Growing up in Canada we were taught to “never forget” the men who risked and gave their lives in service during the World Wars. Year after year we rehearsed for Remembrance Day to recite, ‘In Flanders Fields the poppies grow…’ and took a moment of silence to pay respect to lives lost. We expressed our understanding of peace by drawing stereotypical images like doves and peace signs. But beyond this, and memorising what I was told in order to pass history tests, I wanted to relate to the people who had fought for me to be able to enjoy the concepts of freedom and equality. Each year in primary school, I would eagerly flip through my assigned textbook – the edges of which were worn due to abuse more than use – searching for a familiar face: my grandpa’s. In blurry black and white photographs of young men in uniform, I’d try to locate a face that resembled his, based only on my knowledge that he had fought in World War II. The photos often reflected the understanding with which I had been educated – men fought wars and were heroes, and women were domestic wives or war brides, who also played a role in industrial labour when the need arose.
When I was 21, my grandma (and best friend), who had been a war bride, became suddenly ill. Over a couple of days in the hospital that summer I tried to preserve her history, typing as much about her life as she had the energy to recount. She told me of her birth and life in England, about meeting my grandpa and about the war. She explained how after the war, she took a long, turbulent boat ride – delayed by a vividly described collision with a cattle boat – to immigrate to Canada with other European war brides. Many of the women became her lifelong group of friends. She also expounded upon endless chatter on that boat trip and later on train commutes, which led the group to call themselves the Yak Yaks. Before her death, a sharp decline in health prevented us from continuing most of my grandma’s stories. However, I had luckily caught one very significant piece of information:
“…by that time I was 21 and I was called up into a war job, which was on a mysterious radio station. I mean, it was highly top secret. And we had to swear and promise that we would never ever tell anyone what we did. I can tell now, because it had to be 30 years after the war before you could tell anyone, and by that time, the book had been written, A Man Called Intrepid. …Read the book and you’ll find out. …The place I worked on was called Ivy Farm. But it wasn’t a farm, it was a radio station. I was directed there by the foreign office. I was called up, told where to report and when to report, all very secretly.”
From the time I could write a sentence, up to and through higher education, my studies never revealed such apparently mysterious experiences of war like the one my grandma shared with me.
The following selection of little-known facts represents the kinds of histories I wish I’d been taught growing up.
Women in Intelligence
This year, the Oscar award winning film The Imitation Game illustrated how mathematician Alan Turing and his assigned team cracked the German enigma code to help end WWII. Thousands of women intercepted and decoded strategic messages delivered from Nazi high command towards this end. It is estimated that this effort shortened WWII by two years. It took until 2009 for the notable women at Bletchley Park and Ivy Farm to be awarded gold and blue brooches as public recognition of their efforts.
Josephine Baker, a famous stage performer in 1920s Paris used her femininity to her advantage as an agent of the French Resistance in WWII. At extreme risk, she transported military intelligence and secret messages by hiding them in her sheet music and undergarments, and provided refugee shelter in her home. She received the French Croix de Guerre for her work.
Many life details of Eileen Nearne, codenamed Rose and also known as Didi, have only recently been discovered after her death in her Torquay home in 2010. Working undercover for the British Special Operations Executive, she parachuted into France in 1944. Her elder sister Jacqueline, who was a spy behind enemy lines in France, partnered with Eileen on missions that included sleeping in woods, a bombed out house, churchyards, and talking their way out of arrest by The SS. She was also awarded the French Croix de Guerre.
Nationally Forgotten Soldiers
Five million men and women from the Indian subcontinent, Africa and the Caribbean volunteered to serve with British Armed Forces during WWI and WWII. It took a group of veterans and their relatives to establish a memorial in 2005 as recognition of this effort, despite the British government hiding these soldiers’ contributions for nearly a century.
Similar to Britain’s largely under-recognised Carribean war heroes, the United States took many years to unveil a black history that stemmed beyond slavery and the Civil War. Evidence shows how African-American women contributed to every war effort in the history of the US. The Women’s Army Corps’ first black officer, Major Charity Adams commanded the first all-black female unit. Thousands of black women endured discrimination and faced danger to fight for American values, and many died without ever being recognised. In 1948 President Harry Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, permitting black women to join the regular Army without military segregation.
In 2005, the Canadian government published a historical account of at least 3,000 status (treaty) Indians and an unknown number of Inuit, Metis, Inuit, and other Native people – including over 70 women – who enlisted during WWII. The reasons for their enlistment are historically complex – a number suggest wages, treaties with the Crown, patriotism and some men’s decreased sense of purpose due to the creation of reserves.
A former Chief of Muskeg Lake Reserve in Saskatchewan, David Greyeyes, served in countries across Europe. His role as commander of a mortar platoon in Italy, for instance, earned him the Greek Military Cross. He also received the Order of Canada in 1977 for his bravery.
Segregated Blood Banks
African-American Physician Charles Drew, was responsible for developing the blood bank system. He also directed the two largest blood bank systems in the US and UK during WWII. When the government supported the Red Cross in effectively separating white and black blood donations, Drew, guided by logic against what is today widely considered an unlawful act, tried to stop this discriminatory practice. He subsequently left the Red Cross, although it is unclear whether he resigned or was fired.
Jewish Communist labour activist Elaine Black Yoneda immigrated to the United States at the turn of the 20th century. She went on to live in a camp during WWII – not a Jewish concentration camp, rather a Japanese internment camp – with her Japanese-American husband, Karl and their son Tommy. Tommy was sent to the camp in California due to the “one drop” rule; the same rules used towards black children during American enslavement and that the Nazis used to determine Jewish ancestry. In addition to Elaine, evidence suggests that a number of friends and family members of those held captive voluntarily lived in the camps. When Karl eventually joined the American forces, Elaine and Tommy were released from the camp, but only upon Elaine’s indefinite pledge to the US Government to report her son’s whereabouts, alert of any conflict related to his ethnicity, and confirm that he was in the presence of a Caucasian at all times. The couple continued a lifetime of political activism to defend human rights.
Within and across the borders of nations reside innumerable people and personalities whose separate backgrounds and decisions comprise the course of history. Yet people understand national identity and their place within that identity based on the predominant stories they are told. The majority of history classes throughout my life have alerted me to divisions between minority and majority populations. I was repeatedly taught for instance, how Chinese people built a transcontinental railroad in the late 1800s and experienced mass exploitation by the Caucasian-led government. Having both Chinese and British born grandparents who served in and lived through war, history lessons that perpetually fragmented whole groups of people based on gender, ethnicity and class, made me feel confused and hopeless, rather than empowered. An understanding of macro history has its merits, but a micro view helps to illuminate the greater complexities of human values and relationships. If more diverse and ‘hidden’ histories were to eventually integrate with traditional history, perhaps a wider range of young people could feel more connected to their course material. I certainly would have benefitted from such knowledge.