100-year-old Moncton woman reminisces on wartime service in England

Marjorie Sheehan, 100, spent a year and a half volunteering with the Canadian Red Cross in London, England during the Second World War. (Jonna Brewer/CBC - image credit)
Marjorie Sheehan, 100, spent a year and a half volunteering with the Canadian Red Cross in London, England during the Second World War. (Jonna Brewer/CBC - image credit)

When Marjorie Sheehan decided to go overseas to volunteer with the Canadian Red Cross during the Second World War, she knew her mother wouldn't be happy.

The British needed volunteers in England, and early in 1944 the Red Cross asked Sheehan if she'd go. She was already a volunteer in Saint John, New Brunswick, where she'd grown up.

It was a big decision, Sheehan said, because of the bombings in Europe.

But she agreed to go — and told her mother after the fact.

"My mother looked at me and said, 'you will do no such thing.' Anyway, as you know, I ended up going," laughed Sheehan, who's now 100 and living in Moncton.

She'd just turned 22 when she boarded a boat and sailed to Scotland — seasick for the entire 10-day journey — in the spring of 1944.

She was sent to work at one of four Maple Leaf clubs in London, where her jobs were mostly physically demanding tasks, including serving meals and changing linens. Her club — club number one — was for servicemen, and just a 20-minute walk from Buckingham Palace.

Jonna Brewer/CBC
Jonna Brewer/CBC

During Sheehan's time in London, Germany was terrorizing British civilians with the V1 and V2 bombings.

On her first day there, she stood on a balcony and watched as a V1 bomb flew across the city. She remembers hearing its loud motor, seeing its long, fiery tail.

Then the motor cut. "That was bad, you knew it was on its way down then," Sheehan said. "That was my first afternoon in London. Not a great introduction."

Listen to Marjorie Sheehan's full interview with CBC.

During her year and a half there, she said she got used to the bombs, even when they switched from V1 to V2, which were nearly soundless and more deadly. Sometimes there would be air raid warnings — a "piercing, siren" noise, Sheehan remembers — and the Red Cross volunteers would put on helmets and go downstairs until the all clear sounded.

"That was the most beautiful sound in the world," she said.

Letters for the lads

The club had a "wonderful bunch of young lads" who'd visit while on leave, Sheehan said.

"We'd always put them to work in the club and they'd growl, but they loved it because they came back," Sheehan said.

She tried to help the men who stayed at the club or the hospital by writing letters home for them.

"Many of them were severely wounded," Sheehan said, remembering a letter she wrote for one soldier who lost a leg.

Lieut. Arthur L. Cole/Library and Archives Canada/Reuters
Lieut. Arthur L. Cole/Library and Archives Canada/Reuters

For another soldier who didn't survive his injuries and was buried in London, Sheehan visited the grave and took a photo to send home to his family.

A soldier from her hometown of Saint John was "brokenhearted," Sheehan said, because he heard his girl was "going with" somebody else.

A paratrooper, he asked Sheehan to write her a letter and send it home with a piece of his old parachute.

She did so, and that was the last she heard of their love story — until many years later, when she found out they got married after all.

Associated Press
Associated Press

VE-Day, or Victory in Europe Day, was unlike any other.

It was May 8, 1945, which marked the official end of the Second World War in eastern Europe, and Sheehan said millions of people flocked to the streets in celebration.

"I remember in one spot they had pulled a piano out in the middle of the street and somebody was tap dancing on the piano," she said.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth went out onto the Buckingham Palace balcony with their daughters a few times, and Sheehan remembers seeing Prime Minister Winston Churchill make an appearance with them.

"To see London on VE-Day was unforgettable," she said.