Grace Scarabelli remembers the exact day she enlisted to serve in the Second World War.
“It was May 19, 1943,” the 97-year-old said. “I was 19 years old.”
Scarabelli, who lives now in Saanich in the Trillium Highgate Lodge, was one of the first women to attend the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston Ont. and worked her way up to become a second lieutenant in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC).
CWAC was a non-combatant branch of the Canadian military that performed essential skills to free up men for combat roles. In the CWAC uniform of khaki suit, peaked cap and tie – women took on clerical and technical work, demonstrating their ability for responsibility and skilled work alongside the women’s division of the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service.
For Scarabelli, joining CWAC was a departure from her days riding horses bareback with her 10 younger siblings on the family’s Ontario farm.
“I was the oldest in my family. And my father had always treated me as a boy,” she recalled. “My father said, ‘I’ll take you to the place to join the army, but for God’s sake don’t tell your mother.”
Scarabelli was in search of excitement and adventure. In high school she would sit in the library, leafing through books about New York City.
At 19, with her high school matriculation and shorthand knowledge, Scarabelli received a “plum posting” doing dictation in Kingston. She lived in the old professors’ quarters with the other women, sleeping four to a room in bunk beds.
“I took dictation and I wrote up all the orders for the camp,” she recalled. “Some of it was top secret.”
“The uniform was very smart – the CWACs uniform,” she smirked. “Guys used to walk behind us yelling, ‘quack, quack, quack, quack.’ Which was very annoying.”
But Scarabelli is the first to admit that she had her fair share of good times while serving – she enjoyed dancing and socializing with officers who came through for training.
“We danced with all these guys from the U.S.A.,” she said, with a smile. “I was a good looking gal and I had a terrific sense of humour.”
When she first started, Scarabelli said women made 90 cents per day – a rate that fell far below her male colleagues, who made $1.10 each day.
“That was considered unfair, and they raised it,” she recalled. “I never spent a nickel. I saved my money because I wanted to go to New York. I saved $40.”
Many men were changed by the war, Scarabelli said.
“They came home and … life had gone on at home. And they were different.
The stories of what happened overseas were enough to keep Scarabelli firmly planted in home soil. At one point, after achieving some rank, she remembers being asked to go to Holland to help receive survivors of German concentration camps.
“I said, ‘no I can’t do it. I’m too emotional.’ I didn’t think that I would have the stomach to put up with it. So I didn’t go. And I often wondered if it would have changed me if I had.”
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