Prince George woman recalls wartime efforts

Mrs. Doreen Denicola, 92, recalls what it was like when friends and neighbours would gather together to help one another during wartime.

Painting her legs and using a marker to draw the seam up the back so it looked like she had nylons on, hunting for cigarette and gum wrappers made of tin foil and offering comfort when neighbours got the dreaded visit from the Telegram Man are all part of 92-year-old Doreen Denicola’s recollections of wartime efforts at home when she was a young lady growing up in small-town Manitoba during World War II.

Family has always been the priority for Mrs. Denicola whose address hasn’t changed since 1964 when she married decorated veteran Armand Denicola.

She was raised in a world where the strong family ties that bind were of the utmost importance.

“We’ve always been a very close-knit family and now I am the only one left of the original family and it’s lonely out there – lonely without my siblings – it’s a funny feeling to be left behind – especially when there was nine of you,” Mrs. Denicola said.

She was a young girl when the Second World War started in 1939 and it was a difficult time.

“The thing we noticed quite suddenly was that our little town was empty of all the older boys, a lot of the fathers were gone, a lot of the other kids’ older brothers I went to school with were gone,” Mrs. Denicola recalled. “And then all of a sudden my older siblings were gone, too.”

At that time there were about 1,200 people in Virden, a small prairie town, a farming community, in the south west corner of Manitoba.

“It left a big hole in all of our lives when all these young men left our town, especially the young fathers,” Mrs. Denicola said. “As you can imagine kids were distraught when their fathers had to go away. All those distraught mothers didn’t know where to turn. Luckily back in those days we helped each other to fill the gaps.”

Everyone would go out to the fields and help the farmers stook their fields. Grain would be harvested with machines that tied the grain into bundles.

“And then we’d follow the machine and stand the stooks up in groups of five or six so that they would dry,” Mrs. Denicola said. “The mothers and the kids went out and did that for the farmers because there were no young boys to hire any more.”

This type of thing was another reminder their beloved young men had gone to war, she added.

“We had to take their place and I remember doing that many times at harvest time during the war,” Mrs. Denicola said. “That feeling is something I wish people could get again – doing something a man used to do to help keep life going – keep production going – because if those farmers wouldn’t have been able to harvest their crops how would the army ever eat? It was a funny circle of events.”

The most dreadful part that truly meant war to Mrs. Denicola was when those terrible telegrams would come.

“Those telegrams would say that somebody’s son had been killed or somebody’s father had been killed or somebody’s husband had been killed and everybody – everybody lived in dread of having one of those telegrams come to their homes,” Mrs. Denicola said. “Mother would take us girls and we would go to the family that had been affected and try to comfort them and offer help in any way we could. It was dreadful. That was the worst time of all of our lives – this waiting and hoping that the Telegraph Man wouldn’t come to our door. That’s what the war meant to me – those people were never going to see their loved ones again and that – in a small town – was very significant because how you looked at it was more like family – everybody knows everybody – you’re all neighbours, you’re all the same. Life was so different for us than children today – we depended on each other.”

Mrs. Denicola won’t ever forget the telegram that came to their door.

That terrible telegram came when older brother Richard was wounded in the war.

Third older brother Richard was wounded during the 1944 D-Day invasion on the beaches of  Normandy. He was a transport driver and his vehicle filled with soldiers was bombed by German aircraft as the convoy tried to make it inland.

“These convoys were filled with drivers transporting equipment or men and that’s why they were targets of the German aircraft,” Mrs. Denicola explained.

As a result of the bombing, Richard’s entire left side was filled of schrapnel and metal with extensive injuries to his legs and feet. He remained stationed in London after being sent there to recover from his injuries. Richard continued to serve afterwards as a driver to officials – the big brass – as Mrs. Denicola called them.

“Even in his 70s Richard could still shave his face and out would come a piece of that metal,” Mrs. Denicola shared about the lingering effects of the war.

Harry, second older brother, was terribly injured during his training at CampShiloh in Manitoba.

During a training exercise a Thunderflash, like a long stick of dynamite, was thrown by an officer which was meant to go off well past the men taking cover in the forest. It fell short landing in the midst of the young men who were in deep snow.

“When the officer gave the order to take cover the young men were sprawled about like a bunch of puppies,” Mrs. Denicola said. “The explosive landed beside one man’s head, another man’s feet, another man’s chest, with them all scattered on the ground. It was February and there was deep snow. Harry was the only one that had not taken cover.”

Trying to kick it away from all the other boys was of no use so Harry picked up the Thunderflash, she added.

“Just as he got it up over his head to throw it, it exploded and took his right hand off above the wrist,” Mrs. Denicola said sadly. “So that ended his army career and made a drastic change in his entire life. You know you have to be grateful and thank God that it wasn’t any worse than it was because he was blind for the first two weeks because of the powder burns to his eyes and he thought he was going to stay blind as well but you know God is good and Harry regained his eye sight.”

Harry always made the best of every situation, Mrs. Denicola was proud to say.

“He determined that the loss of his hand was never going to bother him,” Mrs. Denicola said. “Harry became a very successful businessman and father and an incredible brother – it’s a strange feeling because I was 13 or 14 when that happened and I tell you it made an impact on me – it made me realize all about strength and courage and I have to say that I am very proud to have had him as a brother. He was a remarkable man all through his life and he never let that situation affect him in any way at all. I really get emotional thinking of how capably he handled his life despite all that he had to go through. You know some of us have an easy time in life and others have to struggle the whole time.”

Her two older brothers went to war while her youngest brother, Charles, who was 11, joined the home protection force called the Manitoba Dragoons.

Mrs. Denicola’s oldest brother Cyril was blind in one eye and Victor had hip issues that resulted in major surgery when he was a child, so neither of them could serve in combat overseas which really didn’t sit well with either one of them, she said.

Victor did serve during the war at the Quartermaster Stores in Winnipeg from which war time supplies were distributed all over the country to the soldiers going off to war.

“It’s funny when you think about it – so what if your brothers go away – you expect that anyway in life but we didn’t because our brothers were all expected to work on the farms – that was the only thing that they could do and when they grew old enough to work there weren’t all the options there are now – there were no big companies to join like there is nowadays,” Mrs. Denicola explained.

Back home there was a lighter side to things during the war.

“As kids we all tried to do funny little things for the war effort,” Mrs. Denicola said. “We were all put to work. We did everything. We searched for tin foil – can you imagine? It wasn’t very prevalent in those days but they did line cigarette packages with it , they lined gum packages with it, so us kids would search everywhere for cigarette boxes or gum wrappers just to get the tin foil off of them and we’d roll it all into a ball and when we had a big enough ball we’d send it away to be melted down into metal again. Isn’t that weird that we’d think that was important? But it was important – they were searching for metal everywhere to make ammunition for the war.”

Mrs. Denicola remembers the day they took the old cannon out of their park to melt it down to make ammunition.

“That was a significant thing to a child’s mind as well,” she added.

Another wartime effort saw everyone learn to knit the little squares one would put together to make afghan blankets for the wounded soldiers in their hospital beds.

“So we would knit and knit and knit,” Mrs. Denicola said.

“And everything, of course, was rationed and there was ration books.”

Mrs. Denicola to this day still has ration books with stamps left inside of the less popular items – like gasoline – that her family didn’t need because they didn’t have a car.

Back then people had to have a coupon for an item in order to purchase it. If there was no ticket, the purchase could not be made.

Coffee, sugar, gasoline and tires were all items that needed to go to the soldiers in the war, she added.

There were limited supplies for those left behind.

Clothing, for instance, could not be bought without good reason and was limited to the bare necessities.

“In my teenage life and early 20s my fashion included great big full skirts and five yards of material,” Mrs. Denicola said. “You couldn’t get that any more so we had to go to wearing mini skirts and I wouldn’t be caught dead in a dog fight with a mini skirt on. I wanted my five yards skirt! I kept everything and I wouldn’t throw anything away. All the new material would go to make uniforms and you just had to bite the bullet and get on with it.”

Nylons could not be purchased because all the nylon went to making parachutes, she added.

“We used to paint our legs to make it look like we had nylons on and we even took a marker to draw the seam down the back of our legs so it looked authentic,” Mrs. Denicola recalled those little sacrifices. “That’s going to some extent, don’t you think? We had to be dressed properly and we didn’t go anywhere with bare skin showing. I mean you had to wear your gloves to church. Everything was so different back then. If you told the young people now about painting our legs they would look at us like we’re crazy. Anyway those were some of the hardships of our growing-up years.”

It’s important to talk about these things as time passes and veterans and others who have experienced World War II become fewer and fewer, she added.

“Over the years I’ve been interviewed and I’m not totally comfortable with that but on the other hand I want to help tell these stories,” Mrs. Denicola said. “I’m at that point in life that I think most people think at 92 years old you might be a little bit on the weak-minded side and we need these stories to be told while we can because we’re losing our seniors at an alarming rate. We just can’t let these stories go untold.”


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