February 24, 2015 – WWII story of Pat O’Connor

My dear brother who is so kind to read this blog suggested that I start at the beginning as people might be confused about what this story is about and who it is about.

Frances Patricia O’Connor was the seventh child of Dr. and Mrs. Fergus O’Connor Sr.  She grew up in Kingston Ontario in this large family of little people – they were all short. – Under 5’5″. When she graduated from High School I don’t know if she went to any college or not but eventually she went to Nursing School at the Hotel Dieu Hospital in Kingston along with her sister Sheila.

In 1943 after graduating from Nursing School and working for awhile she joined the Canadian Army with the goal of going over seas to assist in the war effort and her personal goal was to get over as near as possible to the front where she really felt she could be of help to the forces fighting the war.  From the time she left on the ship going to England she wrote home on a regular basis and her family kept her letters.  When her sister Mary died several years ago the letters were entrusted to me since I am the cousin who is into genealogy and has been working for years transcribing old letters and documents so everyone could have copies.

Since I received many boxes of items from Aunt Mary’s apartment I slowly went through them all looking to see what we had there.  When I found Aunt Pat’s letters I started to read through them and was totally fascinated.  Because it was war she could not write exactly where she was or much about the fighting aspects but she did write a lot about the social life and the men she met, plays she saw, the quality of the food, her feelings about the people of each country where she was at the time etc.  I was totally drawn into her story.

My Mom had been very close to Pat since when they were young the three older girls in the family were each assigned one of the three younger girls to take care of. My mother was given Pat as her special kid.  Mom would get Pat up in the morning, get her cleaned up, dressed and down for breakfast. Then after school she would entertain her, take her out for walks and make sure they got to dinner on time and got her ready for bed.  My Grandmother had a busy active household and I guess this helped her out. My mom never talked about it like it was a chore. It made them very close and so when Pat died of cancer when she was 29 my Mom was very upset since it was like losing her first child.

My own memories of Aunt Pat are from one visit she and her sister Sheila made to us when we lived in Buffalo as children.  They arrived in their Army Uniforms and I was so impressed. They stayed in my bedroom so their uniforms were hanging on the back of my door.  I have this vivid memory of standing there and staring at those uniforms and dreaming of what I would look like in one.

After reading Pat’s letters or many of them, I decided to transcribe all of them and any more I could find from that time period and then put the originals in good acid free file holders and put them all in a binder and donate them to the Canadian War Museum.  Along with a copy of the printed out transcribed letters so that those doing research would not have to handle her letters but could read the copies.   My cousins agreed with that idea and that they would be available to future generations of family members if they wanted to see them or if they were put up on the net for all to see.

About this same time I began to realize that her story would make a great read as a book. So for the last two years I have been playing around writing out segments of the letters in story form as historical fiction since I have added some dialogue and written it at times as if I were her doing the telling.  I am still trying to figure out which would be the best way to approach the telling, 1. using the letters themselves edited to just tell the story; 2. Write it from a first person point of view with her telling her story after returning home or 3. write it from a story tellers point of view – third person.   So that is all yet to be decided.

My goal is to get this off the ground sooner than later and I may use this blog to start that process.  This is something I wrote a year ago about the beginning of her adventure. I framed the story with her telling her sister in law Jean about her time over seas and having her use the letters to jog her memory about the details.  I hope you like it.

The Beginning
In 1943 I graduated from Hotel Dieu as an Registered Nurse and after working there for a bit made the decision to sign up for the Army. They were in desperate need of nurses and I wanted some adventure. My deepest hope was to be sent overseas and to be as near the war front as possible. But in the beginning I was sent to the Ottawa Military Hospital. I guessed it would be the same as basic training for the new members of the Army.
I learned all the military protocols and it was not much different than working in a public hospital. There was a chain of command and as nurses we lived in a residence with the other nurses. We worked long shifts that rotated week after week from days to evenings to nights. We had dress uniforms, they were blue and if I say so myself I looked pretty darn good in mine. But for our daily work it was white nurse’s uniforms and hats. As I worked I constantly met people who had either studied under Dad at the Queen’s University Medical School or who were in Medical School with either Fergus or Maurice. Occasionally I would also meet some fellow who had dated one of my older sisters. I guess that is what happens when you come from a large family. It seemed everyone I met knew some one from 193 Earl St.
On our time off we picnicked, went on dates with some wonderful men and went home for long weekends or to our friends hometowns. Liz Graham had this well-to-do friend Cecil De Meara in Toronto who called me up one week and then flew down to take me out to dinner. He took me to the Chateau for dinner and then dancing at the Avalon and then to El Rancho to eat. Wow it was a great time. Jean laughed at my description of this oh so wealthy suitor. I assured her it was just another date. I did not want a serious relationship since I wanted to go to the war, to see the action. I have no regrets about not allowing myself to get serious about any of the men I dated. I had plenty of time, I thought, for a long term relationship. Jean just smiled as I told her this and we had a little laugh. She was so good for me.
Finally in the fall of 1943 the word came that we were being sent over to England and would be assigned to one of the Canadian Military Hospitals over there and might be sent to the war if needed. The months in Ottawa had been wonderful fun. While on duty we cared for the soldiers who came back from the war with various injuries. They told us their stories but it seemed so unreal. Many had been affected more mentally than physically but still it was hard to understand. I deeply desired to be there and see for myself what it was like. My family could not understand this desire in me but did not stop me from signing up or from going. I went home on leave just before leaving. Maurice as always gave me some of his advice. “Stay away from the married ones or the ones just out for a good time”. “Thanks” I told him, “I think I can handle that” My sisters were sure I would snag a doctor while over there and come back a war bride. “Nope, not going to happen” I assured them. I was not going to be husband hunting, I was going for adventure and fun I told them.
Back in Ottawa we were told what we needed to pack and how much we could bring with us. They said we would be outfitted with battle dress once we arrived in England but there were lists of what we could take and what items we might not be able to purchase once overseas such as tea, coffee, cigarettes, soap, nylons, cookies and other things. The family told me they would ship over items to me to see that I never ran out. But they also filled my trunk with so many goodies. I had at the time wondered if they would still be there by the time we arrived in England. I always enjoyed a good snack and a cigarette and sharing those with my comrades in arms would be normal.

In January of 1944 we left by train for Montreal, there we would change trains and go to Halifax and on to Debert for last minute training and then to our ship. I had planned to see my sister Eileen, her husband Bill and daughter Jane at the Montreal Train Station. I looked for them but then our train was called for boarding. We rushed down to get a compartment together. There were four of us nurses who were great friends traveling together and we did not want to be split up. We got settled and then one of the other girls came along and said Eileen and Bill were up top looking for me. I rushed from the train and started towards the steps. A conductor reached out and stopped me. “The training is leaving and if you are going to be on it better get back inside.” With Bill and Eileen and little Jane looking down from above I waved and jumped on the train as it started to leave. That was a close one.

The ride seemed to go on forever but we had a great time on the train. Everyone was so excited to finally be going overseas. Most of us had never been far from home before so this was going to be a grand adventure. Debert was the staging area for all troops preparing to be sent overseas. They went over all the rules with us, what we could say and not say in letters home, how to protect ourselves from gas attacks, and the “rules” of conduct. I know it was all to protect us and keep the enemy from learning things about troop position but it was like being in school again. There seemed to be thousands of us in Debert and I could not wait to get moving east.

We had heard how the people were shipped over on a variety of different ships and it turned out we were going on a British ship. It was not very large compared to some of the others that were in the port. The biggest boat I had ever been on was the one that take people on tours of the Thousand Islands and this seemed huge compared to that one. Once we were all boarded in Halifax the excitement grew and grew. We all stood on the deck as the ship left port. I stayed and watched until there was nothing left to see of Canada and wondered when I would ever see it again.

The staff on the ship was heavenly. We were served tea every afternoon, we sunbathed up on the deck during the day and in the evening there was entertainment in the lounge with coffee. It was more like a cruise than a ship full of army medical staff heading for a war. About January 14th we ran into a storm. My poor friends, Ruth and Maggie, were down below throwing up. We could not eat as the sea was so rough. I thought it was the most exhilarating thing I had every experienced. I spent hours standing on the deck watching the waves as high as sky scrapers tossing the ship like it was a feather. The sailors would come up and say to me “Miss, don’t you think you would like to come inside where it is safer?” I would laugh at them and just said “NO, I love it out here.”   They would keep coming and checking to make sure I was not swept overboard. I hung on and stayed there for hours. All I could think of was how much more fun it would have been if Marye had been here with me. She would have loved the dark wildness of the huge storm. It only lasted for two days but the winds howled and the waves were like mountains. Then as suddenly as it started it stopped. Ruth and Maggie, poor girls still could not eat. Both of them were sea sick the entire trip. Not me, I loved the entire experience. We were treated very well on the ship. We have tea in the afternoon and refreshments at nite and coffee in the lounge after each meal.

What I could not tell in letters was that we were escorted across by battle ships. There was always concern about our being torpedoed by German submarines. I think some of the nurses were really more afraid of that happening than the storm or the sea in general. I also heard from one of the sailors that during the storm a tug has been lost “the Adherent” it was a British ship that the storm just over took. I realized then that I probably should have listened to the crew who were worried about me. They knew better than I about the dangers. OH well, it was too late for that worry!

One day as I was lounging on the deck one of the sailors came long and pointed out some land to the south. I was so excited to finally see Ireland. Here I was so close and yet so far. One of my wish list items was to see Ireland and that was it, from miles away on a ship. They were neutral in the war so we were never allowed to go over. I enjoyed seeing it even from a distance but have always regretted my inability to actually put foot on the Old Sod and now I know I will never have the chance. Two days after that we docked in Scotland on January 24th.

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