- by Will Chabun
The Royal Canadian Air Force had a certain wartime tradition: when mechanics finished repairs on an aircraft, one, perhaps more, of them got to go on the test flight. It helped keep up mechanics' morale. It meant trained eyes and ears checked for problems when in the air. It meant that mechanics put their own lives, or those of buddies, on the line when a repaired aircraft flew again.
And that was how Anne Heath-Moulding faced one of the most frightening moments of her life. It was 1943 or ’44 and her new husband, an aero engine mechanic at the sprawling (she was told it had about 3,000 personnel in late 1943) wartime 5 Bombing and Gunnery school at Dafoe, 150 kilometres north of Regina, was scheduled to go up in an aircraft. Mere hours later, she heard sirens, then saw smoke on the horizon. As she stood, transfixed, a buddy of her husband blurted out a question: “What are you going to do if George is in there?”
“Some friend!” Heath-Moulding, sharp as a tack at 89, said last autumn. George was in another aircraft, so he was OK. But it was the kind of thing you don't forget. Nor does she forget Boomtown, the ramshackle strip of shacks and converted granaries where 450 airmen, wives and children lived. None had electricity, running water or indoor toilets. Lacking insulation, the tiny stove left the young couple's shack so cold she routinely slept in three pairs of her husband's long johns.
Aircraft took off all day and all night until 3 a.m. — with machine gun fire on the training range starting at 5 a.m. “I think I cried, that first year, more than I ever cried in my life,” said Heath-Moulding.
Born near Wolseley but raised in Regina, she met George Moulding (from Abernethy, northeast of Regina) at Regina's famous Trianon Ballroom on April 1, 1943. They married on Sept. 4 and after he rented living quarters near the Dafoe station, she took the 4 1/2 hour bus trip to join him. She was only 20. Just about the first thing she saw upon arrival was a young woman, “barely dressed”, brushing her teeth near one of the adjacent shacks; she was an airwoman who’d moved into an officer’s shack while his wife was in a Winnipeg hospital, recovering from a miscarriage. Another shack’s resident was a civilian pharmacist traumatized when the car he was driving was in a collision, killing his father; he would throw his head back and laugh hysterically for no apparent reason. “I was just terrified,” she recalled.
Near as she could determine, Boomtown's shacks were owned by farmers and businessmen from the district around it. With only coal-oil lamps for light, she couldn't read at night. Nor could she work on the base because of RCAF regulations. Thinking back on how she passed her time, she said, “I don't know — I really don't know!” A major improvement in her life came when George secured a battery-powered radio for his wife.
The RCAF gave remote stations like Dafoe, facilities like a bowling alley, skating rink, movie theatre and swimming pool that doubled as a reservoir for firefighting. Mart Kenney brought his famous band to play at a dance — though the night ended with mass food poisoning. There was even inadvertent humour, like when a tipsy airman tried to crawl over the perimeter fence -- mere feet from the guardhouse at the main gate. At the bowling alley, Heath-Moulding, her husband and their friends once began an evening with five consecutive strikes — causing the large, tipsy American setting up pins that night to emerge from his cubbyhole and ask, with much bafflement, “Wheah y’awl folks from???”
But times were tough, too. She remembers another young wife waiting in Boomtown for her husband to arrive at Dafoe. “He was flying in from Burma — and he never made it.” Near the station, one training aircraft accidentally landed atop another, decapitating the pilots in the lower one. Another, carrying five men, crashed near a school, “and the kids saw them burned to death”, said Heath-Moulding, who remembers a crash — perhaps this one — where she and a friend walked to the crash site and were struck by the odd sight of the airmen’s boots, every one yanked off by G-forces, lying separate from the bodies. The memory remains with her to this day.
Heath-Moulding decided to stay in Regina when George was posted in 1944 to a base in Manitoba from Dafoe. He survived the war, farmed for many years in the Abernethy district and lived until 2007. On her year at Boomtown, she looks back and says simply: “I grew up a lot.”
This is a lengthened version of an article that originally appeared in the Regina Leader-Post on November 10, 2012 and was republished in the CAHS Windsock, the newsletter of CAHS Roland Groome Regina.
The chapter is named in honour of Roland Groome, the first commercial pilot in Canada, a member of the Royal Air Force in the First World War, and a founder of the Regina Flying Club - and the CAHS Regina Chapter strives to represent all these areas of aviation. To do this, the chapter established ties with the Saskatchewan Aviation Council, the Airport Display Committee, and played a role in the launch of the Silver Dart stamp in 2009.
CAHS Regina also explores Saskatchewan’s rich and varied aviation history through monthly meetings. These gatherings range from popular film and photo nights to guest speakers from around the province and beyond. Past topics have include: military careers, continental air defense, international museum collections, ratio-controlled aircraft races, civilian flying operation and aviation entrepreneurs.
Their monthly newsletter, Windsock, records these fascinating talks and events and provides articles, announcements and other notable aviation news. CAHS chapters that have similar newsletters or newspapers are encouraged to share articles that would be of interest to the wider range of CAHS membership, to be posted on the CAHS History Newsreel of the national website.
For more information on CAHS Regina, see:
CAHS National website: http://www.cahs.ca/chapters/regina
CAHS Regina Chapter website:
Follow the chapter on Twitter: @CAHSRegina
The CAHS Roland Groome Regina Chapter will be hosting the 2014 CAHS AGM and Conference in Regina. Author Will Chabun is presently working on a “Call for Papers” for the conference, inviting authors, researchers and historians to submit written as well as media presentations for the speakers’ program of the conference.