Mary Irwin

Mary Irwin was born in 1922, the second of five children. The children were all born Canadian citizens, although they spent their childhoods in the United States, their father being a Professor of Theology at the University of Chicago. During the war Mary attended college in Toronto, Ontario. Her elder brother, Robert, served in the Canadian Armed Forces, as did her husband, Jack Coleman. She is the mother of three, and currently lives in Brunswick, Maine. ---Patrick Thornhill, March 17, 1997

To start at the beginning, what is your first memory of War; your first awareness that war had begun?

I remember before the United States or Canada were at war. We used to get news at the movies. We would see newsreels at the end of a movie, and that was the only time we saw anything live. I remember one picture that I have never forgotten; it was after the Japanese went into Manchuria, and it was a picture of a Chinese baby sitting in the middle of the rubble of what had probably been her home with her mouth open in a scream. That was my earliest awareness of war. This was a terrifying thing, because we weren't going to have any more war after World War One. I'd heard a lot about World War One; it was The Great War, and now we had the League of Nations and there wouldn't be anymore. I remember another picture later. It was when Hitler already had the concentration camps, but war had not been declared (I think, although it may have been after Britain had gone to war but the United States had not). It was another picture I'll never forget. It was a newspaper picture of a cage with a skeletal hand reaching out from it towards a cup, which it couldn't quite reach. Also on the University of Chicago campus there were secrets, restricted areas, places we weren't allowed to go. This was in '39 and '40, when they were splitting the atom at Argon1 and stuff, and there was a big cyclotron on the campus. Nobody knew what it was or what was going on. So that was before the war. Those are my first memories.

I remember when Britain declared war on Nazi Germany in September of 1939. We were up at the lake in Canada2 when we got the news. Of course mother's first thing was "Of course Bob will go." I remember I was making pancakes at the time and thinking that this was pretty exciting; "Wow, life is going to be different." That was the beginning.

I was in college in Canada from 1940-'44. So, coming from the United States, where people were trying to get Roosevelt to keep the U.S. out of the war, here I was where it had been going on for a year. The first thing I remember there, at that time, were the parades. They were tremendously exciting. Just about every Saturday they would come marching past our residence on Bloor Street with the bands and all. We all just went ga-ga over the drum major for the Toronto Scottish Regiment. He was very tall, and very beautiful, and he put on a real dance. He'd swing his hips around in his kilt and throw his baton up in the air in all sorts of intricate ways, and we just thought he was marvelous. Of course we had learned that none of the men in Scottish regiments wore anything under their kilts, so we always hoped the wind would blow his up...

Were you American or Canadian at this point?

I was Canadian with U.S. residency. During the war they kept changing all the rules, so I would go down to the American consulate to get my little border crossing card, and it would be something different. There was one time, in about 1942, when I went down to go home for Christmas and they said I had to get new papers, and that it would take three weeks. Mother went to work on it, and had them call me and tell me I could cross. She was a real tiger where her children were concerned.

Would you say that the newsreels were your principle source of information about the war?

I hadn't ever read the papers very much. I just didn't think they concerned me, and I still wasn't reading them at that point, so those newsreels would knock me for a loop, and of course it was very exciting to see moving action. I mean, moving pictures weren't that old yet.

Tell me about the POW camp near Gravenhurst.

There was a TB sanitarium on Lake Muskoka, outside of Gravenhurst, and it was converted into a barracks for German officers. I remember the summer a whole bunch of them arrived. I was in Gravenhurst and watched them marching down the middle of Main street. This was of course quite a thing. Here were these Nazis in uniform in Gravenhurst Ontario. They were beautiful guys. We tried to catch their eyes, but they would just look straight ahead. They were very well treated there. They were guarded by veterans who were too old to go on active duty. They would get these men anything they wanted; books, cigarettes, whatever. A lot of them liked Canada so much that they came back to live there after the war. I don't really know anything more about them, except that there was one summer when some friends of mine and I went up to the lake to open up the cottage in May after exams, and we heard that some prisoners had escaped from the camp. So here we were, five girls alone at the cottage, with nobody else up there yet because it was too early for Canadians to be out of school, except for college people. I put the .22 rifle under my bed. I knew I never could shoot it, but it made me feel a little better. So that was pretty exciting.

How do you think your attitudes were shaped by propaganda?

We didn't have nearly as many sources of news as there are now, and we also thought we were getting the truth. We had been hearing Hitler on the radio for a while, and he just sounded like a complete idiot. You'd hear him rattling on for a while, and then this great roar from the crowd: "Siegheil!" and then he'd rattle on some more, and then they'd cheer again.

Was what he said ever translated?

No. We learned that he was this madman who wanted to take over the world, and we had no doubt. I didn't know anyone at all who had any that it was a Just War, that we must at all costs stop Hitler, so in Canada, (when there was no conscription for overseas duty), everyone was signing up, except in Quebec, because the French were against conscription. When men in uniform were stationed in Quebec they didn't go out by themselves-they'd get beaten up. They went out in groups. Jack and I were in Quebec waiting for his ship to be commissioned in 1944. I remember that people were not very friendly. If I went into a store with Jack and we spoke English, people would turn their backs on us. They would only wait on us if we spoke French. Sometimes it was a little scary.

There was a lot of hatred, and we were easily convinced that both the Nazis and the Japanese were evil. I mean just plain evil. We talked about "Japs". Of course you know what happened to Japanese-Americans, being taken away from their homes and their jobs and being interned. I remember one time being in the American consulate in Toronto (which I occupied too much of the time-I hated that place). I was waiting in there when a very, very old woman in a long black dress came hobbling in on a stick. She wanted to go to the United States to visit her great grandchildren or something, and she was absolutely refused admission on any grounds because she had been born in Germany. There was plenty of hatred. It was easy to fire ourselves up, we were so sure we were right and that the enemy was wrong. I had known some Germans who weren't evil. My best friend in the last years of High School was German. Her family had escaped because her father, who had been a professor at the University of Berlin, had divorced his wife and married a student who happened to be Jewish, so they got out while the getting was still good. My friend, Heidi, taught me German and introduced me by mail to a friend of hers in Germany, with whom I corresponded for a couple of years. And then I stopped getting letters from her. I don't know if my letters to her caused her were anything that caused her problems, but I think they might have been...

It took longer to like the Japanese, because I didn't know any. They seemed more different, I suppose. There was a lot of hatred and suspicion of the Japanese for a long time.

Do you remember when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour?

Yes. I was in Canada then, and the Canadians looked down their noses at the United States for not being in the war, so when it happened, people became more appreciative of them. I remember one time going home to Chicago for a vacation and seeing, in the middle of the Chicago campus, a dummy bloody corpse with a big sign that said "Keep U.S. out of war." I don't remember much about the war with Japan. I remember hearing Roosevelt speak on December 8th, after Pearl Harbour. I remember hearing reports of the terrible battles in the Pacific, but Canadians weren't really involved in the Pacific, and I was mostly in Canada.

How did you feel about the war?

It was very exciting at first, as I've said. It was going to be exciting and romantic and things were going to be different. I had always wanted excitement. But after the first year or so it palled, and things changed. Yes, we did know it was a different kind of time, and things didn't go on as usual, especially in Canada where the population was only around eleven million or less. By the end of the war two million young people were directly involved-that's a huge chunk of the population. It meant that civilians were expected to do their part. In the fall of 1942, the guys on campus were encouraged to go out west and harvest the wheat. They would get credit if they did, so one day a whole bunch of them got on a train and went to do it.

They created women's military groups. The Canadian Women's Army Corp., the Royal Canadian Women's Naval Service, and the WAAF3. Of course, they weren't in battle, but they were backing up the men. There were army nurses too, and that meant that the hospitals were short of staff. We were expected to do our war effort. We couldn't graduate unless we put in a certain number of hours doing something. We had choices; we could take a course in first-aid, we could take a course in nutrition (I did both of those). We could also be nurses aids, and had to put in something like fifty hours in the hospital after the training. I also did that. That was an interesting thing to do at that age, when I hadn't seen people that old, or that sick, or that bloody, or whatever. We were very much involved. Women took jobs in munitions plants and did a lot of things that the men would be doing. And then after the war what did we all do? We went home and started having babies.

I remember rationing and food coupons. By 1943 and '44 a lot of things were getting scarce. You'll remember that I got married in the fall of 1943, and I couldn't buy sheets or towels or anything like that anywhere. It was hard to find things. Everything was going to the war. We got the strangest collection of wedding presents; a whole bunch of wooden plates and 28 British cups and saucers.

We saw lots of people in uniform all through the war, Aussies and the like. The Air Force was glamorous to a lot of people because it didn't seem so bloody as the Army, so of course the Army guys called it the "Air Farce", which is still supposed to be a joke. A lot of Canadians joined the RAF, the British Air Force, because they were getting more action. It took a long time before the Canadians got any action. They were poorly trained and got shunted around from here to there. They did get sent into Hong Kong. There were terrible casualties. It was just a mess. Something like 260 died in Japanese prison camps, where the conditions were terrible. I only really heard about the conditions in the Japanese camps after the war. I heard from Americans who'd been there. There was one guy in Chicago, the son of the dean of the U of C chapel. He had been really wild (we knew him when he was younger). He had been just crazy. He came back from that camp and became a minister himself. It had been quite an experience...

Tell me about the Norwegians who were trained near Gravenhurst.

I went around with one of them for a whole summer and part of an autumn (because he was stationed in Toronto). They had all managed to escape from occupied Norway one way or another. I remember his story was pretty harrowing. He talked about hiding from a house-to-house search in a small town on the coast, with the Gestapo one house behind him the whole time. He got to the shore and hid in a thicket or something, and the Nazis went by and missed him. He rowed out to an island where he met some other people. The took a small boat with I think an outboard motor. There were four or five of these Air force fellows that had somehow escaped, and they headed west. They had a little bit of food an water, out in the middle of the ocean. They were out of everything by the time they were picked up by a British frigate. It turned out they'd missed the northern tip of Scotland and were headed out into the Atlantic. They were lucky. They were interned in Britain for some months before the British were absolutely sure that they weren't German spies, and then they were sent to Canada to be retrained to go back into the war.

What about your brother, Bob?

Bob was in a Canadian tank regiment called The Governor General's Horse Guards, although it wasn't horses of course, but Jeeps and tanks. He was wounded in I think early '44. I remember that a telegram came and all it said was something to the effect of "Lieutenant Robert H. Irwin has been wounded in battle," or something, and that was it. It must have been five or six weeks before we heard anything more. We finally got a weird, scribbled note from Bob who was writing with his left hand because his right arm had shrapnel in it. During that period mother would walk around saying "I hope it's not his eyes," or "I hope he can walk." I remember when he left. I saw him off from Toronto Union Station, I don't remember where he was headed. I was there with his girlfriend, and that was a pretty traumatic thing, although more for her than me.

What about the end of the war?

I don't remember VE Day very well. Jack had graduated and gone into the Canadian Navy before we were married. He went for Officer's training down in Nova Scotia and came back an Officer just before we were married. That was in October. I spent the month of December with him in Port Arthur (which is now Thunder Bay). His station was what they called "The Ship", which was an old warehouse. It was after that we went to Quebec City for him to get his ship. At the end of the war Jack had been given leave because he was due for Pacific duty. We were up in the north channel of Georgian Bay where his family had an island. I remember that it was a very wet, stormy August night, and very dark and wild and windy. You really get wind up there. It comes all the way across Lake Huron and into that bay, so all the pine trees are bent to the east and they stay that way. We were sitting there by the fire and we could hear these great waves coming up on the rocks below the cottage. It was just not a night for anyone to be out. The closest island about half a mile away. We suddenly heard voices and in the back door come two little girls. We were just floored. These kids had rowed all the way across that half mile of wild water to tell us that the war was over. We had known that Truman had dropped this immense bomb on Japan, and these little girls told us that he'd done it again, and that the war was over. That was VJ day.

How did you feel? Relieved?

Well, we started talking about what it would mean, It would mean that men wouldn't be in uniform anymore, and they'd all be coming home, those that would (and I knew a lot that didn't). Maybe there wouldn't be anymore rationing. People would be free to go on with their lives, though I had no idea what that would mean. It was sort of like being in a state of suspension. Of course it was a relief; it was very exciting because it had been going on a long time.

The war was always a big part of my life It shaped me in a lot of ways. You couldn't go through it without being influenced, especially at that impressionable age. Of course one thing it did with me was that I got married. I was determined to get married; what could you do? Girls couldn't do anything by themselves. One of my reasons for going to college was to get a man, although I found some other reasons once I got there and discovered that I had a brain. But when the men started to disappear, and they really did, it got worrisome. I thought, "Wow, I'd better get on this" and slammed right into that marriage. That was a direct result of the war, although I was a pretty crazy kid to begin with...

I know you didn't ask me this, but there was an interesting thing that happened when we were in Quebec. There were a whole bunch of Navy people that we knew, and one couple lived in a high-rise apartment building over looking the Saint Lawrence. There were always a whole bunch of ships out there just sitting. I was in that apartment looking out over them when I suddenly realized they were all slowly moving off. It was a convoy leaving. Nobody knew when they would leave, because it was secret. It was a strange thing, to see them just quietly disappear...


1Argon National Laboratory, Argon Illinois. This is a facility maintained by the U.S. Dept. of Energy. [Return]

2Refers to a family summer home near Gravenhurst, Ontario (about 100 miles north of Toronto). [Return]

3Womens' Air Force regiment. [Return]