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Posted: November 11, 2016

RCAF veteran Merle Taylor still loves Morse Code

By Elinor Florence

Photo of Merle today.
Photo of Merle today.

Last year Royal Canadian Air Force veteran Merle Taylor of Lochaber, Nova Scotia, wrote to me (an actual letter, with a stamp) telling me how much she enjoyed my wartime novel, Bird’s Eye View.

So when my husband and I travelled from our home in Invermere to the Maritimes this summer, I was determined to meet Merle in person. I found her still living on the farm she operated with her husband Fred since 1946, about 30 kilometres south of Antigonish.

When we arrived at her house, she served us homemade fish chowder (already eaten when I took this photo), homemade buns, homemade scones, homemade fruit bread, homemade raisin tarts, and homemade strawberry preserves (made from strawberries she picked herself).

2-merle-with-lunchMerle took me on a farm tour in her electric golf cart. I loved hearing her stories of life in the air force, and in the decades since then.

The Early Years

Merle Winnifred McIntyre was born on August 2, 1923 to parents Syd and Pearl McIntyre on a rented farm near Pembina, Manitoba, one of three girls and two boys. Later Merle’s parents purchased a mixed farm near Stonewall.

After she finished Grade 8 at her one-room school, her family couldn’t afford to send her to Stonewall for further education, so she completed Grades 9 and 10 by correspondence.

3-merle-and-elinor-on-golf-cartMerle Joins the Royal Canadian Air Force

After working on a neighbouring farm for very little pay, in 1942 Merle took the bus into Winnipeg and went to the air force recruiting centre, where she studied the list of careers available to women and decided to become a Wireless Ground Operator (WOG).

She was given an aptitude test, the main requirement being the ability to learn Morse Code. “The room was filled with men and smoke,” Merle recalls. One part of the test involved listening to two separate Morse Code signals and detecting whether they were the same, or different.

In October, Merle received word that she had passed the test and was accepted as a wireless operator. Like all the other new recruits in the RCAF Women’s Division, she reported to Rockcliffe, Ontario, for her basic training. When she received her uniform, she was thrilled to wear the very first pair of shoes in her life that fit properly!

4-merle-rcaf-portraitMerle Trains as a WOG

After her training, Merle was sent to Number 1 Wireless School in Montreal. There she learned how to use Morse Code, how to signal using lights and flags, and theoretical facts such as the components of a radio.

In Morse Code, a “dot” or “dit” is the duration of one unit. A “dash” or “duh” is the duration of three units. Between words is the duration of seven units. Each letter is represented by a unique series — the letter A is represented by one dot and one dash; the letter B by one dash and three dots; and so forth. The dots and dashes are made by clicking a lever on a telegraph machine called a “straight key.”

5-morse-code-keyThe most familiar Morse Code signal is S.O.S., the signal for distress – three dots, three dashes, and three dots.

Eighteen words per minute of Morse Code was required to pass. Merle was able to send twenty-eight words per minute and receive twenty-two words per minute. There were fifty-two students in her class and only twenty-seven of them passed. Merle came third in the class.

Merle Meets the Love of Her Life

Hundreds of WOG recruits, both male and female, were housed on separate floors in a converted mental hospital, and shared a recreation room. One day Merle met a young man named Frank Taylor who asked her to go to a movie with him.

That was the beginning of a whirlwind courtship between the farmer’s daughter from Stonewall, Manitoba, and the farmer’s son from Lochaber, Nova Scotia. On May 26, 1943, Fred graduated as a wireless electric mechanic (WEM). His duties included the installation and repair of radios in various aircraft. He was posted to the British Commonwealth Air Training Program’s Number 3 Service Flight Training School in Calgary.

Merle Instructs Airmen in Saskatoon

Wanting to be closer to Fred, Merle asked for a position in Western Canada and was posted to Number 4 Service Flight Training School in Saskatoon, where she became a wireless instructor. Her students were air crew trainees from all over the British Commonwealth, mostly pilots. After their training, these young men would leave for England and join the war effort. (The lead image above features Merle instructing cadets.)

Merle’s students were in her class for six weeks at a time. They were expected to learn how to send five words a minute in Morse Code – a far cry from Merle’s 23 words per minute!

Merle Makes a Difficult Decision

Merle and Fred wrote to each other every single day. In July 1943 Merle travelled to Calgary by train where the young couple attended the Calgary Stampede, and purchased a diamond engagement ring for $99. They also set the date – August 2, 1943 – Merle’s 20th birthday.

Merle and Fred's wedding photo.
Merle and Fred’s wedding photo.

After Merle returned to Saskatoon, she received one of the coveted overseas postings. Although she longed to go to England, she followed her heart instead.

On her 20th birthday, she was married to Fred Taylor by a minister in Calgary. The newlyweds spent their honeymoon in a rented apartment before Merle returned to her duties in Saskatoon.

In October Merle discovered that she was pregnant. The military didn’t allow pregnant women to serve, so the air force informed her on December 8, 1943 that her services were no longer required.

Fred and Merle moved into a rented room in Calgary, and Fred continued his duties on the air base. In June 1944 Merle gave birth to her first son Sandy.

An Unusual Souvenir

Merle has one precious memento from her life in Calgary. As she explains: “One time Fred’s love of poker got him into trouble. He and some other airmen were caught playing penny ante during their noon break, and Fred was confined to barracks for a week.

“To pass the time, he asked me to send him some radio parts and he would build me a radio. I gathered up the parts at a local hardware store and sent them to the barracks on a bus. A week later Fred came home with a radio, complete with an attractive moulded cabinet that he had shaped out of a piece of plywood. He had cut my initial “M” into the opening for the speaker.

8-m-radio“The radio turned out to be quite useful, as it was almost immediately given to the landlady in exchange for a month’s rent!

“Thirty-five years later, I received a Christmas card from the landlady’s daughter. Included with the card was a note that she had recently died and left us the radio in her will!” It is one of Merle’s most prized possessions.

Fred Posted Overseas

On April 10, 1945, Fred received notice that he was being posted overseas.

The young family left three days later on a troop train for Halifax. Merle and baby Sandy were headed to Fred’s family farm at Lochaber to spend the rest of the war with Fred’s parents.

9-fond-farewellThe journey on a crowded troop train took five days and six nights. Naturally Merle was nervous about meeting Fred’s parents, but they welcomed her warmly. Accustomed to hard work, she adapted quickly to the usual farm chores. “After growing up on a stony farm in Manitoba, I thought this place was heaven,” Merle said. “There were trout in the river, deer in the woods, and wild strawberries in the fields.”

By the time Fred shipped out for England, the war was almost over. However, since he was one of the last men to arrive, he was also one of the last to leave. He returned to Halifax on January 16, 1946 after being away for nine months. Merle joined the excited crowd of women and children on the docks in Halifax to welcome him home.

After the War

Fred and Merle purchased their own 225-acre farm near Lochaber in 1946, complete with a house built in 1889. It was located in a broad valley formed by hills surrounding the long, narrow, Lochaber Lake.

Fred and Merle’s life together was busy and demanding, as they worked to create a profitable farm and raise a family. Four more sons – Lloyd, Keith, Sidney, and James – were born at three-year intervals. All five of Merle’s boys graduated from St. Francis Xavier University in nearby Antigonish.

Besides clearing more land and cutting firewood, they did whatever they could to raise more money, including shooting and skinning squirrels for a Winnipeg company, and growing commercial strawberries and blueberries.

They also operated two other businesses: manufacturing cultured marble products such as countertops and shower stalls; and growing commercial Christmas trees.

Tragedy struck in 1981 when Fred died of cancer at the age of 63. Merle ran the farm herself for a few years until her son Sid and his wife Barbara took over Glenhill Farm in 1986.

Merle’s Contribution to the Community

10-merle-with-quiltFor many years, Merle was a member of the Women’s Institute, the Curling Club, the Lochaber Seniors, the Lochaber United Church Choir, and the Christmas Tree Association.

Her basement is decorated with dozens of championship ribbons she won over the years for her baking, pickles, preserves and Christmas trees. She estimates that she has made 278 quilts, and donated most of them to the needy. She still assembles them using her old treadle sewing machine.

Merle has been honoured in many ways by her community, and in 2013, she received the Governor-General’s Caring Canadian Award, honouring volunteers who have made a significant contribution to their community and country.

Merle Still Loves Morse Code

11-merle-at-her-deskOne lasting result of Merle’s air force training is her ongoing love of Morse Code. In 1986 Merle passed the exams necessary to become a ham radio operator – receiving a mark of 100 percent on the Morse Code test.

She set up her radio system in her basement and to this day, she communicates with people around the world, both through voice and Morse Code. During the 1980s, she even won the provincial annual amateur radio competition.

Merle loves demonstrating her Morse Code to school groups and visitors. Anyone who walks through the door – including me – is asked to sit down and send her name using Morse Code. Using the written instructions she has hanging on the wall, I managed to send my name, to Merle’s satisfaction.

Merle, it was an honour to meet you. May you have a long and happy life.

Elinor FlorenceCareer journalist and best-selling author Elinor Florence, who now lives in Invermere, has written for daily newspapers and magazines including Reader’s Digest. She writes a regular blog called Wartime Wednesdays, in which she tells true stories of Canadians during World War Two. Married with three grown daughters, her passions are village life, Canadian history, antiques, and old houses. You may read more about Elinor on her website at

Elinor’s first historical novel was recently published by Dundurn Press in Toronto. Bird’s Eye View is the only novel ever written in which the protagonist is a Canadian woman in uniform during World War Two.

Her second book is titled My Favourite Veterans: True Stories of World War Two’s Hometown Heroes. Most of the veterans are men and women whom Elinor interviewed personally, and whose stories appeared previously on E-Know, including Cranbrook’s own Bud Abbott and Jim Ashworth of Invermere. To order your copy, email Elinor at [email protected] or call her at 250-342-0444.

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