Civilian Life




Reproduced with permission from The Beacon Supplement July 27, 1977



Mr.& Mrs. Fred Chafe Reminisces

Twenty-three Chestnut Street was the home of Fred and Marjorie Chafe.  It was treated as the second home of just about everyone on Gander at the time.  Mrs. Chafe entertained whoever came along, whether it be a padre or a soldier.  The house also served as a Sunday School for the children of Chestnut with Mrs. Chafe as the teacher. Mr & Mrs Chafe

Mrs. Chafe led a very active life during the early days of Gander, indeed.  Mr. Chafe came to work in the Electrical Section on the airport in 1937; since women and children were not permitted to live here at that time he had to leave Mrs. Chafe and their three children, Bill, Joan and Eileen in St. John’s.  But when Eileen, their youngest child, developed asthma the doctors advised them to move from St. John’s or they might never see the child grow up.  So arrangements were made with the Airport Manager, Mr. Pattison, who had just moved into a new house, for the family to come to Gander and live in his former house, 23 Chestnut Street.

On January 1, 1940 the Chafe family arrived.  The snow, said Mrs. Chafe, was so deep we had to stay at the railway station all night.  “I’d never seen snow piled so high before”, she exclaimed.  But Gander acted as a miracle world for Eileen, as soon as they arrived her asthma vanished.

“There was never a dull moment during those years,” said Mrs. Chafe.  She said she had probably seen more plane crashes in her life than most of us can even imagine.  After the Administration Building had been built they used to have shows in one of the rooms.  One night while she and so many of the other ladies of Chestnut were watching the planes take off from the runway, during an intermission of the show, one of the planes burst into flames right before their very eyes.  It was the most horrible sight Mrs. Chafe had every see but luckily, the two men escaped the burning aircraft without injury. 

Another timea plane went right through a house at the end of Chestnut but again luck was with them for the people who had been occupying the house had moved only the day before.  Then, of course, there was the Sabena crash out at Gander Lake when 26 men were killed and a cemetery had to be built overnight.  Day after day plane crashes took place in the vicinity of the airport, may of those involved friends and neighbors of the Chafes.

First when they moved to Gander, there was nothing but forest.  Many times they would see a moose at their back door.  There were no schools or churches here at that time and Mrs. Chafe had to send for correspondence courses for her children.  As was earlier mentioned, her house served as the Sunday School for all the children no matter what their religion.  Each child would bring a collection on Sunday and at the end of the year they had collected $30.00 which the children decided to send to the orphanage in St. John’s.

Ministers from Botwood would come to  Gander often and hold open air services by the Administration Building.  Sometimes Bishop abraham would come and hold services; as many as 1000 people would come and listen to him.  The the community church was built; when you walked into the church the Roman Catholic altar was at the left end and the Protestant altar was at the right. 

Christmas was a very lively season on Gander, there were cocktail parties all over the place.  Mrs. Chafe remembers that one Christmas she and Mr. Chafe were invited to four different parties all at the same time.

One thing about early Gander which really amazed Mrs. Chafe was the fact that although there were thousands of men around from all parts of the world, there was never a sign of vandalism or robbery.  At night were was no need for anyone to lock their doors because crime was nonexistent.

After the little one room school was built on Chestnut, the parents were more or less the school board.  Mrs. Chafe was very much involved with this.  The ladies of Chestnut also formed a Garden Club, Mrs. Chafe was secretary of that organization.

During those days everyone lived on rations.  Mrs. Chafe usually used up her coffee rations before the time because she entertained so much.  Everyone came to her house for coffee and a chat but she felt good about welcoming those people into her home and keeping them happy.

Mrs. Chafe was also a member of the Women’s Patriotic Association (WPA).  Every Tuesday the ladies would meet at the Administration Building and do something in aid of the community or make curtains for one of the forces.

A doctor would visit Gander once a week so you were allowed to be sick on that day only.

When the boys in the Navy and  Army were on leave and their home was too far to visit they they would go to St. John’s to the Knights of Columbus hostel.  At the time of the K of C fire in 1943, two boys, Corner and Chatman, who were stationed on Gander, went to help out and were both burned to death.  The boys’ remains were brought back to Gander to be buried.  The mother of the Corner boy had sent a wreath to be placed on her son’s grave and the CO asked Mrs. Chafe if she would stand by the boy’s grave so they could take a photograph to send Mrs. Corner who lived in Saskatchewan and would probably never visit the graveside, to let her know that it was being taken good care of.  Mrs. Chafe sent the photo along with a letter to Mrs. Corner and they have been corresponding ever since.  Mrs. Corner is now over eighty years old.  The same was done for the Chatman boy but the mother did not maintain correspondence with Mrs. Chafe.

One of the most exciting things that ever happened to Mrs. Chafe during the war days was a visit from Colonel Elliott Roosevelt, the United States President’s son.  She had only one hour to prepare for his visit and since there was only the one store on Gander and it was closed for the day by the time she found out about the visit, she had to make do with what was in the house.  If you knew Mrs. Chafe, you would know that what she had to “make do with” usually turned out to be a delicious feast in the eyes of her guests.

Two men from the fighter squadron were at Mrs. Chafe’s house when Colonel Roosevelt arrived and, naturally, when a Colonel entered a room if any men of lower ranks were there they would gracefully leave, but Colonel Roosevelt asked them to stay.  One of the men asked Colonel Roosevelt if he would mind if he did an impersonation of his father.  Colonel Roosevelt said “No”, so the boy sat at the piano and gave the famous speech President Roosevelt had given at the Invasion of Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941.  during the whole scene Colonel Roosevelt sat at the end of the table with his head in his hands.  Mrs. Chafe was frightened to death that he might be offended by the scene but it turned out that he felt the impersonation was so like his father that if he could not see who was really talking.  Needless to say, the evening turned out to be a very pleasant one for all.

“There was never a dull moment in Gander,” Mrs. Chafe said.  There was always something going one or something to be done.  Entertaining the padres, soldiers and civilians was probably the cause of most of her enjoyment because she felt as though she was doing a good deed for everyone living there.

researched by Carol Walsh


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