Lou Marr called herself “the original turnip who fell off the back of the truck” when she joined the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division and became a photographer. The job demanded hard work, but it also allowed her to fly right along with the men in training. For this farm girl, it was the thrill of a lifetime.
Servicewomen who worked in the field of photography are a special interest of mine, so I’m happy that I was able to interview Lou Marr from Invermere, British Columbia, before she died in 2008.
The female veterans I have met have one thing in common: they were strong-minded, independent women. And Lou was certainly no exception. Lou Marr’s interview lent me several anecdotes that I used in my novel about a woman who becomes an aerial photographic interpreter.
Lula Pound grew up on a farm without electricity or plumbing near Daysland, Alberta. When her father died, her mother continued to run the farm with the help of Lou and her younger brother, who was unable to enlist because of poor eyesight.
Lou finished high school and ten days later, on July 8, 1942, she married Thomas Marr, a young man from Manitoba who worked as their hired man. Tom had already joined the Canadian Army and was on his way overseas.
Tom was in uniform; Lou wore a sheer blue dress trimmed with lace. Her new husband kissed her goodbye and left in the pouring rain. She didn’t see him again for four years.
Most of the boys from high school had already joined up and left town. Lou was burning with patriotism to serve her country, and fight for Canada.
She listened to the family’s “little tin radio,” as it described the great battles taking place on the other side of the world. And everywhere she went, she saw recruiting posters like this one.
(Until 1941 women were not allowed to serve in uniform, so they formed militia units instead. Read my post by clicking here: Women Militia.)
Lou didn’t want to join the forces without her husband’s permission, so she wrote to Tom overseas and asked if she could join up.
His answer was: “Only the Air Force.” Being in the army himself, he took a dim view of the behavior of “army girls.”
So Lou’s mother drove her to Edmonton and she enlisted in the RCAF in April 1943. Shortly afterwards, she left on the train with a group of other young women destined for basic training in Rockcliffe, just outside Ottawa. “The train was filled with hundreds of inebriated Australians, all bragging about how many sheep they had back home,” she recalled.
When they arrived, some girls had to be treated for “cooties” — head lice they had contacted on the train. All the girls were tested for pregnancy, and some were shipped home immediately when it was found they were expecting.
The barracks in Rockcliffe were far from luxurious. Lou slept in a double metal bunk, scrubbed the wooden floor on her hands and knees, and saw cockroaches for the first time — in the mess hall!
Lou’s favourite occupation was marching. She said it was grand when she marched down one of Ottawa’s main streets behind a pipe band, encouraging people to buy War Bonds. “I get shivers when I hear the bagpipes even today,” she said.
Under their uniforms, the girls wore garter belts and black cotton stockings. One day, while they were on drill, Lou’s garter belt gave way and she stood in great anxiety while her stockings slowly slid down towards her ankles. Thankfully the women were dismissed before her officer noticed!
(Here’s a photo of the airwomen on parade, looking very serious. I wonder how many of them are thinking about their garter belts.)
The stockings caused another problem, too. When Lou’s feet perspired, the black dye ran. The dye got into an open blister and caused blood poisoning. But Lou thought she was “too tough” to go to the doctor.
Several days later her sergeant ordered the girls to fall out and take a break on the grass, telling them they could remove their shoes if they liked. Lou couldn’t get her shoe off because her foot was so badly swollen. She was sent off to the medical clinic immediately.
After six weeks of basic training, the women received their assignments. Lou was first assigned to code-and-cipher, but she really wanted to study photography, and she was given permission to take the eleven-week photography course.
Lou had originally learned to take photographs on her old Brownie camera. Now she learned how to take apart and assemble a camera, how to develop and print photographs, and how to piece together aerial maps. This was one of the more difficult trades that the women learned, and required a great deal of study.
Lou’s training also included flights with an instructor and a pilot, “some 18-year-old kid who was just learning to fly himself,” according to Lou. Wearing one-piece coveralls, armed with a huge camera and a heavy parachute on her back that hung down to her knees, she would lie face-down on the floor of the airplane over a piece of plexiglass and miles of open air, taking photos of the terrain below.
Here’s a photo of some female photographers preparing to hit the skies. Just look at the size of those cameras!
Back at base, she learned to print four-inch by four-inch photos and overlap them in a diagonal pattern to form an entire aerial map.
“It was so hot and humid in Ottawa, that we used to strip down and do our darkroom work in bra and panties,” she recalled. “Of course, no one was allowed in the darkroom when the red light was on, so we figured we were pretty safe.” (That little tidbit is one of the reasons I love hearing first-hand experiences!) Here’s a photo of another RCAF airwoman in the darkroom.
And here’s a page from my favourite wartime newsmagazine, The Star Weekly, showing the girls hard at work.
Speaking of red lights, on one weekend leave Lou travelled to Montreal for the first time with a couple of girlfriends. There someone referred to Montreal’s “red light district.” “What’s that?” she asked innocently. She laughed at the memory later. “Talk about naive. That was me.”
For a new experience, the women also daringly ventured across the border between Ottawa and Hull, Quebec. “We used to ‘howl like hell in Hull,’ as the old saying goes,” Lou said.
But not all her memories were happy ones. Sometimes there were accidents on the base. Rockcliffe looked down onto the airfield, and one day Lou saw a Mosquito land and burst into flames. The pilot didn’t have a chance, she said.
At the end of three months, Lou passed her course and became a full-fledged photographer. Here’s a photo of her class, most of them women, as the men were more likely to be training as aircrew. Lou is seated in the front row, third from left. You can see the School of Photography sign on the wall.
Of course, her dream — like virtually every Canadian woman in uniform — was to be posted overseas. “I can remember sitting on the curb with a young guy, both of us crying,” she said. “I was crying my eyes out because I didn’t get an overseas posting – he was crying because he did!” (To read my earlier post about one lucky Canadian woman who was sent overseas, click: RCAF Rancherette Blazed the Trail.)
Lou requested a posting to Western Canada instead. She wanted to return to Alberta, but ended up in Dauphin, Manitoba, a British Commonwealth Air Training Base about 25 kilometres outside town. On the base were 200 women and 2,000 men.
Since the base was so far from town, the men and women didn’t go into Dauphin very often. There were regular dances, and lots of social life. Lou hung around with lots of young airmen, but she promised there was no “hanky-panky.”
Some evenings they hung heavy curtains over the windows so anyone passing by couldn’t see the party going on inside! Dauphin was the only wet canteen (one that serves alcohol) in the whole Western Command. “Unfortunately, I didn’t drink.”
She didn’t smoke, either, unlike most others in the armed forces. Cigarettes were available then at $1 per 200, to send overseas to the servicemen. Lou sent Tom almost everything he asked for, including a guitar.
“He told me when he got back he must have been the only person in England on VE day who had a jar of pickled onions from home!”
Lou said the WDs felt superior to the other two female branches of the forces. “We walked around like we were somebody,” she recalled. “The Wrens were sissies, and the army girls were bad girls, but we were the cream of the crop!”
Lou looks uncharacteristically serious in this studio portrait of herself. She’s wearing the new streamlined WD cap, much more flattering than the earlier version. (To see my previous post about Canadian women’s uniforms, click: Hats, Helmets and Headgear).
Tom and Lou moved around Alberta and British Columbia before settling near Windermere, B.C. Tom worked at Lake’s Service Station, and Lou was employed as a practical nurse at the local hospital.
They built their own house in Windermere and raised four children, one girl and three boys. Daughter Patty Marr has two children, Melissa Marr and Christian Jones. Andy Marr and his wife Hiroko have one daughter, Leiko Marr. Kerry Marr, who is deceased, had three children: Cheyenne, Nicholas and Dimitri. Doug Marr has two children: Carissa Marr Hicks, and Brandon Marr.
Tom died in 1995, and Lou lived alone in the house in Windermere until her death in 2008. Her Cabbage Patch dolls were sold and the proceeds donated to charity. Lou Marr continued to pursue her passion for photography for the rest of her life.
Every Remembrance Day, Lou sat down in front of her television to watch the memorial ceremonies in Ottawa. And every year, she cried for the boys who never came home.
Rest in peace, Lula Pound Marr.
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MY FAVOURITE VETERANS
Lou Marr’s story, along with twenty-seven other original articles from Wartime Wednesdays, is available in printed book form. For more info, check out the book cover titled My Favourite Veterans: True Stories From World War Two’s Hometown Heroes, at the bottom of this page.
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Two More Photos
My wartime novel Bird’s Eye View is fact-based fiction, the story of a Saskatchewan farm girl who joins the air force and works in England as a photo interpreter. To read one thrilling chapter, click here: Bird’s Eye View Excerpt.
These are two of the photos that inspired my novel about a female photo interpreter in the air force.
This is a photograph of Dorothy Edwards on the left and another woman, both training as photographers in the RCAF Women’s Division. Dorothy was a friend of my mother’s, and sister of the famous fighter ace Stocky Edwards, still living in Comox, B.C. To read my post about him, click: Stocky Edwards.
The other photograph is a member of the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force at RAF Medmenham, the headquarters for photo interpretation, located about one hour north of London. She is studying an aerial photograph though a stereoscope, which allows the viewer to see in three dimensions.
I especially like this photo because the two Canadian pilots, members of a photo reconnaissance squadron, are “hanging fire” while she interprets the results, probably checking to see if the bombers struck their target.
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STAR WEEKLY AT WAR
The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. Here’s a cover image from May 31, 1941 showing a woman in uniform flirting with a Canadian airman, presumably telling him that he has a long lifeline. To see my entire collection of Star Weekly covers, click: Star Weekly At War.