In 2020, we have celebrated the 75th anniversary of the end of World War 2 in Europe and in the Pacific. To honour this anniversary, volunteers at the Ladysmith and District Historical Society interviewed a number of older Ladysmith residents and former residents, asking what it was like to live in Ladysmith during WW2. Here are some of their memories.
Most people we talked to remember black-out curtains, black-out drills and slit cloth covers for car headlights. Darrell Rogers remembers the local air raid precaution (ARP) warden coming to tell his mother that a light could be seen through the curtains of their house. Darrell remembers the slit cloth headlight covers weren’t very effective, and he used them as a basket for picking blackberries. Isabelle Ouelette remembers her father and brother going out during black-out drills to ensure no light could be seen from any building.
Several people could remember taking 25¢ to school each week to buy a War Savings Stamp (not a Victory Bond). When $4.00 of stamps was saved, the attached form was completed and the stamps and form sent to the government. The child received a $5 War Savings Certificate. The school kept track of the names of those students who bought stamps in the attendance records.
The rationing of food and gasoline was remembered by all. Isabelle Ouelette remembers people traded their ration coupons. Non-smokers and non-drinkers did particularly well in the coupon trade market.
The end of the war was well remembered. When Japan surrendered, Jim Williams was in Vancouver visiting his grandparents and to see the launch of a new ship. Every whistle and siren around went off, including those of the police cars. Darrell Rogers remembers walking past the Island Hotel and the smell of beer coming from it as people celebrated. This was a far cry from the end of WW1, when Ladysmith was under lockdown due to the Spanish Flu epidemic. The only public celebration was closure of all businesses followed by a victory parade through town, after which everyone was sent home.
Jim Williams remembered being taken outside of the North Oyster School to practice what to do if there was an air raid – lie flat on the ground and huff and puff vigorously. He saw the construction of Cassidy Airport. There were paratroop drills at the airport and Jim watched the troopers float down in their parachutes. Jim went home, took his mother’s umbrella, climbed on the roof of the chicken coop, and jumped using the umbrella as his parachute. The umbrella folded up and Jim had a very hard landing. He put the umbrella away and told no one what he had done. His mother went to use the umbrella and found it broken – Jim didn’t say a word. He joined the Air Cadets after they were started in 1942. He was taken on a flight in a big plane from Cassidy to Vancouver and back, sitting in a large bubble – probably a gun turret. Jim remembers “Bundles for Britain” – sending clothing and other non-military goods to Britain and weaving cords, which were sent in to be used in blankets.
Darrell Rogers told us how upset his grandmother, Annie Sharp, was when her youngest son, George (Lefty) Sharp, left for Britain with the Army. She had good reason to be upset. Her husband James had left for WW1 in 1916, and never returned. He remembers the difficulty his father, Jack Rogers, had getting goods for his store, the Ladysmith Trading Company. Everything seemed to be on back-order. However, goods did arrive, as they were needed by the essential workers.
Alec Johnson tells that that his home was one of the First Aid Stations around town. He remembers drills involving simulated accidents where the “victims” had simulated broke arms. Alec would collect cascara bark and sell it to Rolston’s Hardware for 5¢/pound. It was used to make medicine for the forces. He remembers people fishing for dogfish in the harbour to get livers to sell for making liver oil. Alec saw Lancaster bombers hedgehopping over the trees and down the harbour on their way to Patricia Bay airport. Once, when swimming with other boys, the military police (Provost Corps) came by and asked if they had seen three soldiers. The boys had not seen them. Several minutes later, the boys saw the men. When the police came back, the boys reported what they had seen. The men were apparently deserters from the army camp in Nanaimo.
Isabelle Ouelette remembered the alarm when a Japanese submarine shelled the Estevan Point lighthouse and the adjacent radio-direction-finding station, and when Japanese submarines released incendiary balloons over the island to start forest fires. There were steel rods driven into the sand on the beaches on the west coast to prevent airplanes from landing.
Walter (Buster) Ouellette, Isabel’s older brother, joined the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers in September 1944, and being issued a 3030 Winchester carbine for the grand sum of $5.00. Weekly classroom training occurred at what is now the In the Beantime Café. Training included the study of maps and firing practice with the rifle at a local gravel pit. All the training was associated with the shooting down of the incendiary balloons (known as “Japanese Killer Fire Balloons”). None were shot down in the vicinity of Ladysmith.
Our interviewees say that the war didn’t affect children as much as you might expect. Their lives were not very different. If you read the Ladysmith Chronicle from the war years, you will see that most of the reporting is about local events. News about the war was covered extensively by the daily newspapers, and the Chronicle could not compete in the reporting of war news. For high school students, almost every boy was in the air cadets. Alvin Thicke, the high school shop teacher, and Tom Bertram, local druggist, ran the Air Cadets. Being in the air cadets was a credit course. There were also a number of girls in the air cadets, though without uniforms.
-Compiled by John Sharp with help from Ladysmith Archives volunteers