Because my focus is on women’s lives during World War Two, I’m always delighted to unearth little-known stories about their adventures. Here are four of the best.
This petite photographer achieved monumental significance by becoming the first female photographer in the Canadian Army. Her name was Sgt. Karen Margaret Hermeston of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC).
In 1941 the Canadian Army’s Public Relations Branch established The Film and Photo Unit, made up of seventy-four men and women based in England, Italy, and Western Europe. Margaret earned her position after the Montreal Standard used a layout of photos she took of CWAC training in Kitchener, and followed up with a tour of CWAC training camps across Canada.
In 1944, she crossed the Atlantic. Women weren’t allowed to go into the field of combat, so she remained in England. But she earned the respect of her peers through her dedication to her craft. She is pictured above with her beloved Anniversary Speed Graphic camera. (Photo Credit: Library and Archives Canada).
Here’s a great photo of Margaret riding on a soldier’s shoulders during the VJ-Day celebrations in Piccadilly Circus, London, on August 10, 1945. (Photo Credit: Library and Archives Canada).
NOTE: After this was posted, I spoke with Margaret’s niece, Maggie Hermeston of Cochrane, Ontario, a retired civil servant who remembers her aunt well!
Margaret was born in tiny Charlton, Ontario to parents Angus and Maren Hermeston. They had two children – daughter Margaret and son Douglas, born nine years later.
Douglas was always joking about being overshadowed by his older sister. He was a paratrooper in the Second World War, one of the men who landed in Holland on D-Day as part of the famed Operation Market Garden.
After the Germans retreated, there were huge celebrations in every Dutch town. As Douglas recalled: “There I was taking part in a big parade, and I look down the street and who should I see but Margaret! I couldn’t even liberate Holland without my big sister showing up!”
After the war, Margaret returned to Sudbury, Ontario and married a Norwegian electrician named Kris Andresen. Later they travelled to Norway and adopted a boy named Andreas.
“I have many personal memories of my aunt,” said Maggie. “She was a wee tiny woman, she could sew like an angel and she made the best Norwegian pancakes in the world!
“When I was about seven, she decided to teach several little girls in the neighbourhood how to sew. We all made simple shift dresses, and then Aunt Margaret held a fashion show for the neighbours, and we modelled our own dresses and she was the Master of Ceremonies and described each dress!”
Margaret was passionate about photography all her life. She had her own darkroom at home, and she taught photography at the local Laurentian University.
Margaret died several years ago, after a long life in which she blazed the trail for other female military photographers. Rest in Peace, Margaret Hermeston.
The first aboriginal woman to join the Canadian Armed Forces in World War Two, Mary Greyeyes achieved minor celebrity for this publicity photo.
For years it hung in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa with the caption: “Unidentified Indian princess getting blessing from her chief and father to go fight in the war.”
But this just wasn’t true. Several years ago Mary’s daughter-in-law Melanie Fahlman Reid of Vancouver told the real story.
Mary was from Muskeg Lake, a Cree reservation just north of Saskatoon. Her brother David was already in service. It was the Depression, there wasn’t much to do, so she thought she’d join, too. Here’s a photo of Mary and her brother David Greyeyes.
This is condensed from the article that appeared in The Tyee newspaper, written by Melanie Fahlman Reid.
Mary went to Regina to enlist, and she had to take a test. Mary had gone to a residential school, and of course natives weren’t allowed to go past Grade 8 in those days. So she didn’t have a good education, and she was very nervous.
They were just starting to recruit women into the army in Canada, and every woman ahead of her was rejected. Mary went in and she took the test and she passed. She became the first native woman in Canada — full status Cree — to join the Canadian Women’s Army Corp.
One day her sergeant and two Mounties showed up and said, “We’ll give you a good new uniform and a good lunch. We want you to take a picture.”
They drove out to the Piapot reserve. The man in the photo is a man named Harry Ball, a band councillor and a World War One veteran.
The regalia that he’s wearing was cobbled together by the Mounties. They went into people’s houses and pulled out a blanket here, and an old headdress there. And they found a pipe, pieced together with some tape and a bit of twine.
They told them how to pose. And this picture is apparently an Indian princess getting a blessing from the chief of her tribe.
Now Harry is from Piapot. Mary is from Muskeg Lake. They didn’t even know each other.
This picture was published in the Regina Leader-Post, and it appeared all over the British Empire to show the power of the colonies fighting for King and country.
Mary was shipped to England and became a cook at army headquarters in London. She got to meet Princess Elizabeth, she got to meet the Queen Mother, she got to meet the King. She said every time they needed an Indian, there she was. She was known as “The Indian.”
Her picture was in a lot of London papers. And the headline of my favourite one reads: “She’s a full-blooded Indian but now she cooks for palefaces.” So she was always the Indian.
Mary was discharged and returned to Canada in 1946.
As a result of Melanie Fahlman Reid’s efforts, the caption on the photo now reads: “Library and Archives of Canada, PA 129070. Private Mary Greyeyes, Cree, from Muskeg Lake, Cree Nation, Canadian Women’s Army Corp.”
I had never heard of this woman until recently, although she served as the Member of Parliament for my home town of North Battleford, Saskatchewan. I came across her name because she was an ardent advocate for the rights of women during World War Two.
Born in London, England, in 1902, Dorise arrived to teach in Saskatchewan in 1926, unprepared for pioneer life. After a short teaching stint, she married a farmer, Pete Nielsen, and raised three children in a two-room shack.
While working dawn to dusk, she wrote letters about economic conditions to newspapers and got involved in grassroots political movements.
In several northern Saskatchewan ridings, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, Social Credit and Communist supporters joined forces as “United Progressives”, and Dorise, recently recruited by the Communist Party, ran under the “United Progressive” banner.
She campaigned in overshoes because her shoes had worn out, and was elected just as the bank foreclosed on the family’s mortgage.
In Ottawa, where she was the third female Member of Parliament ever elected and the first to be raising young children while in office, her main concerns were poverty, children’s welfare and civil liberties. She urged that the post-war family allowance cheques be issued in the mother’s name, and called for a federally funded day care program.
She also demanded better pay for women in uniform. When the women’s branches of the armed forces were set up in 1941, women performing the same duties received two-thirds of the men’s pay.
Dorise raised the issue of unequal pay again and again. By the end of the war, women’s pay had risen from 67 percent of the men’s pay, to 80 percent.
Defeated in 1944, Dorise worked in Toronto for the Communist Party, but the leadership regarded her as a prairie populist who “lived by emotion rather than by knowledge.”
Separated from her husband, she returned to England in 1955. Then, in another dramatic move, she and mining engineer Constant Godefroy moved to Mao’s Communist China, where she taught English and lived until her death in 1980.
If you would like to know more about this passionate feminist, you can read her biography, written by Faith Johnston in 2006: A Great Restlessness: The Life and Politics of Dorise Nielsen.
The below photo of the three women in the navy is one that I have used frequently. You can read the full blog post by clicking here: Hats, Helmets and Headgear.
So you can imagine my surprise when an acquaintance was able to identify the women in the photograph — one of them is his own mother!
Don MacKinnon, a lawyer in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, wrote to tell me how it came about:
“In 2006 my family was visiting Normandy, where I wanted to introduce my children to the history of the D-Day invasion. We visited the Juno Beach Museum.
“Near the end of a couple of well-spent hours in the museum, I noticed a wall-mounted photograph featuring five WRENS (Women’s Royal Naval Service), training at St. Hyacinthe, Quebec.
“I studied the photo and was struck by one unidentified WREN who I suddenly realized could be my mother. I couldn’t recall my mother ever having talked about Signal School at St. Hyacinthe; however, I did know that she did do signal work during the war at Halifax and Prince Rupert.
“I carefully photographed the wall-mounted picture and emailed it to my younger sister Mary.
“My sister’s email back to me a few days later was a delight, as she advised that mom confirmed herself in the photo!
“Mom talked about how a navy photographer had shown up one day at St. Hyacinthe while she was training, and took photographs of trainees in posed locations.
“My mother was nearly 86 when she saw the long-forgotten image of herself taken when she was just short of her 24th birthday. I cannot imagine what a pleasant surprise it must have been for my mother to see an image from so far in her past!”
Below is the photo taken in the Juno Beach Museum, and here are their names: from left to right, Ann Reynolds from Manitoba; Frances VanWart (nee Dougherty) from New Brunswick; Marion Roberts from B.C., Vicki La Prairie (nee Wickham) from Montreal, and finally Don MacKinnon’s mother, Marion Elizabeth MacKinnon (nee Smith).
Thank you, Don, for this fascinating update! Below is the photo that Don copied at the Juno Beach Centre museum.
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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. This image is designed to show that women were the weaker sex, even in uniform! To see my entire collection of Star Weekly covers, click: Star Weekly At War.
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