Saturday, 11 November 2017 04:29

Swift Current resident recalls life-changing experience on air base

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Ethel Holderbein in her uniform at the Royal Canadian Air Force Station Assiniboia during the Second World War. Ethel Holderbein in her uniform at the Royal Canadian Air Force Station Assiniboia during the Second World War. Photo contributed

Nations that were involved in the two world wars of the 20th century did not only send hundreds of thousands of soldiers to the different war fronts, but civilians who remained behind became part of the home front.

Canadian women played a significant role on the home front during the war years in support of the country's military effort.
For Swift Current resident Ethel Holderbein (née Baslar) the Second World War was a moment of significant change, as she left her family's farm near the small hamlet of St. Boswells to work at the Royal Canadian Air Force Station Assiniboia.
It was an Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS) where young trainees received their basic flying instruction on a training aircraft such as the De Havilland Tiger Moth or Fairchild Cornell.
Until then her familiar world consisted of farm life, where she helped out with the many farm chores, and the small, one-classroom country school where she received her education.
“As farm kids we were so home sick, because we never got anywhere,” she recalled. “We just stayed home, you went to school and you had no money. You could buy nothing. So it was hard leaving home, that was something hard to get over. You got homesick and wanted to go back home, but to what? So you got used to it.”
She started working at the air base around 1942 and she stayed there until 1945. After the initial adjustment to life on a busy air base she enjoyed her time there and made many friends.
She worked in a mess hall while her younger sister got a job in the canteen. They were both homesick and her sister went home after a month.
“My girlfriend that worked there said 'What are you going to do at home, there are no jobs there,'” Holderbein recalled.
“I thought I'll give it a try for another month, and I stayed there until the last day. I really enjoyed working there. You got to know the people. There was a big staff with that many people. There was the big squadron of trainees and then there were the civilians.”
Civilians were employed to carry out numerous tasks at the air base. Some worked as cooks or as office staff, while others worked as ground support staff for the aircraft.
Her girlfriend worked at one of the hangars, where she washed grease off aircraft parts that were repaired.
“Lots of girls worked down there, taking pieces and cleaning them and I guess helping put things together,” she said. “They were trained on the job.”
She worked in a mess hall where the young trainee pilots ate their meals three times per day.
She helped to prepare the tables for the meals and to clean up afterwards.
“They would get their food, but we put the ketchup, sugar, bread, butter on the table and they had to go to a steam table to get their food, and sat down,” she said.
“We took their plates away and we cleaned up.”
In addition to the daily meals the staff in the mess hall also assisted during special events on the air base, for example when a class of trainee pilots graduated.
“The cooks would make a special supper and they played games and danced,” she said. “Some had instruments and sang and entertained, and a lot of the boys would come to take in their farewell.”
She stayed on the air base in a large building next to the mess hall that housed about 80 civilian female staff. They were subject to many of the same rules as the military staff on the base.
“You had your own pass and you couldn’t leave or come into the place without showing your pass at the gate,” she noted. “There was a guard there, and nobody was allowed.”
There were rules that prohibited male visitors to their building and females were not allowed to be in the male barracks.
“There was always a matron there for watching over the place, that nobody got in there that didn’t belong there,” she said.
“So we felt secure in there.”
There was a communal room in their building where the women spent time when they were not working.
“We used to get together and sing in the evenings,” she said. “I used to play the guitar and we'd sing and entertain ourselves with the group that was together at the base there.”
They did not go to Assiniboia very often, because all the amenities were at the air base. There was a hospital with a nurse and doctor, as well as a dental lab. There were dances and movie screenings on the base, and they created their own entertainment.
“In summer we played ball,” she recalled. “We had girls’ ball teams going and played against a team of the young guys. They were playing too. ... That was our place where we lived and because our money was so limited, we just made that our place where we lived and where we had friends, the people you worked with.”
Holderbein still has her formal uniform and heavy winter coat from the war years.
They only wore these uniforms during special occasions or as formal wear when they were leaving the base.
“We would only wear them when we went out,” she explained. “We had cotton uniforms, just dresses like a waitress dress. But these uniforms were for dress wear.. You felt quite dressed up when you went out. You wore them when you went to Gravelbourg for a dance or something, or just home to visit.”
The formal occasions included attendance of funeral services, which happened when there was an  aircraft accident or when someone died of other causes.
“Then they come to the airbase and they tell us we should come to the funeral, and we’ll march down the main street when the service began,” she said.
For Holderbein the time spent working at the air base was a significant moment in her life that gave her confidence to move away from home after the war.
“It got us to know more how to mix with other people, because on the farm you only saw your own relatives and people you went to school with and the church,” she said. “That’s as far as we got. It was good to know how you could mix with people you didn’t know. It was a very good experience.”
After the war she went to Vancouver, where she initially worked in a fruit packing warehouse. Within a few months she saved enough money to enroll in a hairdressing course in the city.
She worked in a beauty shop in Vancouver for a while, but then returned to Saskatchewan and opened her own beauty salon in Morse, where she met her husband Herb.
They raised a family on a farm near the town, where he worked as a teacher, and after his retirement they continued to farm for a while until they moved to Swift Current in 1990.

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Matthew Liebenberg


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