WHITEHORSE — When Eugenie Turner decided in 1942 that she was going to join the Air Force, she first told her older brother, who was in the navy.
“I didn’t even say, ‘What do you think?’ I just said, ‘I’m going to do it,'” said the 92-year-old Kelowna, B.C., resident, who was in Whitehorse for the Royal Canadian Air Force Airwomen’s Reunion on the weekend.
Her Air Force ambition as a 19-year-old was supposed to be a secret.
But her brother told their parents, who were dead set against the idea of their daughter joining the war. She’d never left her home in Lachine, Que.
The same day, Turner’s mother marched to the recruiting office in Montreal and told an officer that Turner was not allowed to enlist.
The following week, the teen went to the office and lied.
“I said, ‘It’s all right now, I talked to my parents and I can go,'” she says with a laugh and a hint of a French accent.
The morning Turner was scheduled to leave for basic training, she got up early, packed her belongings and headed downstairs to the train station. Her mother intercepted her.
“You’re leaving?” she asked.
“I said, ‘Yes, Mom, I’m sorry. It’s something I have to do.’ She said, ‘I know. I’ll fix it with your dad.'”
Turner says she felt compelled to join and participate on behalf of her country.
“I was quite upset that I wasn’t a boy because I wanted to be a pilot so bad.”
About 140 former airwomen attended the lunches, dinners and presentations on the weekend. Many of them are in their 70s now.
Sitting in a Whitehorse hotel room on Friday, Turner is decked out in her navy RCAF Association jacket, grey skirt and tie, with three silver medals pinned on her chest, right over her heart. She clutches a cane.
She is the only Second World War veteran attending this year’s event.
The reunion has been held every other year since 1990, alternating among locations in eastern and western Canada. This year’s theme is Last Post, honouring the airwomen who’ve died over the years.
“I wish there were more of us, but at my age, there’s not too many left,” Turner says.
After leaving home in 1942, she completed her training at RCAF Station Rockcliffe, near Ottawa, then spent 11 months in Gander Bay, N.L., as a teletype operator.
The posting gave her an up-close look at the aircraft heading overseas as they stopped in Gander Bay to refuel.
“I got to fly in a few of them, as a matter of fact,” she says.
Turner earned the nickname “Frankie” because the anglophones couldn’t pronounce her maiden name, Francoeur.
In December 1943, she got her first overseas posting, with No. 6 Group Bomber Command, in Linton-on-Ouse in Yorkshire.
“I was excited,” she says. “I really was. It was something I had been hoping for.”
Turner spent nearly two years there, doing telecommunication on teletype. She’d receive information that she had to decipher and transmit to air crews before operations.
With about 30 bombers at the base, and seven crew members on each, there was no shortage of work. Turner had to send lists with each man’s serial number, name, age and rank to headquarters in London. They were never older than 25, she says.
When the bombers came back, she would send a casualty list. She never got used to that.
When Turner was sent to London for a month for an advanced teletype course, the city was bombed every night.
She remembers leaving the theatre near Piccadilly Circus one evening with a friend as bombs rained down. People were running around in the chaos, and some of them were hit.
When she came back to base, she learned the London hotel where she was billeted was bombed and some of the women she knew were killed.
Her time in England wasn’t all grim.
She met her husband there in 1944. He was from Winnipeg and working as a directions finder to bring bombers back from operations.
They were bombed on their wedding night in London, and their bedroom window was shattered. They spent the rest of the night in the hotel basement, drinking tea.
“It was quite exciting. Not exactly what I had planned for my wedding night,” she says with a laugh.
She returned to Canada with her husband on May 12, 1945. They had five children. He passed away in 1983 of cancer, and she moved from the couple’s home in California to Kelowna, where her sister lived. (Whitehorse Star)
Rhiannon Russell, Whitehorse Star, The Canadian Press