Royal Canadian Air Force veteran Dot Proulx was so modest about her wartime service that she wouldn’t allow me to publish this until after her death. She passed away on November 20, 2022 at the age of ninety-nine, and I am honoured to share her story at last.
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The Early Years
Dora (Dot) LeMoal was born March 14, 1923 to French-Canadian parents who farmed at White Star, Saskatchewan. She was the eldest of three, with sister Agnes and brother James.
Dot says she was always a tomboy. “I worked outside with my Dad because I hated housework.”
When she was sixteen, her parents sent her to Richmond, B.C. to board with an aunt and uncle and finish her high school. It wasn’t a happy experience for the unsophisticated farm girl, but she completed her Grade 12 before joining the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division, commonly known as the W.D.s.
The Adventure Begins
In July 1942 she boarded the train that would take her to Havergal College in Toronto for six weeks of basic training. “I know it was summer because my ears were sunburned from picking strawberries,” she recalls.
From there, she was sent to Rockcliffe, Ontario. After testing, Dot was assigned to complete an eight-week trades training course. She learned Morse Code, teletype operation, and ship and aircraft recognition. She was then sent to Halifax, Nova Scotia. There she and the other young women did odd jobs for three months while anxiously awaiting their permanent posting.
“Everybody wanted to go overseas,” said Dot. “That was the main reason for joining up.” Some of them yearned to join brothers or boyfriends; most of them just wanted to be closer to the action.
Finally the big day arrived when they were told to pack their bags. Fifty-six young women were loaded onto a bus that went across the bay from Halifax to Dartmouth, divided into groups, and told to board three old VC3 aircraft. “Of course when we got onto the plane we all thought we were going overseas!”
They were going overseas, all right — but not to Britain!
Once on board the aircraft, they were informed that they were heading towards the Dominion of Newfoundland, then a separate country. Since they were now leaving Canada, each girl was given Canada badges to sew onto the shoulders of their uniforms.
This photo of Dot shows the Canada patch on her shoulder.
When I asked if there were any tears over the news that they weren’t heading for England, Dot scoffed. “There were always girls who cried for unknown reasons, and I used to wonder how they could be such babies!”
Their whereabouts were strictly confidential. Dot wrote home from Newfoundland, being careful not to reveal her location. “Mother said later that I might as well not have bothered, since the letter was so full of holes she could barely read it.” During wartime, censors read the mail and cut out passages with scissors if the information was deemed confidential.
Newfoundland was no longer a sleepy island, but a beehive of activity and a vital jumping-off point for the war raging overseas. It had become one of the most highly militarized places in North America. The United States alone spent more than $100 million to build military bases in St. John’s, Argentia, and Stephenville.
Canada had expanded its bases at Gander and Botwood, and installed new airfields at Torbay and Goose Bay. From 1943 to 1945, about 16,000 Canadian troops were stationed in Newfoundland and Labrador at any one time.
When Dot’s group arrived in 1943, the Americans desperately needed their assistance. The W.D.s were posted to an American base named Fort Pepperell, near St. John’s, and assigned to Fighter Operations: the operations room was all set up, but they had no staff. Here’s a photo of Fort Pepperell headquarters.
The Canadian women were trained and eager to begin work. They lived on the RCAF base at St. John’s, and were driven to Fort Pepperell (now known as Pleasantville) each day by truck. It was a huge base, occupied by 5,500 American personnel.
Here they are, eager to work. Dot is third from the left.
This photo shows Dot on the grounds at Fort Pepperell.
Newfoundland was an important strategic location, both for convoys of troop ships and supplies leaving North America for Britain, and as the last fuelling stop for aircraft heading overseas to take part in the conflict. As such, it was a prime target for German submarines that lurked in the Atlantic and often ventured daringly close to land.
The responsibility of the Canadian women was to plot the exact location of every aircraft and ship and submarine in the vicinity. Information came in by telephone from the radar sites, giving the latitude and longitude readings for each ship on the sea, and every aircraft overhead.
These would be “plotted” on a special tracking table, using long poles that looked like billiard cues. Dot and her group were plotters, a very important and top secret occupation. Like all the others, Dot had to sign the Official Secrets Act, swearing never to reveal anything she learned.
This photo of plotters in England shows the type of work that Dot performed in Newfoundland.
Danger Lurked in the Deep
Many days were uneventful, but there was always a sense of danger from the lurking submarines. “One night we got called out when a convoy was bombed just outside St. John’s and a couple of ships were sunk,” she said.
And German subs occasionally came close enough to shore to present a real threat. “We were not only defending the convoys, we were defending our own coastline,” Dot said.
Dot recalls the day she caught a glimpse of a German submarine in real life. “One Sunday a bunch of us went hiking on the shore and we saw a dark object under the water, near Bell Island. Somebody hiked back to base and reported it. Sure enough, it was a sub!”
Dot and her friends had plenty of fresh air and exercise during their long hikes through the rugged countryside. “We had a wonderful padre who would take us on a day-long hike around the country every other Sunday after church service. He was a naturalist, and he told us all about the flora and fauna of the area.”
After eight months at Fort Pepperell, Dot was transferred to a Canadian base, RCAF Torbay, now the site of St. John’s International Airport. During the peak war years, the RCAF stationed more than 2,000 men at the base. Their mission was to provide air cover for Allied convoys, patrol the North Atlantic for U-boats, and protect both St. John’s and nearby Bell Island from enemy attack.
Dot’s duties there were much the same, although her skills had grown by then. “Remember radar wasn’t that good in those days, and sometimes you had to follow something very carefully and watch its speed to determine whether it was a boat or an iceberg.”
Besides plotting, she also translated wireless messages and performed telephone duty, talking to the personnel at the radar stations and recording the information provided.
Love and Friendship
“You spent a lot of time chatting with the boys who were living out at the radar stations,” Dot recalled. “They didn’t always give you the best information, and you had to learn how to extract it from them. Plus they were very isolated and lonely, so talking to a girl at the other end was a real morale-booster for them.”
There was certainly no shortage of men. Dot had her share of dates, as did all the girls, but she wasn’t prepared to get serious with anyone after receiving a “Dear Mary” letter.
That was when her first boyfriend went overseas to Scotland, found a new girlfriend and wrote her a “Dear Mary” letter, breaking it off with her. The male equivalent was the “Dear John” letter that many men overseas received from their former wives or girlfriends.
There were plenty of outings with both men and women. Interestingly, Dot claimed she couldn’t remember why she and her friends were climbing a fence in this photo!
Life in Uniform
Wearing the same uniform month after month became tedious. At first, the Women’s Division wore hats that were replicas of their British counterparts, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAFs) with a full, gathered crown — sometimes known as the old piecrust. Read more about the hats on my previous post here: Hats, Helmets, and Headgear.
Later, the W.D.s were fitted out with their new uniform, including this snappy streamlined hat.
Most W.D.s loved the new hat. Dot was one of the few women who didn’t. “You didn’t have to cut your hair, but the regulation said it wasn’t allowed to touch your collar. I always wore my hair in braids and they fit under the old cap, but not under the new cap!”
She finally cut her hair when she started dating a guy who loved to swim. “If we went swimming in the morning, my hair didn’t have time to dry before I went on my afternoon shift. There were no hair dryers then!”
Here Dot and her friend are wearing the thick stocking and sensible shoes that were part of the regulation uniform.
“The only time we could wear our own clothes on the base was if there was a dance. The base would be buzzing with excitement, and everyone would be changing into their dresses, painting their legs with makeup if they didn’t have silk stockings. I usually wore a skirt and blouse, because then I could change either one to make a new outfit.”
Victory at Last
When Germany finally surrendered on May 7, 1945, the celebration was marked by a riot in Halifax, notorious to this day. During the war, Halifax had doubled in size and was very overcrowded. To mark the occasion, all the bars, restaurants and businesses in the city shut down. At the same time, thousands of sailors were allowed to leave their ships.
By midnight, the streets were filled with 12,000 celebrants with no place to go. They rioted instead, setting ablaze tramcars, smashing windows, looting liquor stores and robbing stores. Unfortunately the situation continued throughout the next day.
Dot was almost caught up in the riot. “I remember walking down the street and seeing a jewelry store with a guard posted in front of the window, trying to keep it from being looted.
“Every military man we met on the street shouted at us to get back to the duty boat and head towards our base in Dartmouth. So that’s what we did.” The duty boat was the official transport than ran across the harbor between Halifax and Dartmouth.
Dot maintained that the service personnel were unfairly blamed for the riot. She believed that civilians living in Halifax – many of them from other parts of Canada, working at the seaport – were responsible for the mayhem.
After the War
While many W.D.s were discharged and sent home after Germany fell, Dot was still in service when Japan surrendered and the war finally ended in August 1945. She remained in uniform for another three months.
“Everyone who could type was posted to the discharge centre, processing forms.” Hundreds of thousands of men were returning to Canada by ship. Dot was present on the dock in the middle of the night to greet her own cousin, a former prisoner of war who arrived home in a wheelchair.
After her discharge in October 1945, Dot returned to Saskatchewan and soon found a job working for the White Pass & Yukon Railway in Whitehorse, Yukon.
A year later she met Thomas Proulx, a Canadian Army veteran who was working for the Department of National Defence, and they were married in Whitehorse on May 8, 1948.
After having a boy and a girl, the family left for Chilliwack, B.C. in 1953, and Thomas returned to service life, joining the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1954. They were posted back to Whitehorse for two years; then to Aylmer, Quebec for four years; and then to Penhold, Alberta for two years.
Dot finally had her wish granted to go overseas when Tom was posted to RCAF Wing 1 in Marville, France for four years. While in France, Dot was the Editorial Co-ordinator for the base’s newspaper, The Arrowhead Tribune.
“I had pretty good knowledge of the air force through my experience, both as a veteran and as an air force wife. The wives aren’t given enough credit. They’re the ones who care for the family and support the husband, making his career possible.”
The Proulx family then returned to Gimli, Manitoba for two years until Thomas retired at the age of fifty, and they looked for the perfect town. They fell in love with the friendliness and recreation opportunities in Revelstoke, B.C., and lived there until 1980.
Tom worked for Parks Canada, but resigned after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Dot worked for B.C. Hydro until she was transferred to Invermere, B.C. in 1980. Tom passed away in 1989.
Dot credits her time in the RCAF as giving her the experience that lasted throughout her working life.
“Sitting at a plotting table for eight hours wearing headphones was tiring, and so I didn’t fall asleep I had to exercise my brain. The things that we learned in the service stood us in good stead when we got out. We had a lot of spare time due to bad weather, so when I was off-duty I visited museums and libraries. You might say that my time in the air force gave me my basic education.”
After her husband’s death, Dot lived alone in her own house in Invermere, far away from her children and grandchildren. Her son Brian, who has two boys, became an aeronautics engineer and lives in Thailand. Daughter Constance is a retired nurse living in the U.S.
Dot’s mind remained as sharp throughout her life as when she was searching for enemy submarines. For several years, she worked on her family history and her office was filled with files and photos.
At the age of 98, Dot finally sold her house and moved into Columbia Garden Village, a seniors’ residence.
Dot remained fiercely independent to the end — just as during those far-off days when she was a twenty-year-old girl heading off to fight the enemy.
Rest in peace, Dot Proulx.
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A Heartwarming Surprise
Many of the older posts I wrote about veterans — found by searching the index on the right side of this page — are still being discovered.
I was so pleased to receive this email from Amber Dunham, about her grandfather, RAF Wing Commander Peter Francis Dunham.
A young Canadian Lancaster pilot, Leo Richer, actually witnessed Dunham’s demise when his aircraft exploded. Leo wrote about this incident in the story: A Rookie Pilot’s Nightmare.
I have recently been trying to research the life of my grandfather who was a pilot in Bomber Command during the Second World War. This research led me to your interview with Leo Richer. A Rookie Pilot’s Nightmare. What a surprise and delight to find such a detailed description of my grandfather! I have a photo of him in his earlier days in RAF which I have attached for your interest. Kind regards, Amber Dunham
I’m happy to share this image of the respected RAF officer who was so kind to a young Canadian — one of his last acts on earth.
Rest in peace, Peter Francis Dunham.
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Friends, I am making headway on my four 2023 New Year’s Resolutions! I am simultaneously working on my screenplay and my manuscript; stoutly resisting all requests to volunteer; and reading some very good books!
Here’s the best one so far: written by a Canadian author, Station Eleven is an award-winning dystopian novel that takes place after a global pandemic wipes out most of humanity. I was initially reluctant to read a book with this subject, but this was a gripping yarn and happily, not as dark as it sounds.
In the words of author Maureen Corrigan: “It’s not that I don’t like people. It’s just that when I’m in the company of others – even my nearest and dearest – there always comes a moment when I’d rather be reading a book!”