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Julienne Leury, on the right, winter of 1943-1944, RCAF Mont Joli base, Québec
(Courtesy of The Memory Project/Julienne Leury)
"There, one must wear skirts that go past the knees and they would always ask us to say "ma'am, yes ma'am" even if the girl wasn’t right!"
I had spent almost all of my childhood in an orphanage. I learned a lot from the nuns. I only had a teaching certificate. When I got out, the war began and I didn’t have a job or a family and I had nowhere to stay. I had nothing. I had a lot of energy and I wanted something to do. I saw a big sign on Saint-Jean street, advertising for victory bonds. It showed women in military formation. I wanted to do that. I stopped in a little church on Saint-Jean street for maybe ten or fifteen minutes and then I went to the recruiting office on Buade street. I said I wanted to enlist. After two or three weeks, after the exams, they said "Yes, but you’re so small, what are you doing here?"
To start, they asked me in English what my name was. I said, "What?" I couldn’t understand a word. I had a bit of difficulty, but seeing how we were a big group of francophones all training together, I didn’t need to speak a lot of English. When it came time to do accounting training in Trenton, I was the only French-Canadian. After three days, they saw that it wasn’t working. I couldn’t read English and I couldn’t understand a thing. They went to get a French-Canadian sergeant. All week, he gave me my training. He explained to me what I needed to do. There weren’t any more problems because I enjoyed what I was doing. I understood everything. When I started working in Mont-Joli, everything went well.
The German submarines arrived in Canada from Pointe-au-Père to Rimouski and that’s where Mont-Joli was. We had our planes, we were allowed to go up once a month and we would fly very low over the river. They were looking for submarines.
At the Rockcliffe air station, we saw Glenn Miller perform with his American orchestra. It was really big; there were a lot of people on that base. We danced the jitterbug. We had a lot of fun. We were spoiled. Us young girls, we were very well looked after. We had what we called ma’ams [Women’s Division officers]; as in "yes ma’am, no ma’am". They looked after us. They told us our hair could be no longer than our ears. They told us not to wear any jewelry unless we were at home, on furlough. Our skirts had to fall below our knees, and we had to always say, "yes ma'am, no ma'am" even if we were in the right. At ten o’clock at night, Jeeps would drive around the streets of Rockcliffe with big spotlights to see if any girls were in the [men’s] barracks. Sometimes they would find couples hiding in the corner. That’s what it’s like when you’re young. The padre, the chaplain, he watched out for his young girls, he called us. He‘d tell us that he had seen us going down to the beach in Sainte-Flavie with our blankets. He told us to watch out for each other.
On the train one day, the train stopped for a wheel adjustment. So we got off. He [my future husband] asked me if I spoke French and if I was going to Rockcliffe. He said that he would be at his parents for three weeks. He said that we would meet up and that he would come to get me. We would go out in the evening and go to his place. We had to run back in order to make it back to the base by our ten o’clock curfew. We dated for three weeks. He continued to write me. He wanted to get married. In those days, you had to get married. I didn’t think too much about it. He was clean, nice-looking and pleasant.
People were rationed. We [in the service] ate butter and top-quality meat. My husband Paul would always say, "Look at the waste". People [around us] would line-up to receive their meal and then would throw away what they didn’t want to eat. He was shocked. The civilians didn’t have any meat or sugar. Here in Vanier, my parents-in-law ate horse meat.
I remember being in Ottawa for VE-day; they called it Victory Day. There was a big show. Everyone was in the streets. It was a very beautiful day. I think that it was in the month of May, it’s all a bit vague [May 8, 1945]. I was disappointed about becoming a civilian again. I felt like my big adventure was over. I had done something I really enjoyed.
When there are ceremonies I always receive invitations and one or two of my sons always want to accompany me. I brought my grand-daughter to the candle ceremony last fall. She had tears in her eyes when the veterans came out with their wheelchairs and canes. Everyone marches in. We were accompanied by youth who gave us candles. You put your candle up at the front and you did your military salute. The ceremony takes place completely in the dark. There are only candles. When I came back to my chair, she was crying. She said, "It’s so beautiful, grandma."
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