Phone conversation originally recorded, March 8th, 2013. Edited by Dale Gervais, January 1, 2021.
Alicia Chambers : I was born in Lethbridge, Alberta and we lived in New Dayton, which was sunny southern Alberta (said with a sarcastic chuckle).
Well, once I graduated from high-school, I went to Calgary, and I was supposed to become a teacher. We would be teaching within three months, and I didn’t think it was a good enough education, and when the newspaper made the WD (women’s division) ad survey attractive in saying that the photography trade had opened to individual women, that appealed to me and I went in and I told the recruiting officer that I would like to be a photographer, he said, “Oh no no, we’ll put you where we need you”, and I said “No, thanks, I can’t go back home and tell my Dad that”, so I got a letter from both the WD’s and the Airforce telling me I could be a photographer.
What drew your eye to that vocation?
Well, in high-school most of the boys were leaving high-school to go immediately into the airforce, or into the army. My brother went to the Calgary Tanks. I preferred the Airforce.
Was it the most attractive vocation at the time?
Well I had heard rumours about GD’s, General Duties, and you had no control about where you went. And so I couldn’t go home and tell my Dad I might be working in a kitchen or something. And he seriously wanted me to become a teacher. At the time, the trades for women were nursing and teaching, and of course clerks, but I actually wanted a University education, and I was given to understand the length of time you put in the service, you could have in University following the service. That was also a big attraction, because this was the Depression we were coming out of.
How old were you exactly when you enlisted?
What happened after high-school, and enlistment?
Well, there was a whole coach-load of girls going down to Rockliffe. They were Red Cross, CWAC’s and Airforce, and I was designated to come to Rockliffe for Manning training, (Manning Depot, Rockliffe). And it was completely full because there were so many girls coming. On the course I was in, there was 22 girls and 10 men. They wouldn’t take a man into photography unless he had previous experience, but the girls were welcomed. The men sorted of resented this, we could get in with no knowledge period.
After I graduated Manny, we were sent to Dauphin, Manitoba. This was in the fall that we went to Dauphin, Manitoba, and it was for contact training. And there we learned all about the photography trade and taking pictures, developing film, mixing chemicals, and everything that went along with it. And a little bit of aerial. We thoroughly learned the aerial cameras, and it’s gearbox. The aerial camera was, in theory, if we were up in the air and something went wrong, that we should be able to repair it. We learned the intervalometer which would time the spacing of the pictures. You could set the camera, and it would automatically take the pictures at the intervals we required.
We were trained on aerial cameras and view cameras. There was two aerial cameras, one was the F24 which was a larger one that was mounted in the belly of the aircraft, and then there was a handheld oblique that we could shoot at an angle out the window.
At the station we had view cameras, they were big cameras, they took film. The smallest film that they took was a 5 x 7 sheet. You could go up larger but then the 4 x 5 came in, and the Speed Graphic, which you see in the movies with the big flash gun. If we were taking a picture on a course photo we would be carrying the big view cameras down the stairs with its tripod and setting it up. With us, film was at a premium. Everything was scarce. Every shot had to count. What we used to do the odd time if we had some scraps of film leftover, we would go in the darkroom and cut it down to fit the Speed Graphic camera, and then rather than waste it, we used it on the side.
How long did the training at Manning last?
Training would have been three months. It was very concentrated. But with the contact training it was not a big problem.
Manning was No. 7 Manning Depot in Rockliffe. Rockliffe was a big photo centre for all Canada. And if you had heard about the White House, it was the big training centre, when we went there, there was even a movie theatre there, and it expanded, and it was a centre where all the mapping, the Canadian mapping was done. Actually they had a large medical division in there. It was a very busy place. When we went in for initial training, there would have been over 300 people. They took a picture of us with a panorama (camera). All 300 ! It would be September the 3rd, 1943, that the picture might have been taken. Around that time, between September and October.
What happened after training?
We were asked what area we wanted to be, and we took eastern air command because I had come from the west and I wanted to see the country, so they sent us to Dartmouth to await posting. And it was interesting while we were awaiting posting, they had us waiting on the Officers in the Mess. I had never seen lobster served, and I thought that was a pretty sickening experience, throwing these poor lobsters in the boiling water! And then, having to cut their stomachs with a cleaver, and spreading the guck around, and my girlfriend, Betty and I had met on the train going to Dauphin, all her postings coincided with mine, and we decided to pull the legs off the lobsters because they didn’t look nice, and that was a delicacy. So, we were soon told not to do that! I don’t know if we were there for a matter of two weeks, and then we went to Summerside (PEI).
What did you do at Summerside?
Summerside was a ground reconnaissance school, and thats where the pilots, navigators, and observers were posted before going overseas. What we did there, it was a training school. We would load cameras, the F24’s. The instructors would assign a point to go and photograph, and we would go and get the photograph, get the film out of the camera, develop it and then return it to the instructor, so then the instructor could see how knowledgeable these people were. What we would do when a new course would come in, Betty and I were sort of the designated girls to do it. They would be thirty or so many, we would line them up outside with the view camera, we’d get their names, and then we would annotate the negative with the name on their chest and give it to the instructor, and the instructor could look at the picture and know who to call up.
What was your designated rank by then?
I was an LAW (Leading Air Woman), A Group. There was not much room for promotions for the girls, cause these positions were already held by men. Not too many female officers there, lots of Corporals and Sergeants. The positions were already filled when we got there.
What did your uniform patch look like?
To designate my rank there was a prop, a propellor and then the trade, it looked like a washing machine, it was a little aerial camera, it was a little badge with an aerial camera. Yes I still have it. They found out early when sending younger girls overseas they got homesick. It was quite an adjustment to go over to England where there was the bombing and everything. I think you had to be 23 or something before they sent you overseas. There was a lot of older girls. In my course there was a former teacher with a B.A. She was to be considered to become an officer.
Did you ever get overseas?
No, I didn’t get overseas. I was only in a matter of two years. Once there were no more course going through, people to be trained, I was sent to Rockliffe again, and I was attached to the Medical Division there. As the POWs and airmen that were injured overseas came back, we would photograph them and the ones needing plastic surgery. We would do a progress record of them, of their healing, and their faces being restored. You’d see a man with one eyebrow, and then the next time you would see him, he’d have his other eyebrow! We would not take the pictures ourself, we would have been developing all that film and making the big record books. I would imagine they would have used the 4 x 5, the Speed Graphic, and the Crown Graphic, one of those cameras that took a smaller film, 4 x 5. The 35mm now were just coming in from Germany, the Leicas and the Rolleicords, cameras like that. We did all the preparation of the films.
Actually before I left Summerside when the other stations were closing, the libraries were sending all their books to Summerside, and I went and worked as a Librarian for two or three months, helping the librarian catalogue all these books that were coming in, and then I was posted back to Rockliffe. My fiance was posted to the Pacific so we got married in Halifax.
The end of the war came, and my fiance didn’t go to the Pacific. He was just released, so I was married to a civilian, and at that time all the married girls that were married to a civilian were automatically released. It was a very good life, and it was a very interesting life.
What were some of your photo assignments as a Leading Air Woman?
Graduations. Always graduations, and of course anybody that was promoted that was of any consequence, we did portraits of them. When I was in Dauphin Manitoba I used to have to carry a projector out and set it up and show the training films. We were in charge with anything that pertained with photography.
Do you have any photos of you posing with your camera?
No, there are no pictures of me, but I have a picture of my husband in his flying gear, with a helmet on and everything.
What happened after you got married?
I stayed with photography. I liked my photography, and I married a photographer, and with a third photographer partner, we opened a photo studio, and we named it Alicia Photos. That was in Belleville. We moved to Belleville. It worked out pretty good. We started out with 2-1/4″ square cameras and worked into the 35mm’s. And one time everybody shared the same cameras but, they weren’t taking very good care of them so we decided the smartest move would be to assign a reporter a camera and then they would be responsible for it. There was another pair of lads that came in from the air force, and they opened a studio, and all of a sudden there wasn’t enough business for everybody.
Where did you work next?
I went to the newspaper, The Belleville Intelligencer. The newspaper didn’t have a photography department as such, and they didn’t have engraving. We had one reporter that had a Speed Graphic camera, and he was to take all the pictures, and then the pictures would have to be sent to Kingston to be engraved, and it was kind of neat because they’d drive them to Kingston, and then people in Kingston would meet them partway back, so they wouldn’t have to make the whole trip to get the pictures. The pictures turned into the engraving plates to put on the press. So what happened, that was the time when they put in oil furnaces and the coal bins was vacated so they tiled it and fixed it all up and that became my photo area. And I had an engraving machine called a Klischograph, and I would engrave, I’d make the photographs and engrave them. I was a pretty busy person. I taught the reporters how to take pictures whether they wanted to or not. So I worked there for 30 years. At the newspaper I was in charge of photography, and when Trudeau came to Belleville I covered that, and I covered Roland Michener. It was an interesting career because I was in a central position where I did all of the photography for the commercial printing for books being published. I took pictures, I did engravings, yearbooks, and in 1967, when there were so many centennial things going on, we got quite involved. I did advertising photography, and I always had something to keep me moving.
So, my photo course did me well !
Gallery pictures courtesy, Alicia Chambers, and The Memory Project – http://www.thememoryproject.com/stories/1189:alicia-chambers/
To learn more about the RCAF Women’s Division, be sure to read, We Serve That Men May Fly by Mary Ziegler.