Civilian Life




Reproduced with permission from The Beacon Supplement July 27, 1977


Growing up at wartime Gander - Recalled by Eileen (Chafe) Elms

Being a child in Gander during the early forties was a completely different experience from being an adult.  Things which scared the living daylights out of the adults were things that the kids looked upon as thrilling and exciting moments.Eileen Chafe

When Eileen first came to Gander there were very few people here and hardly any children at all.  There were no servicemen here, the war had started and rumors were going around that servicemen would soon arrive but would they?  Then all of a sudden everything began to happen very rapidly!  Construction on the airport accelerated considerably, servicemen came, many forces moved in, but still not many children were around.

There was no school at Gander when Eileen came, but, of course, she didn’t grumble about that.  Then a teacher, Mr. Chaulk from Corner Brook came to Cobbs Camp, approximately six miles outside of Gander and every morning for two months he would come to Gander on a speeder and teach the children in a small tarpaper shack which was built for that purpose by the railway station.  Then at the end of the two months he would move on to some other isolated community where there was no school.  The following year a small one-room school was built at the end of Chestnut.  Mr. Gordon Cluett was the first teacher there and although they did not think they like school they like the world of Mr. Cluett and later that year when measles broke out in Gander and the school had to be closed, the children who did not have the measles cried because they missed school and Mr. Cluett.

 Bill and Joan, the older two children in the Chafe family went away to attend school that year.  Bill went to Harbour Grace with his father’s relatives and Joan went to Nova Scotia with her mother’s sister.  Eileen stayed on Gander because she was four years younger and by the time she was in high school and needed a better educational system, they had one.

 The children enjoyed the war years.  Since there weren’t many of them they got all the attention and were all treated excellent by all the forces.  During Christmas, the forces gave all kinds of parties for them with Santa Claus and a gift for each child.  One year Eileen remembers quite clearly, the RCAF Sergeants’ Mess brought a trainload of kids from Gambo for a Christmas party.  The usual gift for everyone and all the goodies were the same.  The RAF would also entertain them on Guy Fawkes (Bonfire) night with a fire and a big fee after and the USAF made the fourth of July a very pleasant time for the children.

The children got into all the movies free, there were four movies a day and the kids could go free as often as their parents would permit.  They had the use of the RCAF swimming pool and bowling alley and they could also hire skis.  Maybe they were treated so good because there weren’t enough of them to get in anyone’s way.

A piled up dish of homemade ice cream could be bought at the canteen for five cents.  There were a few chores which the kids had to attend to but most of their life was fund and games.  When the weather was warm they would go and swim in Gander Lake and the RCAF bus was always there at the end of the day to bring them back to Chestnut.  They didn’t mind the cold water!  Since there were no roads, there were no cars but the kids had no trouble getting a ride on a bus.

The American Air force, which was on Gander hired a lot of civilians.  They lived in an apartment block so Eileen was surrounded by all types of people.  Her very best girlfriend was a French Canadian girl.  When she came to Gander she couldn’t speak a word of English but she had to learn very quickly.

The soldiers in Gander were very happy to have the children to play and fool with which in turn kept all the children happy.  Eileen and her friends would go up on the snow banks near the canteen and slide down the hill.  They would stay at the foot of the bank until one of the soldiers came out and pulled them back up to the tope and then down they’d come again, why work at playtime?  “We were never lonely”, Eileen said.

Actually, there was nothing much to do on Sundays in Gander, Eileen and Mickey Ratcliffe and some of their friends would usually walk to the Receiver Building, later the Naval Radio Station.  Sometimes an officer would take the family a few miles east or west on what roads there were for a picnic.  This would be in a rather uncomfortable Army Vehicle but it was a treat to the children anyway. 

Eileen and Mickey, her best friend, once met a spy!  There was this man, a civilian construction worker who befriended her and Mickey.  He even introduced himself to Mrs. Chafe and gave her a load of birch logs.  Eileen figures now that he did this so Mrs. Chafe would think the best of him but, at the same time, she thought he was being extra friendly.  It turned out that this man had been caught in his room with a radio transmitter receiver talking with submarines.  Eileen said that she and Mickey were not disappointed but very excited when they discovered that their friend had been sent to an interment camp for suspicion of being a spy.  Imagine friends with a spy!

The blackouts which took place on Gander during the war years were also more than thrilling for the kids.  When an enemy plane would come over all the civilians would have to be dressed and ready to leave in case of air raids.  To the adults this was very frightening but since nothing ever developed and the children were too young to recognize the danger it was all so thrilling that their little hearts would miss their beats.

Eileen loved watching the planes take off from the runways.  There were several fires on Gander too.  The fires themselves were not of much interest to them but they thought that sabotage was suspected, well, my goodness they were fascinated.

The Military Band was another love of all the kids.  Eileen recalls how happy everyone would be on Christmas morning when a Military Band would stop on Chestnut Street and play Christmas carols and also how they would play in the church.

When the war ended Gander changed completely.  It seemed to Eileen that everything altered overnight.  All the soldiers moved out and the civilians moved in.  Of course, the children, who were Eileen’s friends also moved but she didn’t mind that much because as they moved out civilian families moved in the there were many other children her own age coming in and it was another experience to meet those new kids. 

The school grew very rapidly, classrooms were made all over the place in deserted military buildings.  “We got a great kick out of going to school in what was known as “Duffy’s Tavern”, the old RCAF wet canteen”, she said. 

“Gander was a great place to live then”, she said, “and even with all the changes, it still is”.

researched by Carol Walsh

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