History of Canadian YL Pioneer Operators
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WIRELESS OPERATORS IN TRAINING
First Graduating Class. H.D.S. Wireless Operators - 1942
A few years ago a glossy American magazine, Sea Classics, questioned on it's cover - Did Women Serve At Sea in WWII? Inside, captioned above an article written by maritime historian Ian A. Millar, was the answer in large bold type -
Who Says Women Didn't Serve at Sea in WWII?
It has taken more than half a century for recognition to be accorded to the men who sailed in the world's wartime merchant fleets but it is still one of the best kept secrets that a handful of pioneer Canadian women also served at sea during the war, and immediately after. Not on Canadian vessels but in the Norwegian Merchant Navy, the only Allied merchant fleet who at that time permitted women to serve aboard ships as wireless operators.
Today it is an accepted fact that women can now achieve recognition in fields that have traditionally been considered the preserves of men but this trend didn't begin from the enlightened 1970s and onwards. Decades earlier Canadian women helped to pioneer acceptance in a position and work place formerly considered a strictly male domain - that of ship's wireless operator.
Their numbers are few, at least ten known to have sailed wartime, and seven who followed at war's end, and learning their names, ships, and lengths of service at sea is difficult in the extreme - dependant entirely upon old newspaper clippings or word of mouth.
The most chronicled of these pioneer YL Sparks was Fern (Blodgett) Sunde - the first Canadian woman to earn her wireless certificate, the first to go to sea, and the first woman to serve as a wireless officer in the Norwegian MN. Fern sailed four years aboard the m/v Mosdale and 78 wartime crossings of the Atlantic.
Lesser known, if known at all, are those who followed in Fern's wake. In 1944 Ola McLean of Vancouver and Alice House of Port Coquitlam signed aboard the newly launched Norwegian 16,000-ton tanker, Kaptein Worsoe, as 2nd and 3rd operators and sailed off to the South Pacific.
The tanker's only known 'close call' was being strafed by Japanese planes while the vessel was in a South Sea island port. In all the two girls served about a year and a half aboard the Kaptein Worsoe. Ola went on to sail aboard a number of other vessels, m/v Glorono, m/v Beau Regarde, m/v Three Rivers and possibly others. Her years at sea taking her to many of the world's ports.
Alice House's life took a different course. A newspaper clipping of 1947 states 'Two wartime shipmates, one a British Columbian, who braved sub-infested oceans together, are peacetime mates on the sea of matrimony. She had married Captain Olaf Hansen, formerly second officer of the Kaptein Worsoe. Alice saw service aboard another Norwegian taker, the Karsten Wang, before swallowing the hook and settling ashore in Trondheim, Norway.
A third West Coast girl to sail during the latter war years, and for a short time after, was Rosemary Byrom of Victoria. Her first vessel was the merchant ship Jotunfjell and Rosemary saw service in the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Rosemary's ship was in the last convoy to cross the Atlantic before VE Day, following which the vessel carried fuel oil from South American ports to Pearl Harbour for the U. S. Navy, together with planes and tanks for the Pacific war zones.
From eastern Canada, aside from Fern, seven YLs are known to have served with the Norwegian MN. Esther Crichton of Halifax, N.S., signed aboard the m/v Narvik in 1944 and sailed in both Atlantic and Pacific waters. The vessel was renamed Siranger in 1946 and Esther remained aboard one more year before returning to shore life.
Dorothy (Sullivan) Ramsland of Halifax also went to sea in 1944. The name of her ship and length of service is unknown. Dorothy married John Ramsland, a gunner with the Norwegian Navy. Recently widowed, she continues to make her home in Halifax.
On July 24, 1944, a Toronto YL, Josephine Ryan born on Dec. 22, 1915 joined the m/v Ferncliffe. Twice her ship was attacked by German submarines in crossings between the United States and England, both times escaping unharmed. In November of 1945 Josephine married the Ferncliffe's Chief Officer, Alv Fredriksen, and they made one trip together as husband and wife before Josephine left the sea to make her permanent home in Norway.
Margaret Dixon of Ontario went to sea in the final year of the war, leaving as soon as her soldier husband returned from overseas service. Apparently there was another Canadian woman operator aboard the ship but Margaret recalls only that her first name was 'Yvonne'.
The name of Lucia Brosseu has been forwarded as that of another Canadian YL who sailed at this time but nothing other than that is known about her.
Although there were close calls for some of these young women during the war years there was one who paid the ultimate price.
Maude Elizabeth Steane
While working as an addressograph clerk at Toronto Hydro, Maude Elizabeth Steane enrolled at the Radio College of Canada to qualify as a Wireless Operator - 2nd Class.
She began her night-school training in June of 1942 and completed her requirements fifteen months later, graduating second in her class.
In late May of 1944, she joined the merchant ship S.S. Viggo Hansteen at New York. The i>Hansteen was an American-built Liberty Ship transferred to Norwegian registry for emergency war transport.
Just ten weeks after leaving home, at the age of 28, Maude Elizabeth Steane was murdered aboard the Hansteen while anchored off Naples, Italy. She was shot by a male crew member who then turned the gun on himself. She was the first woman from Toronto killed on active service. She is buried in the Allied War Cemetary at Florence, Italy.
Condolences were expressed to her family by the Norwegian Consul General at Toronto but her Silver Cross remains unclaimed.
At the conclusion of the war, there were a small number of other Canadian women who found their way up the gangways of Norwegian vessels.
Lylie Smith shipped out in 1946 but prior to that she had been the first girl radio operator hired by the Hudson's Bay Fur Trade Co. for their northern posts. Possibly the longest at sea of any of the Canadian YLs, Lylie's travels took her to the Far East, South America, the U.S. and Europe.
Four young women who had served as interceptor operators for the government during the war headed for the sea as soon as an opportunity arose. Anna Ozol was one of these and, while her first ship is not known, it was while serving aboard the m/v Skaubo in the late summer of 1949 that Anna achieved the doubtful distinction of being one of the few women to send out an SOS. Skaubo had taken on a severe list while about 500 miles off the U.S. West Coast when the ship's cargo of soft ore concentrate shifted during a storm. Happily the vessel was able to make port without aid.
In early 1947 Anna was followed to sea in quick succession by Elizabeth King, Norma Gomez and Olive Carroll. Elizabeth flew off to San Francisco to join her first ship, m/v Vito, where she served for a year and a half. After a lengthy holiday ashore Elizabeth signed aboard the m/v Skauvann, leaving the sea for good in 1951. She sailed the Pacific routes; her voyages taking her from Japan down to Australia, and ports in between.
All things considered, Norma Gomez was the unlucky one. Her first and only ship was the Lutz, a small coastal vessel which carried newsprint from B.C. to U.S. West Coast ports. Accommodations on the ship were quite primitive, as was the radio set-up, and Norma retired six months later.
Olive Carroll was the last of these former interceptor operators to join the Norwegian MN. She replaced Esther Crichton on m/v Siranger in April 1947, a service that would last four years and cover much of the world.
In the early 1970s Dallas Bradshaw of Victoria went to England for training, becoming, it is said, the first woman operator to sail aboard a British ship, the ore carrier m/v Duncraig. Being a Marconi operator Dallas no doubt served aboard a number of other vessels and she was still at sea in 1974 aboard the Naess.
Perhaps last of these Canadian YLs, and certainly not the least, was Aja Vibeke Norgaard Gron who sailed aboard a Danish vessel. Her name has been passed on but nothing is known of her ship or experiences at sea.
Ships' wireless operators have now gone the way of the Dodo bird, a brief chapter in maritime history. Canadian woman operators were pioneers who played but a small part in the annals of sea-going Sparks - but they are deserving of remembrance.
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