Saanich woman recounts service with Canadian Women’s Army Corps

Grace Scarabelli, 97, one of first women to attend Royal Military College of Canada

Grace Scarabelli, 97, recalls with fondness her time spent in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)

Grace Scarabelli, 97, recalls with fondness her time spent in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)

Grace Scarabelli remembers the exact day she enlisted to serve in the Second World War.

“It was May 19, 1943,” the 97-year-old said. “I was 19 years old.”

Scarabelli, who lives now in Saanich in the Trillium Highgate Lodge, was one of the first women to attend the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston Ont. and worked her way up to become a second lieutenant in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC).

CWAC was a non-combatant branch of the Canadian military that performed essential skills to free up men for combat roles. In the CWAC uniform of khaki suit, peaked cap and tie – women took on clerical and technical work, demonstrating their ability for responsibility and skilled work alongside the women’s division of the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service.

For Scarabelli, joining CWAC was a departure from her days riding horses bareback with her 10 younger siblings on the family’s Ontario farm.

“I was the oldest in my family. And my father had always treated me as a boy,” she recalled. “My father said, ‘I’ll take you to the place to join the army, but for God’s sake don’t tell your mother.”

Scarabelli was in search of excitement and adventure. In high school she would sit in the library, leafing through books about New York City.

At 19, with her high school matriculation and shorthand knowledge, Scarabelli received a “plum posting” doing dictation in Kingston. She lived in the old professors’ quarters with the other women, sleeping four to a room in bunk beds.

READ ALSO: Legion calls for youthful perspective on Remembrance Day

“I took dictation and I wrote up all the orders for the camp,” she recalled. “Some of it was top secret.”

“The uniform was very smart – the CWACs uniform,” she smirked. “Guys used to walk behind us yelling, ‘quack, quack, quack, quack.’ Which was very annoying.”

But Scarabelli is the first to admit that she had her fair share of good times while serving – she enjoyed dancing and socializing with officers who came through for training.

“We danced with all these guys from the U.S.A.,” she said, with a smile. “I was a good looking gal and I had a terrific sense of humour.”

When she first started, Scarabelli said women made 90 cents per day – a rate that fell far below her male colleagues, who made $1.10 each day.

“That was considered unfair, and they raised it,” she recalled. “I never spent a nickel. I saved my money because I wanted to go to New York. I saved $40.”

Many men were changed by the war, Scarabelli said.

“They came home and … life had gone on at home. And they were different.

The stories of what happened overseas were enough to keep Scarabelli firmly planted in home soil. At one point, after achieving some rank, she remembers being asked to go to Holland to help receive survivors of German concentration camps.

“I said, ‘no I can’t do it. I’m too emotional.’ I didn’t think that I would have the stomach to put up with it. So I didn’t go. And I often wondered if it would have changed me if I had.”

READ ALSO: Victoria veteran receives the National Order of the Legion of Honour


Do you have a story tip? Email: vnc.editorial@blackpress.ca.

Follow us on Twitter and Instagram, and like us on Facebook.

Courage RememberedRemembrance DayVictoria

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

BC Hydro is reporting several outages in Sooke Monday morning. (BC Hydro/Facebook)
A wind warning is in effect for Greater Victoria Monday morning. (Black Press Media file photo)
Strong wind whips Greater Victoria

Winds predicted to subside by Monday afternoon

Island Health has confirmed the first long term care facility outbreak in Greater Victoria at Veterans Memorial Lodge in Saanich. (Google Maps)
Island Health records first long-term care COVID outbreak in Greater Victoria

Veterans Memorial Lodge in Saanich confirms one positive staff member

Itty, a Siamese cat, has been missing since a house fire in Victoria’s Fernwood neighbourhood on Friday, Nov. 27. Her owner says she has white fur with blonde and grey markings. (Facebook/ROAM)
Cat goes missing after house fire in Fernwood neighbourhood

‘Itty’ has white fur, blonde and grey markings and blue eyes

(Dave Landine/Facebook)
VIDEO: Dashcam captures head-on crash between snowplow and truck on northern B.C. highway

Driver posted to social media that he walked away largely unscathed

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

Langley RCMP issued a $2,300 fine to the Riverside Calvary church in Langley in the 9600 block of 201 Street for holding an in-person service on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020, despite a provincial COVID-19 related ban (Dan Ferguson/Black Press Media)
Langley church fined for holding in-person Sunday service

Calvary church was fined $2,300 for defying provincial order

A pedestrian makes their way through the snow in downtown Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Wild winter, drastic swings in store for Canada this year: Weather Network

In British Columbia and the Prairies, forecasters are calling for above-average snowfall levels

NDP Leader John Horgan, left, speaks as local candidate Ravi Kahlon listens during a campaign stop at Kahlon’s home in North Delta, B.C., on April 18, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
A B.C. Ambulance Service paramedic wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 moves a stretcher outside an ambulance at Royal Columbia Hospital, in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, November 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Top doctor urges Canadians to limit gatherings as ‘deeply concerning’ outbreaks continue

Canada’s active cases currently stand at 63,835, compared to 53,907 a week prior

A Canadian Pacific freight train travels around Morant’s Curve near Lake Louise, Alta., on Monday, Dec. 1, 2014. A study looking at 646 wildlife deaths along the railway tracks in Banff and Yoho national parks in Alberta and British Columbia has found that train speed is one of the biggest factors. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Study finds train speed a top factor in wildlife deaths in Banff, Yoho national parks

Research concludes effective mitigation could address train speed and ability of wildlife to see trains

A airport worker is pictured at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C. Wednesday, March 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Canada extends COVID restrictions for non-U.S. travellers until Jan. 21 amid second wave

This ban is separate from the one restricting non-essential U.S. travel

Menno Place. (Google Street View image.)
B.C. care home looks to hire residents’ family members amid COVID-19-related staff shortage

Family would get paid as temporary workers, while having chance to see loved ones while wearing PPE

Most Read