BARRY’S BAY – “For women it was different,” Gwen Foster said about her service in the Royal Canadian Navy in the Second World War.
“There weren’t many of us, roughly 5,000 Wrens. We took, as we were told, the place of a man who then goes out in active service. Women weren’t allowed in active service at the time. So, that’s great, you’re doing something. I really felt good about it,” Foster said.
The war was still going “hot and heavy” when Foster was stationed at HMCS Shelburne, Nova Scotia, a refit base. The crews of ships being repaired there would remain in dock until the ship was sea-worthy again.
Foster had never seen the ocean until she was first sent to HMCS Shelburne in 1944. A ship was leaving the jetty that day. Sailors lined the prow of the ship as it slipped into the harbour and away.
“Some of the girls were crying, they’d fallen for somebody, and away they went. I believe that ship was sunk about three weeks later between Cape Breton and Newfoundland,” Foster said.
Her actual job was a Code Book Corrector.
During war, ships passing other ships or entering harbour would exchange secret codes to confirm their identity. The codes for ships and harbours were kept in leaded covered confidential books on each ship. If the ship was struck, the code book would be heaved overboard to ensure the codes did not get into enemy hands.
When the codes changed, it was Foster’s job to correct the codebooks.
“It’s extremely boring work but it has to be done right,” Foster said.
One ritual she did enjoy was collecting the outdated codes, which a sailor would stack into a bonfire and Foster would set light to the pile.