Doris Porter Goes to War
As a young woman, the lifelong resident of Caledon served in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps during World War II.
If a sense of humour is key to a long and happy life, then 93-year-old Doris Porter unlocked the door a long time ago. Still very much involved in the community and her church, Doris lives independently in her daughter’s home in Bolton. “She keeps me in the cellar,” Doris quips.
As a young woman, the lifelong resident of Caledon served in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps during World War II. This is the account of that wartime experience in her own words.
This is not about fighting. My contribution in World War II was to free up some poor fellow who thought he had a cushy office job, so he could go out and get shot at. No one ever took a shot at me! (A few of my army bosses might have thought about it though.) Besides, I didn’t get to Europe until the war was over, for when Canada declared war on Germany in September 1939, I was a mere 15 years old.
The adults of that day were depressed at the thought of going through the rigours of war again, a short 21 years after World War I, the “war to end all wars,” but to impressionable teenagers in our little village of Caledon East it was a time of excitement. Guys thought of guns and planes and bombs. The girls thought of guys in uniform.
For me, the excitement became real the next summer – well, almost – at a dance at Innis Lake. My city cousin Barbara and I needed a ride home when who should walk in but three guys in uniform. They were still rather rare, but Barbara and I each snagged one to dance with and got that ride. The next day at the breakfast table my father learned about it and kaboom – he reared up and roared that he didn’t want me to have anything to do with soldiers. “I know all about soldiers!” he thundered. “I was one myself!” Fast-forward to 1942 and he was the one who braved city traffic to drive me into Toronto to submit my application to become a soldier.
Nothing much happened in the beginning to affect our civilian life, other than the Red Cross swinging into action, issuing knitting patterns and wool to volunteers to knit up socks, scarves, hats and sweaters. My mother churned out a steady stream of them. There was also some rationing, but what we had in Canada pales in comparison to Britain and other places. The most telling hardship was gasoline. It was about three gallons a week, so there was a lot of carpooling, and forget about Sunday drives! That didn’t bother me a lot because in June 1941 I graduated from Grade 12 at our little Continuation School in Caledon East and in September was off to high school in Weston to get Grade 13.
Things started heating up in 1941. Canada’s skies became a training ground for air forces from all over the world and a lot of men were enlisting. It was also the year the government decided to let women do some jobs being done by men – office work, driving officers around and such. There were two units founded that year: the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) and the Women’s Division, RCAF (the WDs).
At high school in Weston I had made a lifetime friend named Marion and we both wanted to join up. She had a boyfriend in the air force and wouldn’t consider anything but the WDs. My choice was easy after an article appeared in Chatelaine magazine with pictures of the uniforms. One look at the air force outfit and I said, “No way.” It had a straight skirt with a kick pleat in front and a belted jacket. I am short-waisted with big boobs and hips and knew I’d look like a sack of potatoes tied in the middle! The army on the other hand offered a princess-style jacket and an A-line skirt. No contest!
As soon as the school year ended, the two of us signed up, she to the blue, I to the khaki. My father drove me to Toronto and parked illegally at Bay and Front streets. A $2 parking ticket awaited us when we came out. A week or so later the army mailed me a train ticket to Hamilton on our little railway through Caledon East for a medical at the military hospital. I was worried about the eye test. Even with my prescription glasses I was afraid they would turn me down for being severely shortsighted, so while I was waiting I memorized several lines of the chart. I passed with flying colours and was inducted into the CWAC on July 1, 1942, Canada’s birthday and in many ways, now mine.
Almost immediately I was sent to Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue for basic training. We did drill, drill, drill, map reading, more drill – and learned how to act as a member of the military on the distaff side. People who thought putting on a uniform would be the downfall of our morals were way off base. We were far better chaperoned than most of the civvy girls I knew.
I worked in the orderly room of the CWAC headquarters as a runner – delivering stuff all over the city – a country hick walking against red lights and the like. That fall they sent a class of us to Northern Vocational School in Toronto to learn to be office clerks: typing, office procedures – and how to write an army letter, something taught by a Sgt-Major Pugh (a very apt name for him, by the way). After that I was posted to the little town of Kemptville where the army had set up another training school. Each course lasted four weeks, so it was a great spot for us girls with a regular turnover of young men, something I didn’t mention in letters home.
We were quartered there in an old farmhouse and the room I shared had two bare windows, so I went down to the general store in the village and picked out some nice blue and white curtain material. The proprietor let me use an old Singer in the back of the store and I spent a Saturday there churning out ruffled curtains and tie-backs. Everyone who came into the store that day was sent back to watch me. Our room became the snazziest room in the place! I was only there a few months when I was plucked up and shipped off to Saint John, New Brunswick. I sent the curtains home and my mother hung them in the farm kitchen for years.
In Saint John I was stationed at military headquarters. Strange as it might seem nowadays we really didn’t know what was going on in the war. We never got to see a newspaper and radios were practically nonexistent. We got snippets in the daily orders which were posted every day. And there was a 15-minute newsreel at the beginning of most movies heavy into pictures of falling bombs and screaming air raid sirens. Other than that, we lived in a vacuum with no end in sight.
My job there was a typist in the personnel selection office, the human relations part of the army. I was there for almost two years and learned to love the Maritimes, and most of the time I loved the life in the army. But I did have an unpleasant time at first in Saint John because our office supervisor, a sergeant, took an intense dislike for me. Every new recruit had to take an IQ test and it seems I had outscored him and he couldn’t stand that. Fortunately for me, he was transferred, but it didn’t really matter because big things were happening in the war – and for me.
D-Day in June 1944 changed the whole direction of the war. In December that year I turned 21, the age when women could go overseas, and I immediately put my name on the list. I was picked to go, but then the war in Europe ended. What happened next though was amazing. The brass in their wisdom figured why not send overseas some of the women champing at the bit to take on the jobs of men who had been there for years, and get the men back home sooner. By the end of May I was packing my kit bag!
I ended up with a dream posting in England – secretary to the second in command and the adjutant of what came to be called “Khaki University.” I’m sure our government couldn’t pull this off today, but in 1945 it was decided the future of many veterans could be enhanced with education. And there was opportunity to start that in Europe while they waited to get home. A former Canadian military hospital in Hertfordshire (the “university”) took in about 800 students. The president of the University of New Brunswick oversaw the curriculum and a brigadier was tabbed to administer the whole thing. By the end of April ’46 students could boast a university entrance diploma or first year university equivalent. Khaki University was hugely successful. We were even treated to a visit from the King and Queen.
My job mostly concerned personnel and day-to-day stuff. We had to deal with “boys will be boys” issues like the woman who wrote to us that one of our officers had been made welcome by her and her daughter while he was in England, and now both of them were pregnant. “Is this the way Canadians repay our hospitality?” she moaned. Or the woman who wrote that while planning her June wedding she had received an anonymous letter warning that her intended groom was already married (which he was, with a wife and two children in Halifax). I’m afraid I exhibited my first ever insurrection in this particular case. My boss had dictated a letter to her saying it was not the policy of the Canadian army to divulge information (like marital status) about its members.
“But she’s planning her wedding!” I said. “If I have to send this letter I will write to her myself.”
He laughed. “You women all stick together,” he said. “Write what you like and I’ll sign it.”
Later I learned this groom-to-be, when he was called onto the carpet, wanted to know if the woman was the one from Teddington or the one in Brighton!
I landed home in July 1946, and after the 30-day homecoming leave, went in for my official discharge and the medical that would absolve the government of responsibility for any health problems I might have in future. Once again my galloping myopia was a problem and the examining physician sent me to Christie Street Military Hospital in Toronto for an eye exam. When I confessed to the specialist who saw me what I had done back in Hamilton, he laughed and said, “No pension for you!”
I was inducted into the CWAC on July 1, 1942 at the age of 18 and discharged in July 1946, about the time it takes to get an honours B.A. And for me that was pretty much what it was. I learned responsibility, how to get along with other people, how to take orders and how to manage my own life. All these have stood me in good stead ever since. I saw a lot of Canada and spent a year in England. I feel very fortunate to have had that experience to prepare me for what has turned out to be a long life.
Postscript: Shortly after my discharge I ran into a fellow I had known before the war. I told him I had a “big” crush on him when I was 15 years old. He just looked kind of blasé and said, “I knew!” It worked! We were married for 67 years.
≈ Doris Porter’s memoir was condensed for publication by Ken Weber.
Eaton’s For Everything
My father didn’t believe a young person could have poor eyesight until my teacher (his fellow Mason) told him how myopic I was. My mother turned for help to the only source she knew – Eaton’s! In the fall of 1931 we took the train to Toronto for my eye exam at the Eaton’s downtown store. Days later my prescription glasses were at the Caledon East post office.
All in the Family?
Doris Porter’s father George Arthur Evans (1884–1965) served in World War I with the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles.
He was promoted to the rank of sergeant and unlike Doris, who notes, “No one ever took a shot at me,” he was wounded twice.
The 1st CMR was awarded the Vimy Battle Honour for its role in the famous battle.