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Peggy Strange

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Peggy Strange

For Peggy Strange, the decision to join the Women's Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1943 was not made merely out of a desire to serve her country. It was, in part, a decision born out of necessity.

"There was no work for anyone at all," said Strange, a native of Highview, Saskatchewan. "I had been working at the Robert Simpson Company in Regina, but no one was purchasing anything because of the war. As a result, five of us girls were laid off."

At noon on the day their jobs were terminated, the five women went for lunch together. Naturally, the topic of conversation was what to do now that they had no income.

Peggy, then 23 years old, knew she did not want to return to the family farm and be a financial burden to her parents.

"So we decided to join up," she said. "We had two weeks at home before we were transferred to Number 6 Manning Depot in Toronto."

For Peggy, the transition from civilian life to a stark military existence was a difficult one. She said she missed creature comforts like tablecloths and comfortable shoes. Instead, the women ate off of tin plates and their feet hurt from the uncomfortable military footwear that was provided.

Given the era in history, there were few career choices for women in the military. Positions included stenographers, equipment assistants and kitchen staff. Following basic training, Peggy elected to become an equipment assistant.

"I was sent to St. Thomas to train," she said. "There were 10 girls and 10 men. They were separate from us. We couldn't associate with the gentlemen."

To help reduce the possibility of any romances blossoming with one of the 8,000 airmen on the base, the women were kept under a watchful eye and even had to be paraded to and from their meals. Peggy insists there was little chance of warm feelings developing with the airmen due to the taunts they received each day.

"When we were paraded they would yell, 'Milk maids! Where's your pail? Milk maids!'"

This animosity inspired the women to show their intellectual superiority. For the entire six weeks of her training, Peggy and the other nine women spent their time learning about airplane parts and how to ship equipment. By the time she was done, Peggy had knowledge of every nut and bolt used in airplane construction and the tools the mechanics used to complete the task.

When the training was complete and final testing started, the women were more than prepared. For the male equipment assistants, however, it was a different story.

"About four of the men didn't pass," she recalled. "All of us girls passed with about 98 per cent."

Following her training, Peggy was stationed in Rockcliffe Air Station in Ottawa. She was eager to demonstrate her newly-acquired skills, but was met with less than ideal working conditions.

"There was a small tool shed with hundreds of shelves," Peggy said. "It was all dirt and dust."

Her task was to organize every item on those dusty shelves to ensure records pertaining to inventory, handling and shipping could be maintained. Armed with only her basic training, some ingenuity and a reference book on plane parts, Peggy began the meticulous task of creating her own supply centre.

She removed every item from the shed, cleaned the shelves, clearly relabelled each part and then returned it to its proper place. The door to the shed was then cut in half and a shelf was placed on the lower half to provide Peggy with a workspace.

Finally, she placed a book on that shelf which tracked all incoming and outgoing parts. Everything that entered or left her domain had to be signed for and meticulously tracked.

And what did she get for her efforts?

"I won my Corporal stripes," Peggy said.

Peggy also got the opportunity to select her next posting and soon found herself in Dayton, Ohio, where she stayed for the remainder of her time in the service.

Peggy worked as an equipment assistant in the Lease/Lend Unit and liaised specifically with Number 7 Equipment Depot in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Whenever the depot needed airplane parts or tools, staff would notify Peggy via telegram with the Canadian part number. Peggy would then check the Canadian part number against the American part number to ensure it was the correct item. Once the item was verified, it was shipped north to Canada.

Peggy said she was dedicated to her job and felt pressure to ensure she was always shipping the correct equipment to Winnipeg.

"It was a big responsibility," she said. "You did your best because you were spending a lot of money. If you sent the wrong part, you were spending our money for nothing."

Her dedication to her country and her duty resulted in promotion. In 1944, Peggy was promoted to the rank of sergeant. It was a rank rarely attained by women in the service.

"It made me feel absolutely wonderful to be appreciated for the work I was doing," she said.

But being recognized by the Air Force for a job well done was a standard in Peggy's family. Her brother, Kenneth, was a lieutenant and her sister, Islay, was a corporal.

Peggy said she truly enjoyed her experience in Dayton. The work was hard, but there were opportunities to have fun.

"In the States we were treated like royalty," she said. "We were invited to many functions. We went to dances, different shows and on trips."

Peggy and a friend even had the opportunity to attend a Professional Golfers Association (PGA) tournament in Dayton, where they sold tour programs out of their military Jeep.

"I had my program signed by all of the golfers there that day," she said. "It was a great experience."

When she reflects on her experience in the service, Peggy said it was a positive life-altering experience.

"You learned to cope with a lot of things," she said. "You learned to work with a lot of different people. We were like a family."

The bond she formed with many of the women she served with has lasted the test of time. To this day, Peggy still stays in contact with two friends she met while in Dayton.

Following the war, Peggy's unit disbanded and she was sent to Winnipeg with one of her close friends named Maise. She spent some time working in an administrative position, but soon grew bored with the job.

"I said to Maise, 'I can't take this. I'm asking for my discharge.'"

After leaving the Air Force, Peggy made her way to Toronto in 1945 and found a new line of work. "I took a comptometer course and from there I went to work at the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC)," she recalled.

For those of you born during the computer age, a comptometer is a key-driven mechanical calculator. Unlike a calculator, the comptometer required both physical and mental skill on the part of the user. Thankfully, they are practically unheard of today.

Part of Peggy's job with the TTC was to double-check the work done by men in the accounts department. If the numbers didn't add up, Peggy's job was to find out why. One day, when she confronted one worker about an error, a strange thing happened.

"I met my husband," she explained. "I accused him of making a mistake."

The couple dated for three years before getting married in 1950. Workplace rules were very different in those days and the TTC would not allow a couple who were dating or married to work for them.

"When you got married at the TTC you got kicked out," she said. "There were 18 of us girls that got married that year."

Peggy and her husband Frank, lived in a bungalow in Scarborough until 1959 and then moved to Toronto.

Sadly, Frank passed away in 1998 and Peggy moved into a retirement home in Aurora in 2010.

Peggy maintains an active lifestyle. She attends exercise classes each morning, walks an hour-and-a-half each day and is part of a newly formed pole-walking group. She also enjoys knitting and sewing. "I keep busy," she said modestly.