Women in Wireless

By Olive J. Roeckner VE7ERA

a.k.a. Olive Carroll

(c) CARF Publications  Reprinted with permission


As a former seagoing brasspounder, it saddened me to learn that CW is to be phased out commercially by 1991. No longer the friendly chatter of morse around the world as ships on vast oceans reach out to other ships, or to coast stations on distant shores. The days of the wireless operator are numbered, soon to become just another illustrious chapter in maritime history.


Before the memories of those years become too dim, I would like to acquaint the reader with a relatively little-known fact. Mention wireless operator to the average person and an image comes to mind of a lone man hunched over a key, surrounded by a confusing array of switches and dials. A somewhat mysterious figure perhaps, that link between a ship and the rest of the world. How many are aware, though, of the part women have played in the annals of seagoing sparks, in particular Canadian women? Their numbers are few, but they are deserving of mention.


Records indicate the first young woman to serve at sea as a wireless operator was American, a Miss Graynella Packer. The year was 1910. Miss Packer only remained a few months, but by the end of the '30s at least 13 other young ladies had operated on vessels along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and on the Great Lakes, their lengths of service varying from a few months to several years.


With the outbreak of WW2 began the Battle of the Atlantic with its savaging of convoys by U-boats. Ship losses meant losses of trained personnel, among them the wireless operator.


In 1940 the Merchant Marine began recruiting operators in Canada and to a young Cobourg, Ontario, girl this was the opportunity of a lifetime. Twenty­year-old Fern Blodgett had grown up with a dream to some day become a sailor. Working days as a steno, she attended wireless night classes, gaining her commercial licence 18 months later, only to discover there were no positions open to women. A few weeks later however, Fern's former principal phoned and asked if she was still serious about wanting to go to sea. 'Yes' was the answer and that very night Fern was on a train for Montreal. Port authorities there were surprised to find that F. Blodgett was a YL but checked with the captain of the Norwegian cargo ship Mosdale to learn if a woman was acceptable. Captain Sunde was desperate for an operator and, as Fern seemed confident, he agreed to her coming onboard.


Once Fern had gained her sealegs she soon proved to be a capable operator. Constant storms were the ship's lot and Fern witnessed the many horrors of torpedoing and their attendant tragedies.


In July of 1942 Fern married Captain Sunde in Saint John, N.B. and their honeymoon was spent... at sea, in convoy. Mosdale was a lucky ship. Of the half-dozen fruit carriers to start the crossings in 1940 she was sole survivor. Mosdale could make 15 knots and often was allowed to sail on her own. In all, she made 98 Atlantic crossings of which Fern was aboard for 78.


Fern retired from the sea after war's end, to make her home in Norway. A book was written of her adventures and Lucky Mosdale (Lykkelig Mosdale) became a bestseller in Norway.


Fern had proven by her competence that women were capable of the job and, as there still remained a shortage of operators, the Norwegians had no hesitation in accepting other Canadian girls for the positions.


The second Eastern woman to take to the sea was Esther Crichton of Halifax. She sailed aboard M/S Narvik in the Pacific area during the latter war years. Esther remained with the vessel when it was renamed M/S Siranger at the end of hostilities, retiring in early 1947.


A number of young women across Canada earned their commercial tickets during the war years, the majority employed as interceptor operators at various DOT stations. The first girl in Western Canada to receive her licence was Ina Waller of Kimberley, B.C. While Ina did not go to sea, she served in the Marine Room at VAI, the Pt. Grey Wireless Station, and as an interceptor operator there and at Victoria.


It is arguable as to who was the first woman operator in Western Canada to go to sea. There were three who sailed wartime but the press gave the nod to Ola McLean of Vancouver and Alice House of Port Coquitlam. Both girls graduated from Sprott Shaw School of Radio in 1944. They were doggedly determined to ship out, succeeding later that year.


After an uneventful crossing of the Pacific, a newspaper article briefly reported that Ola and Alice had arrived safely in an Australian port aboard an Allied (not Canadian) tanker after a voyage in which they were treated royally. It stated further that the two were prevented from signing on a Canadian ship by marine regulations in this country. When an official was asked at the time if this meant that Canada would now allow women aboard its vessels, the response was a horrified, "Good God, no, we have enough trouble on ships now without having women onboard!"


Alice later served on the Norwegian tanker Karsten Wang and in 1947 married Captain Olaf Hansen who had been 2nd officer of the same Norwegian tanker on which she had made her first voyage, the Kaptein Worsoe.


Ola McLean remained at sea for a number of years, her voyages taking her to most of the ports of the world. After the year and a half on the Kaptein Worsoe in the Pacific theatre of war, Ola served on M/V Glorono, M/V Beau Regarde and M/V Three Rivers.


The third Western YL with wartime experience was Rosemary Byrom of Victoria. Rosemary joined her first Norwegian ship, the Jotunfjell in San Francisco, aboard which she remained for a year. Service on three more tankers followed, one of which sailed in the last convoy to cross the Atlantic before V-E day. From there the vessel proceeded to South American ports and carried fuel oil to Pearl Harbour for the U.S. navy, together with planes and tanks for the Pacific war zones. Rosemary retired from the sea about 1947.


After V-J day, women interceptor operators were released from government service. A few from VAI found employment with the DND at a station outside of Victoria, replacing personnel being discharged. Anna Ozol, who had worked in intercept at the Lulu Island station, went a different route and was successful in securing a position aboard a Norwegian vessel, While serving on M/S Skaubo in the late summer of 1949, Anna achieved the doubtful distinction of being one of the few women, and the only Canadian woman that I know of, who had to send out an SOS. Skaubo took on a severe list while about 500 miles off the U.S. West Coast when her cargo of soft ore concentrate shifted during a storm. Happily the vessel was able to make port without aid.


Home in Vancouver on leave, February of 1947, Anna brought word a Norwegian ship in San Francisco needed an operator. The message was quickly passed to Victoria and within days Elizabeth King was flying south. She had drawn high card and was finally able to fulfill her longtime wish to ship out. In 'Frisco Elizabeth joined her first vessel, M/S Vito and sailed across the Pacific to the Philippines, Orient and Australia. She remained on Vito just over a year and after a lengthy holiday ashore shipped out again, this time on M/V Skauvann. This vessel also sailed the Pacific routes and Elizabeth served aboard until early in 1951 when she left the sea for good.


When Elizabeth flew off to San Francisco she was quickly followed by two other girls from Victoria, Norma Gomez and myself. Norma had the poor luck to be assigned to a small coastal vessel, the Lutz which carried newsprint from Powell River to U.S. West Coast ports. Accommodations on the ship were quite primitive, as was the R/R, and Norma retired six months later.


I was more fortunate, replacing Esther Crichton on M/S Siranger, a service that would last four years and cover much of the world.


The only other Canadian girl who went to sea in those years was Lylie Smith. She shipped out in 1946 but prior to that had been the first girl radio operator hired by the Hudson's Bay Fur Trade Co. for their northern posts. Probably the longest at sea of any of the Canadian YLs, Lylie spent five years on the Far East routes and another five years sailing between the U.S., Europe and South America.


By the late '40s and early '50s, Norwegian girls were taking over more of the positions on their country's ships. The few Canadian women operators swallowed the hook and settled ashore, no other Canadian YLs following in their wake. Until 1970 that is, when Dallas Bradshaw from Victoria, B.C. went to England for training, becoming the first woman operator to sail aboard a British ship, the ore carrier M/V Duncraig.


Predominantly it has been the Scandinavian countries who have accepted woman operators in their merchant fleets. Many Norwegian girls served as sparks and at one time, at least a third of the radio officers aboard Swedish vessels were women. Other 'progressive' nations have been Denmark, Finland, Germany, Russia and Great Britain.


The U.S. started it all, of course. Although their numbers have not been as great as the Scandinavians, during the latter war years on up to the present American girls have continued to serve as wireless/radio operators in their merchant marine, Coast Guard and on Army transport and hospital ships.


A number of YL 'professionals' are also 'Amateurs' with callsigns many will recognize. Known to DXers world­wide is Elizabeth (King) VE7YL and the lucky ones perhaps had QSOs when she was EP2ELA and YBOADT... and who hasn't heard of Kirsti VK9NL or Kari VR6KY? Among some of the lesser known calls are Sylvia LA1OGA, Mikaela DK5EJ/OH2SG, Esther W6BDE and Lota AC7V.


So, let this be a last Hurrah for Sparks... those ladies and gentlemen deep sea brasspounders. Ship's operators may disappear but morse will be around for a long, long time, of that I am convinced. For many of us it is, and always will be, mysterious music that spans the globe... our other language.


If there are any Canadian women who sailed as W/Os, whom I have not mentioned, my apologies. Please, I would like to hear from you at P.O. Box 789, Kaslo, B.C. VOG 1MO.        


Links   -   Liens