Changing from scholar to soldier and back: Queen’s in wartime

Queen’s alumni relive their experie­­nces on campus and abroad during the Second World War

Chuck Campling
Chuck Campling

“When war broke out, the term had not yet begun.”

That was the line beginning the “War Services at the University” section of The Principal’s Report for the year 1938 to 1939. For many Queen’s students in the years that followed, the Second World War would shape their entire student experience, affecting everything from the classes they took to the clothes they wore.

Mary Jane Gray, ArtSci ’47, came to Queen’s in 1943. She said most of the men in her first-year classes were in uniform, planning to complete one year of university before leaving to join the battle overseas.

“There were military young men—they didn’t have women in the forces in those days—who were taking their first year of university in uniform,” she said. “They went into service in their first year and the idea was that they could come back and finish once the war was over, which a lot of them did.”

Even outside the lecture hall it was impossible to ignore the realities of war, Gray said.

“In war time there were some restrictions. We had ration cards,” she said. “We had to give our ration cards to, not the cook, but the person who organized [the meals].

The residents took their meals in a small dining room in Ban Righ Hall.

“In the Ban Righ dining room the tables seated eight people and the butter was a square and cut into eight pieces and unless somebody didn’t take their butter all you got was a little wedge of butter.

“We were lucky to have butter at all I guess.”

But despite the war raging overseas, Gray said, it was business as usual at Queen’s, and students were expected to focus on their studies.

“If we missed eight lectures we couldn’t continue in that course,” she said. “There was a new degree called BAC, called ‘Bounced at Christmas,’ so if your Christmas marks weren’t up to par you didn’t come back for the rest of the year.”

In his 1938-39 report, Principal Robert Charles Wallace reinforced the importance of education as a form of service to the country.

“On approaching the Government it was learned that, for the time being at least, students would do their best service to their country in continuing their courses at the university, and, if possible, in qualifying in their chosen professions,” he wrote.

“The main thing, I think, was that everyone was seriously studying,” Gray said.

On top of their regular course load and mandatory fitness classes, Gray said all the students were expected to do their part for the war effort.

“There were a lot of things that happened because it was war time,” she said. “Part of it was to take a course in first aid and home nursing.”

The students also visited the veterans’ hospital, which is now St. Mary’s of the Lake Hospital on Union Street.

“I learned to play cribbage with one of the patients,” she said.

But not all the training was theoretical, Gray said.

“In my first year, when I was living in Ban Righ, the boys who were in the army in their first year, someone got scarlet fever and they were quarantined in the basement of the Old Arts Building.”

Gray said she and some of the other women used to bring the quarantined students food and drink, passing it through the windows of their basement dormitory, even though it was strictly against the rules.

“That’s how we got to know some of the boys in the arms,” she said, laughing at the memory. “They were certainly a reminder of the war, which everything was geared to, keeping us aware of the war.”

Some students experienced the war both at Queen’s and abroad. Bea Corbett, ArtSci ’43, can still recall her wartime skills.

“Until this day I can still do Japanese code, even though I may forget what I did the day before.”

Corbett said Queen’s changed most in ways that were intangible.

“There were no football games after the war started,” she said. “We knew we were missing something important.”

When Corbett was a student at Queen’s, reading the newspaper was often more than just a morning routine—it was an exercise in self control.

“Many of us would see the casualty list in the paper,” she said. “Many men were killed in the air force and it always brought us up short.”

Corbett said it was hard for students to ignore what was going on outside the University.

Veterans who came back to Queen’s had a difficult time making a place for themselves, she said.

“There were a number that escaped the war and returned home,” she said. “Many of us felt uncomfortable with them because they were quite different from us.”

Despite this, Corbett said Principal Robert Charles Wallace made an effort to ensure veterans made a successful transition back into Queen’s life.

“Dr. Wallace was extremely good to them,” she said. “He saw they got settled and set an excellent example for others.”

But Corbett said the University had other priorities besides

the war.

“[The administration] was concerned with raising money and raising [academic] standards,” she said.

And there were still opportunities for students to enjoy themselves, she added.

“In 1941, Queen’s celebrated its 100-year anniversary,” she said. “There were many formals, big bands and I believe Count Basie came to Queen’s. … We had lots of fun.”

She said Kingstonians often entertained and fed Queen’s students and soldiers who were at the University for training.

“Kingston residents had students over at their homes and they were given very good meals,” she said.

Many students, Corbett among them, only stayed at home as long as it took them to complete their studies.

After finishing her degree in the summer of 1943, Corbett applied for the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service. It wasn’t until March 1944 that she was accepted.

“It took a great deal of trouble to get a background check,” she said. “Even a private, who was just at the very bottom, was checked thoroughly.”

Corbett said the army sent a colonel from Ottawa to check her family history to ensure her father wasn’t a spy.

She said women who were part of the war effort did not receive the same treatment as the men.

“Any male with a university degree were automatically officers, but not the women,” she said, adding that there was still a great deal of camaraderie between the men and women.

“The friendships we made during the war still remain the most important thing,” she said.

Corbett was sent to St. Hyacinthe, an HMCS signals school, where she was introduced to Morse code and wireless telegraphy.

“Everyday we rode in a truck for 15 miles out to Gordenhead across from the army training camp,” she said. “We’d listen to German officers who patrolled the fences there.”

But in July of that same year, Corbett said, an officer told the students they needed to forget everything they had learned—they were going to the west coast, not the east. “We were told we had to learn a new code very quickly,” she said. “The Japanese Morse code was the same in some ways but much more complicated.” Corbett said it’s sometimes hard to talk about her experiences as a code-breaker because they were asked not to speak about it with anybody.

“We were brow-beaten into silence,” she said. “We were on no account to mention it to our families or friends.”

Chuck Campling, Sci ’44, never made it overseas, but he served throughout his time as a student.

“I was interested in the air force myself, in being a pilot,” he said. “You had to get a medical. You had to go out to the airport here. I must have been 19 or 20 when I had this medical, and they said I had high blood pressure and wouldn’t have anything to do with me.”

Despite being turned away, Campling refused to be discouraged and instead joined the Signal Corps as part of Canadian Officers’ Training Corps. Joining the corps became mandatory for students between the ages of 18 and 25 in 1941 and remained compulsory until the end of the war in 1945.

“We had a military organization, you see, and you had to be in it,” he said. “It was a scruffy, low-morale outfit in a way.”

But despite his involvement with the corps, Campling said he doesn’t remember the war affecting his life as a student.

“I don’t know why we didn’t think more about the war than we did. It’s complicated,” he said. “In retrospect, I think about the guys I knew who got involved and didn’t survive.”

One person in particular Campling remembers was his classmate, who was also the son of D. M. Jemmett, one of Campling’s engineering professors.

“[Jemmett] had two sons. One of them was in my year and he left in first year,” Campling said. “He went and joined the air force and he never came back.”

“When that was all over, I was pulled out of the army to come back and teach veterans at Queen’s,” he said, adding that even though he had studied electrical engineering, he taught math.

But although the war was over, Campling said it was still very much present on campus because of the influx of veterans arriving as both students and professors.

“I know the first lecture or two I gave I had nothing to wear but my uniform.”

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