Foxley River resident featured in new book about Island women serving in the Second World War

Melissa Heald |
Nov 4, 2021

Vivian Hardy Phillips
Vivian Hardy Phillips of Foxley River served in the Royal Canadian Air Force 1943-45 as a plotter in the operations room. She is featured in a new book about Island women serving in the Second World War. Submitted photo

Vivian Hardy Phillips of Foxley River enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in 1943 on the advice from her grandfather.

He had heard of her plans to go work in a munitions factory in Ontario. He asked her to consider joining the air force instead.

“He was a quiet man of few words, so when he spoke, you did well to listen,” said Ms Phillips, who was living in Freeland at the time.

After completing her basic training in Ottawa, the 20-year-old Ms Phillips had hoped to be posted overseas.

“I had never been anywhere in my life – my first trip off PEI was when I went to Moncton to enlist – so I had hoped to get sent to England or Europe, to see more of the world,” she recalled. “They announced we were going overseas, and I got excited. Then they said ‘Torbay, Newfoundland!’. Newfoundland was still a British colony, so it was considered an overseas posting, but it wasn’t quite what I had hoped for.”

In Newfoundland, Ms Phillips worked as a plotter in the operations room.

“Convoys of ships moving food, supplies and troops were travelling back and forth across the North Atlantic between Europe and North America, and our base in Torbay covered the convoys in the western section,” said Ms Phillips. “German U-boats tried to sink the ships, so reconnaissance aircraft were sent out to find the U-boats, and then bombers would be sent to destroy them. The planes and ships sent their positions to us via secret Morse codes, and we would plot the locations of the convoys and U-boats with pins on a huge map that covered an entire wall.”

It was a top secret posting, so she wasn’t allowed to talk about her work off base, but, in a way, Ms Phillips said it was just like another job.

“Being in my early 20s, it was just normal to me,” she said.

The friendships she made with people from across Canada is what Ms Phillips said she remembers most about her time serving in the war.

“I kept in touch with one woman I met in basic training until she died last year,” said the now 99-year-old. “And it may sound strange, but just having a job and making money was unusual for a young woman like me from a rural area.”

Before the war ended, Ms Phillips married her husband, Harold Phillips, in September 1944. She remained in the RCAF until January 1945. Her husband was also in the RCAF and served for a few more months after she was done.

“We settled in Summerside for a year and then bought a general store in Freeland, which we ran together for 25 years,” she said.

Ms Phillips’ story of service is one of several featured in a new book by Island writer Katherine Dewar. We’ll Meet Again shares the stories of Island women serving during the Second World War, with Ms Dewar drawing from interviews, diaries, letters, community histories and archival research to tell these women’s largely untold narratives.

“When they came home, many of them put the war behind them,” said Ms Dewar. “Most of the community probably didn’t know this woman had been in the army and overseas during the war or she was in the battlefields of North Africa or Italy. It just seemed to have gotten lost after the war.”

Island women served in the Army, Navy, Air Forces, Canadian Army Medical Corps, the South African Military Nursing Service and the Red Cross.

While the book includes an appendix that lists over 700 women from PEI who served, Ms Dewar writes the biographies of 19 of them, including four from western PEI.

“I couldn’t believe, first of all, how many I found, and secondly how diverse their service was,” said Ms Dewar. “They were all over the world and they were doing everything.”

Along with Ms Phillips, the book looks at Claire Clohossey Dowling from Nail Pond who served in the South African Military Nursing Service 1941-44 as a nursing sister, Margaret Stewart Ellis from West Point who served in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps 1942-45 as a nursing sister and Lois Wall Brown from Kensington who served in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps 1943-44 as a telephone operator.

Out of these four, Ms Phillips and Ms Brown are still alive and both were invited to attend the Charlottetown launch of the book on Oct. 23. There will be a separate launch for Summerside on Nov. 7 at the Eptek Centre.

Ms Phillips said she is both honoured and surprised to be featured in Ms Dewar’s book.

“Immediately after the war, women veterans weren’t really acknowledged as we had mostly served in supporting roles,” she said. “That has changed over the years, and people will now sometimes thank me for my past service.”

Ms Phillips old uniform was also one of five on display during an exhibit in the Confederation Count Mall last month in Charlottetown.

“I never thought that my uniform would be of interest to anyone, it was just something I had in my closet,” she said. “I still have most of my uniform, except for the shoes and stockings, which I wore completely out after the war. Those shoes were the best I had ever had.”

Ms Phillips said she hopes a war like the one she served in never happens again.

“It was such a terrible waste of life,” she said. “I pray for peace.”