Kitchener was home to thousands of young women training for short-lived army careers
By Charlotte Prong Parkhill
Kitchener Post staff
It was 60 years ago this fall that the Canadian Women’s Army Corp training base opened in Kitchener, located at Knollwood Park near where The Aud stands today.
About 14,000 women, known at CWACs (pronounced ‘quacks’) passed through the training centre from 1942 to 1946.
But other than a statue that stands at the site today, the training centre, and the work of the women who passed through it, remains largely forgotten.
“It’s fallen through the cracks of history,” says Ruth Russell, a local woman who wrote a book about the training camp.
She started the project after the statue, called Stepping Out, was erected in 2001. The statue was the brainchild of Kay Hall of New Hamburg and Jean Sivyer of Baden, who both trained at the camp during the war.
Until then, Russell had never heard of the training camp — even though she had already written a local history book called Women of Waterloo County.
“There was no mention of the training camp — and it was a big deal!” she says.
“Every man who pushed a pencil during the war is proud to call himself a veteran, and well he should. But the women were just kind of pushed aside.”
So Russell, with the help of a committee from the KW chapter of the Canadian Federation of University Women, started to do a lot of digging. After three years of reading diaries and official documents, and travelling across Canada to interview the women who trained at the camp during the war years, Proudly She Marched was published.
“It was an arduous but wonderful project,” she says.
The book contains a plethora of facts and anecdotes, and conveys a time when when women were often relegated to the sidelines.
The CWAC camp in Kitchener was the largest basic training centre for women in Canada. More than 20,000 women served in CWAC during the Second World War.
They were trained and served in 50 different occupations, including tradional women’s roles such as clerks, cooks and entertainers.
But they also stepped out of their mid-century box, working as drivers, mechanics, medics and signal operators.
Between 3,000 and 4,000 women eventually served overseas, many of them in England, but some going farther afield.
“That was every girl’s dream,” Russell says.
“One of the most surprising things was that there were contingents of CWACs that followed the front line at D-Day to do all the record-keeping.
“It’s just astonishing.”
The women were given army ranks just as the men were, but their pay lagged behind.
The salary for a private amounted to 95 cents a day, two-thirds that of their male counterparts.
The thousands of women were welcomed to Kitchener, particularly by the Catholic Women’s League. They set up a hospitality suite in the infirmary at St. Jerome’s College where a few women at a a time could get a respite from the bare-bones training camp, with comfortable beds, baths and hot meals.
When the war ended, many women returned to their former lives. About 7,000 CWACs remained on duty, helping with all the discharge duties that come with winding down a huge military operation. But after they were demobilized, there was no place for them in the post-war army or reserves.
In 1946, the camp was closed to CWACs and used as affordable housing for returning soldiers. Under Kitchener Mayor Joseph Meinzinger, the buildings were rented from the government for one dollar.
But despite being cast off, some women were able to use their CWAC experience to further their education. Of the 50,000 Canadians who used veterans’ grants for a university education, about 3,000 were women.
They were a generation of women who were, indeed, stepping out.
“Most of the army girls, many of them signed up on their 18th birthday. For a young woman to do that then was so adventurous,” Russell says.
“For most of these women, I think this was the adventure of their lives.”