Mildred Allen -- One of Verdun's Original 'Bomb Girls'
by: Bill Young and Ralph Simpson
Mildred Allen (Millie to her friends) is older now and although failing eyesight limits her mobility, most days she still manages quite nicely to get out and about. Verdun born and raised, until very recently Mildred spent most of her life in Hudson, active in the community and a regular in the congregation of Hudson's Wyman Memorial United Church. In June 2014 circumstances compelled Mildred to move to a senior's facility in Vaudreuil-Dorion, where she now calls the Résidence Le Languedoc home.
If you were to meet this modest, unassuming nonagenarian today, you would hardly guess that in her youth, during the stormy years of World War II when she was still known as Mildred Moore, she was one among thousands of young women who took jobs in the burgeoning defense industry, stepping in for men who had joined up and gone to battle.
The challenge was clear and unequivocal, and beyond daunting. War had broken out in Europe and with the Japanese rattling their sabers across the Pacific, nations of the western world had little option but to commit vast resources - human and material - toward ending the conflict as quickly as possible. They increased both the size of their armed forces to a scale unheard of scant years before and directed large sums of money to the arms industry, to the production of every imaginable article of war, from airplanes and battleships to bombs and bullets.
But there was a problem. For whenever the ranks of the military expanded, civilian work forces suffered. Men who in other times might have been available to do the jobs were in uniform and preoccupied with tasks of a very different nature.
Industry needed to come up with a Plan B. And it did. To maintain, and even more critically, to expand the workforce, it began replacing the men with women workers, training them appropriately and then turning the production faucets back on, full blast. Almost overnight, a whole new category of worker was monitoring the nation's assembly lines. Rosie the Riveter had come into her own.
Mildred of the DIL
Mildred Moore was part of that mix. Her first job after high school was with Canada's principal munitions manufacturer Defense Industries Limited (DIL) at their sprawling Verdun Works close to her home.
DIL was a subsidiary of Canadian Industries Limited (C.I.L), the name given to chemical giant DuPont's operations in Canada. DIL was established at the beginning of the war specifically to build, manage and operate Canadian government war plants. According to one source, at the height of hostilities, "this subsidiary had about six times as many employees as did C.I.L." (DuPont: Our History in Canada; Wikipedia)
The Verdun Works specialized in the manufacture of .303 caliber cartridges, which they pumped out by the thousands. Mildred was stationed in the Quality Control Department as an inspector on the assembly line, studying cartridges speeding down the conveyor belt and pulling aside any that appeared defective. She continued in that role right through until the war ended and the men began to return home.
In the beginning Mildred and her fellow inspectors worked 11-hour shifts on the unforgiving assembly lines. The arduous work schedule was later modified to three eight-hour shifts, thus affording a more reasonable workday for the women without any lessening of production.
Because of this hectic schedule, and given the nature of the workplace, the women tended to turn to one another for friendship, often coming together informally, both at the plant and off-site when they would frequently share leisure time together.
"We would usually eat our meals in the DIL cafeteria," said Mildred recently, reminiscing about times long past. "It was convenient, gave us a chance to get the latest news and even more, the food was great. We always seemed to have a good time, joking and laughing, and even though the work was hard and the days long nobody complained."
Increasingly, that spirit of merriment and camaraderie extended to the non-working hours when groups of women would get together and plan any number of activities. Among the most popular was a simple excursion to the movies, a huge pleasure for many, especially the younger women. Movie-going was a relatively new experience for them. Back then admission to cinemas in Quebec was restricted to those 16-years of age or over. Many of the women were still in their teens, or just barely out of them, and for them, the cinema was still a delicious novelty. Dancing was also a popular past-time with any number of social clubs and public halls looking to draw in participants, most often supplying a live orchestra to provide the music. Groups of young women, unescorted and off on an outing away from the noise and dust of the munitions factory, were not an uncommon sight in Montreal during the war. Of course, if one had a boyfriend to go dancing with the adventure became even more exciting.
The merriment Mildred describes has to be viewed in the context of the times. Canada was at war. Young Canadians serving overseas, fathers, brothers, husbands, friends, were dying every day. For the most part it was left to the women, young and old, to wait at home for news, and worry. Thus the opportunity to work, no matter the job, especially within the War Industries, created opportunities for them to meet and draw strength from each other and make a contribution to the war effort at the same time. It is no surprise that friendships were highly prized and nurtured - or that every opportunity to get together for a few laughs was welcomed as respite from the shadows falling on the darker side.
Mildred still remembers her first supervisor, Reg Tormey. "He was a nice man," she says. She was less pleased when a few years later the plant replaced him with a woman boss. "I found her tough to please," Mildred recalled.
But always there was the work - a perpetual challenge of processing as many bullets as possible, and keeping the assembly lines moving smoothly. It would be an almost impossible task to calculate the number of .303 cartridges produced by the Verdun plant during the war, the total was so huge.
By way of illustration, a year or so after Mildred started working at DIL, the factory registered its one billionth cartridge manufactured on the premises since the start of operations.
To commemorate the auspicious moment, the DIL gave each employee a small plaque on which was affixed a sample .303 cartridge and the following dedication: With the help of…(M. Moore)………Verdun Works made its Billionth .303 Mk VII s. Cartridge on November 26th, 1943. The citation is signed by a representative of the plant, signature unclear.
In the above photograph the present-day Mildred displays her commemorative plaque, holding it close to her heart.
Mildred's other souvenir from her DIL days is the butt-end of a cartridge jacket on which she once scratched the letter "J". She meant it as a nod to her boyfriend of the day, Jimmy Enfield. She was fond of him then: she remembers him fondly still When the war ended and hostilities ceased, life for these young women returned to 'normal', whatever that normal might have been. Their work opportunities in the defense industries, along with the accompanying stress, joy and rewards, all vanished as men returning from overseas were now preparing to step in and do the work. There was little room for the women who, for the most part, seemed quite ready in the post-war era to return to traditional patterns.
Friendships formed in the workplace were frequently deep and sincere, but tended not to survive much beyond the war. As the women turned toward the new lives awaiting them and away from their war-time experiences, their interests and preoccupations shifted to the more immediate. Mildred recalls: "We all had lots of friends at the DIL. But not so much afterward. Many were like me and moved out of Verdun and too far away."
They courted and married and raised families, and their years in the munitions installations faded into distant memory, their contribution to the war effort pretty well forgotten.
Life after Verdun
Throughout the DIL years Mildred lived at home, something she continued to do even after the war when she found other employment. Her first job in civilian life was as office clerk with the Morgan's Department Store on St. Catherine's Street, today the Hudson's Bay Company. It was there she met her future husband, Victor Allen, a master electrician who worked at the same store. Predictably, sparks flew, and after a short courtship they were married in August 1946.
One of Victor's friends was a Mr. Todd, a Morgan's employee who was assigned to the store laundry. When the newly-weds were exploring possible communities where they might put down roots, Todd encouraged them to consider Hudson. Although the town was a fair distance from Montreal and the roads still quite primitive, it did have the good fortune to be sitting astride the Canadian Pacific Railway's main line to Ottawa and the west. Consequently, Hudson benefitted from excellent train service, with frequent and regular trips into and out of the city built into the schedule. The number of senior CPR executives living in Hudson and working in Montreal made sure of that.
The newly-minted Mr. and Mrs. Victor Allen took Mr. Todd up on his suggestion - and by 1947 they were installed in a cabin on Sandy Beach, a privately-run summer recreation area owned by the Blenkinship family. Because these cabins were intended for seasonal use and not fully winterized the young couple would return to the comforts of more traditional dwellings once the bitter winds of winter settled in. They continued on with the same pattern of summers on Sandy Beach, winters in more comfy quarters, for five years, only moving inland in 1952, when they acquired what would become their permanent home on Cedar Avenue.
As the Allens had no children, Mildred continued working in retail for much of her married life, eventually shifting over to the now-defunct Simpson's store on Ste Catherine Street, where today the current chain of Simon's clothing stores has its Montreal base.
In 1994, following Victor's death, Mildred moved into Hudson's Manoir Cavagnal, an apartment complex for seniors. It remained her home for 20 years, until June, 2014 when she relocated to Le Languedoc, taking a lifetime of memories with her.
Bomb Girls Revisited
For years, Rosie the Riveter, the Bomb Girls and employees of the munitions factories across Canada faded from memory, taking their experiences and their stories with them. But recently that distant world of armament industries where women held jobs traditionally assigned to men, and did them well and proudly managed to capture the spotlight again.
Give credit to the Global Television Network for getting the ball rolling. Their 2012 mini-series 'Bomb Girls' introduced us to four women employed in the ordnance industry in 1941 and structured the drama to follow the arc of their lives. The programme succeeded in introducing younger generations to a very specific reality of life long forgotten as well as tapping into a flood of memories for those who lived the experience. The mini-series was extended over a two-year span and re-broadcast in the United States, the United Kingdom and Ireland. And in late March 2014 a feature film entitled, Bomb Girls - The Movie, was broadcast on Global.
That same month at the Centaur Theatre in Montreal, local playwright David Fennario launched his most recent original work, 'Motherhouse", a drama set in the Verdun DIL and based somewhat on the experiences of his mother who was employed there during World War II.
Both the play and the history upon which it was based caught the fancy of Pat Donnelly, drama critic for the city's The Gazette, and she set out to learn more about the Verdun operation on her own. Searching through family memorabilia she came across a 1944 group photo of DIL's Quality Control Department and ran it in the newspaper, asking readers to help her identify the women in the picture.
One of them is indeed Mildred Moore Allen. She sits in the second row, third person in from the right, one of the women whose distinctive company-issued pale blue uniforms, quite different from the much darker overalls worn the others, identify them as assembly-line inspectors. The odd-looking mesh caps perched on every head were company-issued hairnets, required garb for all employees.
Seventy-years have passed since this photograph was taken, and Mildred's eyesight is failing - and the newspaper photo is somewhat fuzzy - but for all of that, she is quite certain, as are friends who have seen the image, that she is the young lady seated in the second row from the bottom, the third one (second inspector) in from the right.
The photograph is a precious souvenir, a stark reminder of a world so completely different from what we know today - and in a small way it stands as a salute to the many men and women who in that period 1939-1945 put their lives on hold to do their part in offering service to God and country.
The debt of gratitude we owe each one of them can never be repaid.
Like all wars, World War II brought massive upheaval into the lives of our parents and grandparents, and even ourselves. It was a time of sorrow, a time of opportunity; it was a time of sudden endings; a time for fresh beginnings.
And most of all it was proof positive of just how far civilizations can tumble when responsible men and women stop paying attention. And a testament to the great heights that can be reached when they do.
June 25, 2014