When high school ends and it’s time to leave the nest, one can expect to see a typical teen head out for a tour of Europe, take to a small car to roam the country, head to Africa to volunteer, or work on an Israeli kibbutz.
For women like 88-year-olds Joy Guthrie and Margaret Farrow, though, the options after high school were limited.
Just transitioning to adulthood when they enrolled in the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service, the suggestion that joining the war effort would offer exciting adventures and a chance to travel was so pervasive even their families didn’t stand in their way.
“My mother told me to go see something. You don’t want to stay in Red Deer all your life,” said Farrow.
The navy was the last branch of the service to accept women and was known for its sticky acceptance requirements.
The girls needed references and found there wasn’t much training, or even a proper uniform, once they were learning the ropes.
Young, naive and looking for action, Prairie girls like Guthrie and Farrow were game for whatever came their way, whether it be using a sock for a scarf or an order to move to Halifax.
“I liked the hats,” Farrow said. “My sister was in the Air Force, so sisters, you know, I joined the Navy. But really, I picked it because I like the hats.”
Every woman that enlisted quelled the need for men on shore, so the girls were none too popular with sailors.
Once safely ensconced in desk duties, young men in the Navy saw the WRNS come in and they shipped out.
To listen to these two women, though, there were plenty of girls who would have gladly gone in their place.
Farrow finally got her chance to go overseas, for example, but fell ill with pneumonia and was forced to remain home until the officers took pity on her and made other arrangements.
With her friends heading to Scotland, she was offered a consolation secondment to Newfoundland where, unbeknownst to most Canadians, the country was actively engaged in war with German U-boats trying to sink ships.
“I came home on an icebreaker and we were being shadowed by a ship, but we weren’t told. We just knew that it was on the horizon a way back there and then it wasn’t,” she recalled.
The Germans sunk the ship and gave the girls a taste of the danger the men overseas faced daily.
Guthrie and Farrow didn’t know each other during the war, though they share a commonality of experience.
Only people like Farrow, who had been out to see the sunken skeleton of one boat through the clear cold waters off ‘Newfie’ (as they call it), knew the danger Canadians faced.
The WRNS generally didn’t have a very complete picture of the war effort either; each were assigned to specific tasks and, beyond that, asked to keep mum.
“You didn’t talk about it,” she said. “No one knew what you were doing, not your parents, not your friends. You kept your mouth shut and, for the most part, we did a pretty good job of doing that.”
Guthrie herself was nowhere near danger. Assigned to a secret portion of the service, she spent her days listening to dead communication lines as an operator tasked with intercepting Nazi messages.
The German U-boats would communicate by sending out a signal—a single letter, stated over the lines as quickly as possible as the Nazis knew others were listening to try to pinpoint their whereabouts.
When the HMS Hood, a Royal Navy ship, sank the German Bismarck—an event commemorated in song and cinema—operators like Guthrie tracked down the Hood as it slipped toward France, ensuring it wasn’t lost.
Whether sorting mail like Farrow or acting as an operator or stenographer, the women knew their services were needed, and when they were called to duty, they jumped.
There were concerts. Farrow saw Frank Sinatra in Newfoundland and thought “the skinny man had a good voice,” though Canadian Phil Silvers was better. And there were chances to take the odd ride on a ship or join the sailors for a movie or dinner on board.
But there was heartache too.
“They didn’t really say, but when the mail went to the dead ship that meant the ship had gone down,” said Farrow.
Her boyfriend, whom she would later marry, was overseas and she waited for five years for him to return.
“First it was the war would be over by Christmas. Then it was Easter. Then it was next year; after a while you just kept going.”
The years of limbo are recorded in her wartime letters; she still has the notes he would send to this day. His were stolen along with his kit in Europe.
Farrow’s husband helped free Holland and the couple returned, tracing the route he took during the war, on the 50th anniversary of the emancipation.
Guthrie also went to Europe and toured the gas chambers and areas where battles would have occurred.
She only really learned about the conflict in Newfoundland a few years ago after her son gave her a book explaining what happened.
But ask them if they worried about being sent overseas, feared being sent to the front lines or onto a ship that might be downed, and they smile.
“Oh no,” says Farrow. “Doesn’t any young person want to go where the action is?”
They focus on the camaraderie, talk of reunions and compare notes. The navy had sheets, the army didn’t. Guthrie had a summer uniform, but a sock for a tie. Farrow had a tie but only one uniform.
“You never had to worry whether you had someone to go to a show with or to a dance,” Farrow said.
On Remembrance Day, Farrow will go downtown to pay her respects, while Guthrie will likely watch the ceremony in Ottawa on television.
She knows the women who typically lay the wreath at the Ottawa service and can often spot other WRNS in the crowd.
Established in 1942, the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service was the last branch of the Canadian Armed Forces to accept women, forming in 1942. By the end of the war, there were 6,000 women serving as officers and regular personnel.
There are believed to be five or six WRNS in Kelowna. If you were in the WRNS, the Okanagan Military Museum would like hear your story.
Please call 250-763-9292 and speak with Teresa Boehmer.