured in many ways. She was the first inductee on the Lochaber Honour Roll in 2013, in recognition of her contribution to the Lochaber community over eight decades.
Also in 2013, Merle received the Governor-General’s Caring Canadian Award, honouring volunteers who have made a significant contribution to their community and country.
All five of Merle’s boys graduated from St. Francis Xavier University in nearby Antigonish, and she set up a Fred Taylor Memorial Scholarship there in her late husband’s memory.
Merle was a long-time supporter of the local community centre called Sylvan Hall. so she was saddened to hear it had structural problems and must be demolished.
However, she got behind the efforts to build a new community centre and generously supported the local committee raising money for the new hall, which now also serves as a home for the rowing team from Saint Francis Xavier. She has become close to the rowers and often treats them to lunch after their workout on the lake.
In her honour, a rowing scull was named the Merle Taylor. The local club also dedicated the Merle Taylor Award for Team Spirit, presented to the winning team at the Canadian University Rowing Championship, held at Lochaber in 2015. Merle took us down to the lake to show us “her” rowing scull, which was hanging up with the others.
Here she is, still wearing her apron, posing in front of the rowing sculls stored on a rack beside the lakeshore.
Merle Still Loves Morse Code
Although Merle’s time in the air force was short, it was one of the highlights of her long, eventful life. She remains a faithful Royal Canadian Legion member. “The time in the air force really impacted my life,” she said.
One lasting result of her air force training is her ongoing love of Morse Code. In 1986 Merle passed the exams necessary to become a ham radio operator – receiving a mark of 100 percent on the Morse Code test.
She set up her radio system in her basement and to this day, she communicates with people around the world, both through voice and Morse Code. During the 1980s, she even won the provincial annual amateur radio competition.
Merle loves demonstrating Morse Code to school groups and visitors. Anyone who walks through the door – including me – is asked to sit down and send her name using Morse Code. Using the written instructions she has hanging on the wall, I managed to do it to Merle’s satisfaction!
Here we are seated in front of a world map, dotted with pins showing the location of all the people Merle has been in contact with through her ham radio.
Merle, thank you for the delicious lunch, the farm tour, and the lesson in Morse Code. It was a great honour to meet you!
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MY FAVOURITE VETERANS
Merle Taylor’s wonderful story, along with twenty-seven other original articles from Wartime Wednesdays, are now available in print under the title My Favourite Veterans: True Stories From World War Two’s Hometown Heroes. For more information, visit the book cover image on the bottom of this page.
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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. Here’s an image showing a Canadian soldier being reunited with his little girl. To see my collection of Star Weekly covers, click here: Star Weekly At War.