More than one million Canadians stepped up to serve during the Second World War, and among them were hundreds of thousands of women who supported the nation’s effort, stepping into service and redefining the role of women across the country.
Among those women is Eileen Stolze, who is less than two months from her 100th birthday. The Saanich woman laughs a little when she says that she “never really expected to live this long.”
One of a dwindling number of Canadians who served in the Second World War, Stolze’s memory is sharp even as she approaches a full century of life. Most of the people who played roles in her story are long gone, but she recalls her experiences with fondness and a sense of pride.
The Quebec City-born woman easily recounted her time as a non-commissioned officer (NCO) with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). It all started on Jan.21, 1941, she was 21 and working at the front desk of the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac hotel.
“I [had] just turned 21 and I said, ‘I’m ready do something about this war going on.’ So I just decided one day to go to the recruiting centre and I enlisted.”
Stolze went to Toronto for two months of basic training, and then inadvertently began a nation-wide military tour, starting with an assignment to Saint-Hubert, Que. then Brantford, Ont. before heading back to Quebec City.
After that it was Trenton, Ont. and Gander, N.L., where Stolze, still 21, was the senior NCO in charge of more than 150 young women who had joined the military effort, contributing everything from office work and cooking to radio and weather reporting for officers flying overseas.
Stolze, who came from a family of 14, was tasked with managing the group of nearly 200.
“I did a lot of things. I did physical education, I did all the sporting events for them,” she recalled. “The responsibility was mine to make sure that they abided by all the rules that we had.”
There were broken curfews, arguments and even pregnancies. The women – all childless, as required by membership rules – were mostly young, and many were far from home.
“We never really had any problems with the men except we had peeping Toms in the barracks, which we caught,” Stolze chuckled. “I grew up a great deal. From 21 to when I came out at 24. By that time, I had learned … to be humble, to be thankful and to be a good person.”
Gander was also where RCAF squadrons prepared for overseas combat. The air force was one of the nation’s biggest contributions to the allied war effort. Of the 250,000 who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, 17,397 died.
“That was the part that was hard, because you knew that so many of them are not coming back,” Stolze said. “They were so young and … a lot of them didn’t come back.”
Stolze climbed the ranks, becoming a sergeant and then an RCAF flight sergeant. She got her discharge from Skidoo, N.B. on Sept. 15, 1945, just months before she married her husband, Phil, an American who was testing rails for the troops in New Brunswick.
Stolze remembers hearing the news that the war was over and the night that followed.
“We had a big dance – the air men and the air women,” she chuckled. “And the dance lasted all night. I hate beer … they were drinking beer all night long.”
She might not have been drinking beer that night, but Stolze felt lighter.
“It was like something that was on your back was lifted, and you felt free. Because I would have never gotten out, as long as it lasted. I would have stayed in service.”
Stolze later received the British Empire medal for outstanding service.
“Of course I was very thrilled. It meant they recognized those four years of my life. I gave my life for those years.”
Stolze and her husband were married for 54 years and had two children and three grandchildren. He died five years ago and Stolze moved into Trillium Highgate Lodge in Saanich shortly after.
“We had a wonderful life,” she said. “And I have wonderful grandchildren.”
Stolze has some advice as the world grapples with COVID-19.
“People are not thinking of other people, and that’s why it’s spreading … if people were thinking less of themselves and thinking more of other people, this wouldn’t be spreading the way it is.”