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WE'RE A BIT AT SEA ON WOMEN MARINERS

TIMES COLONIST    SUNDAY, JUNE 3, 2001
  


Messages flood in about their achievements.
There was an entire sisterhood out there
in the Second World War
(not to diminish the "record" of Victoria's
Dallas Bradshaw).


JIM HUME      

It isn't easy being right and wrong at the same time.

It requires blind trust in unimpeachable sources, and a small force of kindly and generous volunteers to unscramble the confusion created when the unimpeachable source is as accurate as one would expect, but not quite.

It all started last Sunday, soon after the TC arrived on Vancouver Island breakfast tables. First came the e-mails, then the telephone calls and, before the week was very old the snail mail, some delivered personally, the rest by Canada Post.

They were all from former members of the Merchant Marine, the proud sons or daughters of merchant mariners, or Second World War dockyard workers. And they were all unfailingly polite as they questioned the claim of

The Guinness Guide to Feminine Achievements
that my old friend Dallas Bradshaw was
"the first sea-going woman radio officer....
who qualified in 1970 (and helped) dispose
of the old seamen's contention that women
at sea are unlucky."

In more than half-a-century in the trenches of journalism I have never had correspondence or dialogue with readers on such a courteous and helpful level. The average exchange when journalistic merit is challenged usually contains a touch of glee and often abusive delight, of readers.

But not these readers. They were writing or phoning as interested and curious individuals.

Tom Osborne, one of the early telephone callers, summed up their attitude. He prefaced his challenge to Guinness: "I thought about writing a letter to the editor, but then thought a letter could be misconstrued or misunderstood as being churlish. So I thought I would call because I would not want to detract in any way from your tribute to Ms. Bradshaw or diminish her accomplishments."

And that is an attitude all too sadly missing on the average day in 2001. But, back to the problem and the happy band of volunteers trying to figure out how Guinness got it wrong and at first glance, wildly wrong at that.

That Dallas was not the first Canadian woman to go to sea as a radio operator there was soon no doubt.My new-found friends and assistants provided me with histories, with book titles, with Websites and links, including a magnificent , which in the end brought resolution to the question as to how Guinness, with its scrupulous checking and impeccable record keeping, could be wrong.

An article in the November 1996 issue of The Red Duster, a merchant marine newsletter, lists

Fern Blodgett Sunde
as the first Canadian woman radio
operator to go deep-sea. She made 78
Atlantic crossings during the Second
World War and she was not alone.

There was, in fact, an entire
sisterhood, out there on the wartime
oceans sailing in harm's way. Not all of
them made it safely back to home port.

Osborne counts eight Canadian women merchant mariners who died at sea, three in the First World War, five in the Second World War. It is one of his ambitions he says, to one day plant a grove of eight aspen trees in Ross Bay Cemetery, or maybe on the grounds of St. Ann's Academy, or near the Uplands War Memorial, one for each woman sailor who didn't make it home from the sea.

"I would pay for the trees myself,"
he said. "And maybe a small
plaque to tell their story."

"Why aspen trees?"

"Well, they're very strong and sturdy,
and they shimmer in the wind.
Yes, I think aspens."



The first mayor Osborne asks for a place to plant his memorial plantation should jump at the chance. We are, after all a deep-sea port with a long merchant marine history. Maybe it's time we knew a little more about this intrepid brand of women and learned for the first time what happened to women like Maude Elizabeth Steane, 2nd Class radio operator, killed by gunfire. She was 28 when she died on the Viggo Hansteen at Naples and lies at rest in the Allied War Cemetery near Florence, Italy.

As the hints and histories came rolling in, the list of women who sailed the deep water grew longer. They were graduates of the Radio College of Canada, Toronto, or the Sprott Shaw Radio School in Vancouver.

Among them were Rosemary Byrom of Victoria, half-a-dozen Vancouver women and Olive J. Roeckner (nee Carroll), still alive and and well and living in the Kootenays and the author, under her maiden name, of Deep Sea Sparks, the story of her life at sea.

Where does all this place friend Dallas Bradshaw and the always reliable records of Guinness?

Osborne provided the first clue when he noted that all the women who served as radio operators in the Second World War did so on Norwegian ships.

Then came a quote from The Red Duster:

"The Norwegian Merchant Navy was the
only Allied merchant fleet that
permitted women to serve on board as
radio operators, although Russia might
have done so. In spite of women holding
identical licences to their male
counterparts they faced a closed
door during and after the war."

Then this from the YL Radio Web Page:
(YL is for Young Ladies)

"It has taken more than half a century
for recognition to be accorded the
men who sailed in the world's 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 emphasis is in the original.

From that same source of history of the radio operators sisterhood, the final clue to vindicate (almost) Guinness and (almost) me: "In the early '70s Dallas Bradshaw of Victoria went to England for training becoming, it is said, THE FIRST WOMAN OPERATOR TO SAIL ABOARD A BRITISH SHIP (my emphasis), 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 '74 aboard the Naess."

To fine tune that paragraph Dallas can be claimed by Penticton, although she had family in Victoria. And she beached herself some years ago and now works in the criminal justice section of the North Wales Police headquarters, which until a few weeks ago were located in Colwyn Bay, where she took her Marconi ticket 31 years ago.

A footnote:

When the Second World war women graduated with their radio operator tickets they were not only banned from joining Canadian or any other Commonwealth ships but also from joining foreign flags in Canadian ports.

Armed with their new licences to operate ships radio they filtered across the border to Seattle or San Francisco in the west, New York or Boston in the east, to join the Norwegian ships which competed energetically for their skills.

Which brings me back to Dallas and the Guinness claim that she was the first sea-going woman radio operator. She was the first woman to graduate from the Marconi establishment, Colwyn Bay, Wales; she was the first woman to set up radio operators shop on board a British Commonwealth ship after enlightenment swept over the merchant marine in the '70s. A British first, a Commonwealth first, remain as no mean feats for a nervous but determined kid from the Okanagan.

To the many who wrote and/or phoned, thank you, for bringing the record into clearer focus and providing me with such a wealth of heretofore unknown information about a sisterhood unsung.

And with a special thank you to Osborne who so gently suggested a clarification of the charts and a modest change of course. He will be writing to Guinness to suggest a few additional words to clarify, not diminish, the Dallas Bradshaw "record."

And should Esquimalt, Oak Bay or Victoria ever be smart enough to run with Tom's Eight Aspen tree grove memorial project, they can call me for a donation.

jhume@home.com


Thank You To:
Jim Hume, columnist for TIMES COLONIST
of Victoria, B.C. for giving YLRADIO Website
permission to upload his June 3, 2001 article.

 

Copyright

 


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