There’s a reason why it’s called The Greatest Generation – and Yvonne Valleau Wildman of Kindersley, Saskatchewan, aged 92, is a shining example. She had a hardscrabble childhood, served her country with the Royal Canadian Air Force in World War Two, farmed for six decades, and raised seven children.
I was first contacted by Yvonne’s granddaughter Danyelle Loyer after she read my blog post about Georgina Harvey of Kelowna, B.C., who served as a photographer in Vulcan, Alberta during the war. You can read my original post by clicking here: Georgina Harvey.
Dani wanted to tell me about her own grandmother, who was also a photographer at Vulcan and served alongside Georgina. So on a recent trip to the prairies, I made a detour to Kindersley so I could meet Yvonne. And I’m glad I did!
Typical of her age and gender, Yvonne was modest about her wartime record, and hadn’t looked at her photo album and scrapbook for many years.
But during our three-hour visit, the memories came flooding back and I had a thoroughly enjoyable time listening to her descriptions of life on a British Commonwealth air training base.
But first, Yvonne told me about her childhood. (I’ve heard some hard luck stories, but this one is extraordinary.)
Yvonne’s Early Years
Yvonne’s father was eking out a living as a hired hand near Kindersley when he married and had two young boys. Seeking a better life, the young family moved to Portland, Oregon, and he worked as a service station attendant for the next seven years while his wife had three more boys and one girl. Yvonne was born on August 1, 1923.
Deciding that Canada was best after all, they came home when Yvonne was four years old. Her father found work with another farmer at Neilburg, Saskatchewan, and the family – now with six children – lived in a structure formed by pushing two wooden granaries together. “There was no running water, of course,” Yvonne said. “Your running water was running to get it.”
Moving to Vancouver Island
Another two boys followed, for a total of eight children. Her father decided to move out west to Vancouver Island and seek work in the forestry industry. He and his oldest son headed for a lumber camp near Duncan, B.C., where he was hired as a mechanic for H. R. McMillan Forest Products. Located at Mount Prevost, the camp was known as “Little Saskatchewan.”
In September 1937, when Yvonne had just turned fourteen, the rest of the family followed.
“We had an old Hudson car. The boys cut off the car behind the front seat and built a wooden house with a peaked roof on the back, and two wooden benches inside. We packed everything we owned in five-gallon metal pails, even our clothes.
“The two oldest boys were 17 and 15, and they did all the driving while the rest of us sat inside on the wooden benches. My youngest brother was three. We drove through the States because there were no paved roads in the Canadian Rockies back then. At night we slept in a huge tent.
“Our poor old vehicle almost gave up the ghost climbing some of those steep mountain passes with hairpin turns. We coasted down the hills because the brakes weren’t very good. Whenever we got the chance, we stopped at roadside stands to buy fruit and vegetables.”
The Hudson finally made it to Port Angeles in Washington State, crossed to Sidney on Vancouver Island by ferry, and travelled up the coast to Duncan.
When I asked if her father was happy to see his wife and seven youngest children, Yvonne shook her head. “Doubtful,” was all she said.
Life in a Lumber Camp
The family moved into a cabin and her father built a lean-to on the side with three beds. “That’s where the boys slept, six of them, head to toe. I slept on a single couch with my youngest brother, little Ronnie.”
Her mother was the primary caregiver for the family. “We didn’t see much of my Dad – he had to walk between seven different logging camps, fixing their equipment.”
Things looked up when a nearby camp occupied by Chinese workers shut down – the family immediately moved into the roomy cookhouse. This was relative luxury, since there was a huge wooden table where they could all sit together, a cookstove, and a pump leading to an underground well.
Second World War Declared
In 1939 the family moved to an empty house in the nearby community of Cowichan Station and the children began attending school. War was declared soon after. The eldest son Gerald joined the Canadian Forestry Corps and was dispatched to Scotland, where he remained for six years. (Thirty-five thousand Canadians served overseas as lumberjacks in Britain, producing timber needed for the war effort).
Yvonne worked for a couple who had a chicken business – she fed and watered them, cleaned the pens, and gutted chicken carcasses.
The family moved two more times, to Cowichan Bay and back to Duncan. There Yvonne worked as a housecleaner, riding her bicycle to work. A lover of music, she also learned to play the piano. “I cleaned house for a piano teacher and took lessons for a year in exchange.”
Meanwhile, three more brothers joined up. Eugene became a bugle boy in the army, then drove a truck for the Red Cross. Bob served in the army’s motorcycle corps, and Howard served in the navy.
Yvonne Joins the Air Force
When Yvonne was nineteen, she and her girlfriend took the train to Victoria and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. This photo in her album is captioned “I Joined Up.”
Here’s the travel document for the first leg of her journey, from Victoria to Vancouver.
Basic Training at Rockcliffe
Like all women who enlisted in the air force, she was ordered to report to Ottawa. From Vancouver, the girls crossed the country in a train to Ottawa. “I was wearing a cotton dress and open-toed shoes because it was spring on the coast. When we got to Ottawa, it was twenty below and the place was covered with snow. We almost froze! A truck picked us up at the train station and we stood in the back of the open truck, shivering, while they drove us to the base.”
Yvonne spent the next few weeks at Rockcliffe, Ontario (now part of Ottawa) for her basic training. “We had all of our shots in one day. I felt like a pincushion and ached all over.”
She had hoped to get into the Motor Mechanics class because she was always interested in engines, like her Dad. But her hopes were dashed because that required a Grade 10 certificate, and Yvonne had only finished Grade 8.
Instead she was assigned to her second choice, photography. This was one of the more difficult trades and the women needed to work hard to pass. “We had to take the cameras apart, name all the parts.”
When I remarked that Yvonne must have been clever to pass her exams, she admitted modestly: “There were university students there who didn’t do as well as me.”
Aerial photography was required for the class, and that meant going up in an airplane for the first time. “My girlfriend and I were looking forward to flying because of the nice-looking pilot. But he showed off by swooping and diving, and my stomach couldn’t stand it. I have never felt so horrible in my life!”
In addition to the classroom work, the girls walked one mile from the barracks to the classroom and back, twice a day, for a total of four miles. They also did route marches wearing heavy packs, and had parade drills.
“We had to wear these heavy lisle stockings with our uniforms, and we used to turn them inside out so the interior seams showed up the backs of our legs. That made them look more sheer. We wouldn’t do it if we were on parade inspection, of course.”
I asked her if she was homesick. “There was no time to be homesick. We were up at six and by ‘Lights Out’ we were already out!”
Serving at RCAF Vulcan, Alberta
After her training, Yvonne was posted to Service Flight Training School Number 19 at Vulcan, Alberta. Yvonne immediately made two close friends. Pictured here are Doris Bennett from Toronto, nicknamed “Doe,” Yvonne Valleau, nicknamed “Val,” and Ethel Williamson from Sexsmith, Alberta, nicknamed “Blondie.”
“We called ourselves the BVDs,” she said, chuckling — a reference to a brand of men’s underwear.
The women and men in her section took photos of activities on the base, including graduation group photos, and individual photos when the men earned their wings on “wings parades.” They also did all the darkroom work.
“The only thing we didn’t do were the accident photos – the men did that.” Every training base had a high number of accident fatalities and photos had to be taken of the crash sites.
Here’s a photo of Yvonne with a camera on a tripod used for portraits.
Primarily, however, the women developed the photos used when teaching the men how to bomb targets.
Pilots went to a Service Flight Training School after they earned their wings. They were divided into single engine and multi-engine pilots. Vulcan was a multi-engine station, where pilots began to learn to handle the heavy bombers. The pilots learned to make bombing runs over a target, with the use of an aerial camera mounted beneath the wings.
As Yvonne explained: “The negatives were four inches square, and came in strips of twelve. The men were supposed to line up over the target and start taking photos. The first eleven should show a straight run over the target, and then the target should appear in the last photo.
“When they came back from target practice, they would swear up and down that they had hit the target. And then when we developed the photos, we could see that they were all zig-zagged and sometimes the target wasn’t in any of them!”
This photo shows Yvonne lining up a strip of negatives.
Although the women didn’t earn as much money as the men, even for doing exactly the same job, she didn’t complain. She sent most of her money home to her mother, to keep it for her. “There wasn’t much to spend it on anyway.” She did, however, buy Victory Bonds, like this example in her scrapbook. This is how the federal government raised money to fund the war effort.
Yvonne’s scrapbook and album are bulging with interesting documents and photos from the war years. This, for example, is a program from one of the Open Houses that the girls held while still at Rockcliffe.
This beautiful image adorned an RCAF-issue Christmas card.
Like all women in uniform, Yvonne formed close friendships. One of the things that struck Yvonne about the service was the camaraderie. “In the service, there was no such thing as cliques. Everyone was the same. If you went to a dance, you danced with everybody.”
The Photo Section had seven women and four men. Here’s a shot of five of the women: Front row, left to right: Yvonne “Val” Valleau, Doris “Doe” Bennett, Ethel “Blondie” Williamson. Back row: Unidentified, Georgina “Georgie” Harvey.
Here she is with her dear friend “Doe” Bennett.
And here’s another photo of Yvonne with her friend “Blondie” Williamson.
And at all times, they were surrounded by men. “You didn’t have any trouble finding boyfriends in the service!” Yvonne said wryly.
This photo is one of many, showing Yvonne with various airmen who liked to have their pictures taken with the girls on the base.
(When I asked whether she had any special boyfriends, Yvonne recalled someone she met while training in Ottawa. Her went overseas and was soon killed. Even now, seven decades later, the memory of that young man moved her to tears.)
One of Yvonne’s fondest recollections is the variety show created by some of the base personnel, called “The Players Guild of No. 19 Service Flight Training School.” They performed duets, choruses and tap dances for their own base, then travelled around to other bases to present the show.
Here are the three fast friends – Doe, Blondie, and Val — wearing harem outfits, part of their costumes for the show.
When the war drew to an end, Yvonne, along with all the members of the Women’s Division, were discharged. (It wasn’t until 1951 that the RCAF began recruiting women again). It was with mixed emotions that Yvonne said goodbye for the last time.
“It was the weirdest feeling, walking out that gate, thinking that I could never go back again. My years in the service were some of the best years of my life. I have no complaints about anything. I enjoyed it all thoroughly.”
Yvonne has the satisfaction of knowing that she played her part in the war effort. This poem, carefully saved in her scrapbook, sums up the feelings of the women who “served that men may fly.”
After the War
Yvonne returned to Duncan and worked in a photography studio after the war. She travelled to Kindersley to visit her aunt, and while there she met Clarence Wildman, who was farming with his father. The two hadn’t seen each other since elementary school days.
They were married on July 17, 1946. Yvonne was a beautiful bride in her pale green suit.
Yvonne and Clarence remained on the farm, located forty kilometres northwest of Kindersley, until two years ago when they moved into town. They raised seven children: Terri, Kathy, Jo-Anne, Norman, Sandra, Michael, and Darin — who was born when Yvonne was forty-seven years old. The farm where they worked so hard has been taken over by her sons Norman and Darin. Clarence died just last year.
Yvonne still has her wedding dress!
Yvonne, thank you for your service to your family, your community and your country. You are truly a member of The Greatest Generation!
(My wartime novel Bird’s Eye View is fact-based fiction, the story of a Saskatchewan farm girl who joins the air force and serves in England as an aerial photo interpreter. To read one thrilling chapter, click here: Bird’s Eye View Excerpt.)
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MY FAVOURITE VETERANS
Yvonne’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 one of the thousands of children who were orphaned during the war. To see my entire collection of Star Weekly covers, click: Star Weekly At War.