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The women behind the men (5 photos)

Ruby Farmer and Iris Chalmers served in Royal Canadian Air Force during Second World War on home front; ‘We did the work here in Canada so the men could fight overseas’
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Victory for Canada and her Allies in the Second World War came at a dreadful price.

45,000 Canadian soldiers, sailors and air force personnel were killed, and thousands more were wounded.

For every man killed or wounded in battle, it is vital to remember many Canadian women served in the munitions factories here at home, or served in non-combat roles in the forces, performing essential duties while men fought.

Two of those women are Sault Ste. Marie’s Iris Chalmers and Ruby Farmer, who served with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in support roles here in Canada.

“We did the work here in Canada so the men could fight overseas,” Ruby said.

Iris showed us treasured, historical personal photos from the war years, of herself smartly posing in uniform, along with the area where she worked as a busy RCAF mail sorter.

“I’m glad I brought these along, that was quite the department,” Iris said as she and Ruby spoke with SooToday in advance of Remembrance Day. 

Interestingly, the two women were on the same base for a part of the war but didn’t become acquainted until the postwar years.

Iris Chalmers (nee Dool), now 91, served as a Corporal, stationed at an RCAF base in Ottawa, where she worked as a mail sorter.

“I had three brothers (each of whom survived the war, though one was wounded in the shoulder), two of them were in the army, one was in the navy, then there was myself, so we wanted to represent all the forces. I always liked the air force’s uniforms anyway,” Iris chuckled.

Iris joined the RCAF in 1944, and left in 1946.

“When I first enlisted they were going to train us for six weeks in Ottawa, then they were going to send us to an overseas depot, to London, but that was cancelled so we stayed in Ottawa,” Iris said, adding she was disappointed about that air force decision at the time.

“I would have liked to have gone over there because one of my brothers was in England.”

“We worked right across from the old jail in Ottawa. They used to do hangings there,” Iris said. 

The mail Iris sorted was outgoing, from wives, sweethearts and family members, addressed to RCAF men overseas.

“The mail came from different provinces and had to be sorted, going to different squadrons.”

“If there was any damage to any parcel or letter, it had to be fixed. There was this one particular box, I can still see it in my mind, and it was damaged on one side. The Sergeant had to pull it apart and guess what was in there?”

“It was a chocolate cake (from a woman to her RCAF boyfriend), and it was hard already. If the fellow ever got it he would have dumped her for sure,” Iris quipped with her straight-faced sense of humour.

Iris said she always imagined the human stories and relationships  behind every letter and parcel she handled.

“Every time you sorted a letter you thought about ‘who is this going to, where did it come from’, I thought about it a whole lot, but you had to keep going and sort it, there was a lot of mail.”

After the war, Iris returned to the Sault, where her mother ran a small grocery store at the corner of Douglas Street and 4th Avenue in the city’s west end.

Iris met her husband George Chalmers (an ACR employee) in 1948, and married in 1949.

The couple had two children, several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“I’ve had a good life, I can’t complain,” said Iris, who planned to lay a wreath at her church Sunday in advance of Remembrance Day.

“I’m the only Second World War veteran left at our church, and its my privilege to lay the wreath.”

Ruby Farmer (nee Bean), now 92, came from the Bruce Mines area and moved to the Sault when she was 16.

After attending the Tech and briefly working in the Algoma Steel offices, she joined the RCAF in 1943.

“My boyfriend (Jack Newell) was in the air force (as a ground crew member) and he was stationed in Northern Ireland, so I decided to join the air force too and I wanted to go overseas.”

Ruby was informed she wasn’t old enough to be stationed overseas, so she was sent to work for the RCAF in the Maritimes after basic training in Ottawa.

“I was posted to a little repair depot outside Moncton, N.B., where they repaired the motors of smaller planes they were training in. That’s the closest I got to the airplanes but it was a fun station because it was brand new, with a new barracks. From there I went to Halifax… it was a nice city,” Ruby said.

With the rank of Corporal, Ruby was then transferred back to Ottawa, where she worked in the RCAF records department, involved in what was considered a form of advanced information technology in the 1940s.

“We kept track of where everybody was in the air force, when they were moved or were sent overseas, using punch card machines to file the information.”

“They had different programs where you could learn new things.”

Ruby married her boyfriend Jack Newell in 1946, a year after the war ended. The couple settled in Sault Ste. Marie, where Newell worked at Algoma Steel, and the two also owned a small corner store.

Ruby, a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, worked at Virene’s, then in local television.

Her husband Jack Newell passed away in 1986.

Ruby remarried, to Stewart Farmer (another RCAF veteran, a navigator who flew 29 missions over Europe, who has also since passed away).

Both women said they were naturally happy and relieved when the war ended, Ruby recalling there were several parades to celebrate the occasion.

“We’ve got to remember all those fellas who gave their lives,” Iris said as Remembrance Day approaches.

“We’ve got to remember because of the freedoms we have,” Ruby said.