Nellie Rettenbacher joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps in June 1943 and served until 1946 as a military police officer. As a corporal during the Second World War, she spent her time enforcing leave passes and military decorum among other enlisted women, many of whom she stayed in touch with after the war. Read and listen to Rettenbacher’s story as she explains her duties, friendships, and experiences in the military.
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(Courtesy of The Memory Project/Nellie Rettenbacher)
"And then all of a sudden I thought, “Oh, I don’t want to do this work around the kitchen or whatever.” So I asked if I could join the military police."
My name is Nellie Blankinship. I was born in the Nicola Valley in British Columbia in my grandmother’s house on the Indian reserve. I lived on the ranch with my mom and dad until I was about 20, and I enjoyed it very much being a real cowgirl in those days. So then at that time, the war was on, so every time I saw anybody in uniform, it was quite attractive to me, and then all of a sudden, they were enlisting women. And that’s what I wanted to do.
So in June in 1943, I enlisted in the Canadian Army in Vancouver. And I stayed in until July of 1946, which was three years. I took my basic training in Vermillion, Alberta, in July of 1943 and from there, I was sent back to Gordon Head, which Officer’s Training Centre. I was just on staff there. And that’s near Victoria, B.C. And then I went to workforce barracks in Victoria, B.C. for a short while. And then all of a sudden, they were opening up a place in Chilliwack, B.C. at Vedder Crossing army base. And they all said, well, they needed staff there and there was about 60 of us girls were the first group to go to Chilliwack.
And we were put in the officers’ quarters, because they didn’t even have the quarters for us ready yet, but you know, just gradually they started building up more and more. And it was a big army camp and we had a lot of fun there, I enjoyed myself there. And then all of a sudden I thought, “Oh, I don’t want to do this work around the kitchen or whatever.” So I asked if I could join the military police. And my officer said, “Sure, I’ll put you on.” So they sent me to military police training in Camp Borden, Ontario.
From there, I was sent back to Vancouver, and spent the rest of the time there on patrol or whatever the military police women do. And I was promoted to corporal, and I had about three or four girls working for me, which was a pretty good life. I really enjoyed the military.
My mother is Thompson, but my father was from Kansas, he was white. So I was just, as they call, a half breed. And I never had no trouble with that because there was quite a few Indian girls in the army who came from the reserves. I was never raised on a reserve, you know, Indian reserve. I didn’t go to Indian schools like a lot of the other girls did. I went to just a little country school. And I never had any problem with that in the army whatsoever. They treated me equally and I treated them the same.
We would go down to the train station or bus depots and see the girls coming and going and we just made sure they had their passes with them and all their leaves passes. And other than that, we would make sure that they were back to barracks on time, they had to be in by 1200 hours, which was midnight. We would see that their pass was, you know, couldn’t stay out any longer and that. And of course, some of the girls would get into a bit of a mischief, and we had to see that they would behave themselves because we had our own jeeps and everything to take it back. But if they were with their boyfriends, who would be army guys, they would get a little bit mouthy with us because, you know, we were just women, even though we were military police. But the men MPs [Military Police] worked with us, they were always nearby. So if we needed their help, we could just call them and that was it. But the girls behaved pretty good. I found that talking to them quietly was better than sort of telling him who is boss, and that I was a corporal and they were just a private. And it all worked out pretty good.
I had a lot of friends at the army and to this day, I still hear from them once in a while. I went to a reunion in Ontario last year, and I met quite a few of the girls that I knew in the army days. It was nice seeing them again.
Oh, at times, I would be working at the barracks, at the office there, and we had to have the lights out at a certain time and they would come home after a party and they’d go upstairs and turn all the lights on. And I would have to go up and ask them to turn the lights off. And they would usually tell me where to go and what to do. So I would get some of the girls that were working with me, we would just go up where I called one of the officers and get them straightened around a bit. But this, anything physical or anything like that, we never had to do that with them. They, they knew would be into trouble if they did, so they’d be confined to barracks for a week or two or whatever. But I got along with them pretty good.
We never had a phone on the ranch in those days, so we would just have to write letters back and forth. That’s just about as far as it went. If I would have a weekend off, I would just catch a bus up and spend a couple of days with them and then go back. They were pretty proud of the fact that I was in the army because, like there was three of us, my two brothers and myself in the army, so they were very supportive of, they were quite proud of me as a matter of fact.
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