A Golden Horizon: Veteran Shirley Burnell’s Story

Canadian World War II Veteran Female

Born in Vancouver in 1923, Shirley Burnell was only 18 months old when after the sudden death of her father, she and her mother relocated to Japan. Shirley, a resident at The Waterford, shares firsthand her story of World War II that spans the globe from Japan to England and back to Canada.

In The Beginning: Internment in Japan

As I was brought up in Japan from the time I was 1 1⁄2 I did not know very much about the rest of the world. I went to school and graduated from a Catholic school in Yokohama. My mother was an employee at the British Embassy in Tokyo and had gone to work when I heard of the war between Japan, USA and Europe and she was interned immediately. I was apprehended by a Japanese policeman and taken to Tokyo to be with my mother because I was underage and we were interned for 8 1⁄2 months.

Transported and Traded: Arrival in England

Life was very different to me when I landed in England during the war after a 2 month boat trip. The trip to England was a great adventure for a 17/18 year old. A very nice Japanese ship took us up through the Sundra Strait across the Indian Ocean to Mozambique in Portugese East Africa where we were exchanged for the Japanese being returned to Japan (or their homeland). From Portuguese East Africa we were taken by an Egyptian cruise ship hardly suitable for the trip down under South Africa up past Ireland into Liverpool, England. We were greeted cordially and given some clothes and then my mother and I went into London where she and I both ended up working for the British Intelligence dept.

Making a Home: Wartime in London

Finding “digs” and trying to get established was not easy because of my age, pay was low but we found a “digs” on a cobble paved street. Ours was a mews where horses would go to have their hooves groomed. This caused a very obnoxious odor which filled the building. We had 1 large room with 2 beds, dresser and a jet for gas coming up through the floor! This was our stove where we cooked mostly with a double boiler. The “stove” was fed by shillings which had to be fed when the jet slowed up. To make life more interesting the box for the money was situated on top of the door, so when it was time there was always a rush about on top of a chair with money in hand! We had one window which looked out onto a brick wall, one bathroom down the hall comprised of a toilet and hand basin to be shared by all; now bathing was a different story. After dinner at the end of the week mom and I would walk over to the public bath house where we “bought” our bath water of 4” each. We would soak and scrub and come out steaming and clean. There was a movie house across the street so we would watch a movie and cool down before walking “home”.

A New Post: Joining the CWAC

We both worked hard trying to meet people but it was not easy due to the “black out” every night and many restrictions. Mother met an old friend in a town close by and moved in with her. The same time I saw an advertisement recruiting Canadian girls to join the Canadian Army in London, so I did and became a CWAC (Canadian Women’s Army Corp.). I worked again in intelligence in an Intelligence Dept., only this time at Canada House in Trafalgar Square for Canada as a typist and moved into Army housing.

My life changed a lot then, meeting new people who ended up as life long friends. And I had very good accommodation, a newly built apartment right near Hyde Park in London. We were regimented and did all the Army routines which was good. Many good times were had as we always tried to make the best of the situation.

The Bombs Fall: Life Goes On

We had many scary times, one in particular remains in my mind very clearly. We were in a top floor office in Canada House and more than once saw a “doodlebug” flew by our window. A “doodlebug” was a bomb guided by it’s head officer (our enemy) on a pattern past our window eye level before mechanically the motor shuts off and dives down and detonates. It sounded like a plane until ready to drop then silence, that is when everyone dove under our metal desks and waited for the explosion. Luckily for us on that floor the bombs did not veer from their designed path so I am here to write about it! The next bomb was a larger one and would go deeper and cause wider damage. These scary moments were daily for a while until we got on the winning side but our spirits stayed high.

There was lots of social entertainment available at weekends if you wanted to go. The time passed, our boys pushed ever so hard and we finally saw the end arrive on May 8, 1945. Our 93 company stayed until May 1946, then were sent to Halifax on the Ile de France where I visited for a month before travelling across Canada by train to get my medical discharge in Vancouver and started my new life as a civilian and a whole new experience.

Hope for the Future: Then and Now

I married an airman in the Canadian Forces a few years later and started a whole new life. It was a worrisome time in my life, the incarceration, the war and all the changes that took place were educational as well as teaching me one has to take what comes. It makes me think of today and how our lives have suddenly changed by the virus. Nobody expected this and probably life will never be the same again. A new chapter for us all and I believe there is a golden horizon awaiting us but patience and belief is what we should practice. I hope I am right and wish everyone a bright hope for the future.