It isn't easy being right and wrong at the
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 ofThe 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
, 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, listsFern 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?
provided the first clue when he noted that all the women who
served as radio operators in the Second World War did so on
"The Norwegian Merchant Navy was
Then came a quote from 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:"It has taken more than half a century
(YL is for Young Ladies)
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 emphasis is in the original.
THE NORWEGIAN MERCHANT NAVY."
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.
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
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
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
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
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.