Every trip we drove to our nearest city, North Battleford, when I was a kid took us along Highway 4 past an abandoned wartime airport. All that remained was a boxy one-storey building, with five gigantic bay doors, sprawled beside a sparsely grassed runway that disappeared in the distance.
Not a rock or a gopher would have impeded the small yellow planes as they practised landings and takeoffs. Gone was the spot-lighted anti-aircraft blimp that had been visible in the night sky from our farm near Vawn 30 miles to the northwest.
During the years 1941 to 1945 this Hamlin airport and a second relief airport at Brada just east of North Battleford were two of hundreds in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.
Until I began reading Elinor Florence’s blog – Wartime Wednesdays – published weekly in the North Battleford News-Optimist, I was unaware of the bustling activity that had gone as some 130,000 servicemen from Commonwealth countries trained in Canada to become pilots and aircrew, many of them in Saskatchewan’s open skies.
In 1946 when Florence’s father, Douglas, returned from serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force, he took advantage of loans available to returning veterans, to finance a farm. Under the Veterans Land Act he would have been eligible for $4500 to buy land, $1200 for equipment, scarcely enough to fuel a modern monster tractor.
He chose to buy the decommissioned airport three miles east of Brada. The land came with several government buildings including a T-shaped barracks constructed from quality lumber sided with shingles. Florence divided the building in half to turn the T-shaped end into a comfortable farm home.
Florence attended Brada’s one-room school to the end of grade eight when the school closed. She transferred to Battleford Collegiate Institute for high school. She went on to earn an English degree from the University of Saskatchewan and a journalism degree from Carleton University.
She began her journalism career at Battleford’s Advertiser-Post, forerunner of the News Optimist. Positions of increasing responsibility took her to The Western Producer, Red Deer Advocate, Winnipeg Sun, Vancouver Province and Reader’s Digest where she contributed feature articles.
Recently the News-Optimist began publishing her senior friendly World War II blog each Wednesday. Large font size and big photographs can both be easily read without a magnifying glass. Readers can receive each weekly post as an email simply by subscribing with their email address. “I’m not selling anything,” Florence says. “Readers are my only reward. I love it when readers write and identify themselves.” Her website enjoys a lively exchange of readers’ comments.
I’ve read three of her installments: Growing Up with Air Force Ghosts, describing her life on a former airport; My Dad’s Best Christmas: 1945, when he was in England; and Brotherly Love, an account of a harrowing experience while her grandfather served in World War I.
As an offshoot of her blog research, Florence has written a novel, “Bird’s Eye View”, to be published October 2014.
The novel deals with a prairie girl who joins the RCAF and serves as an interpreter of aerial photographs, a wartime assignment new to me.
The responsibilities sound far more demanding and useful than being a paparazzi hounding entertainment celebrities like Miley Cyrus or Princess Diana.
The blog is available at www.elinorflorence.com or by googling Wartime Wednesdays. Her email address is email@example.com.