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West Van women's Air Force veteran to receive her medals, 77 years after the war

There are only a handful of veterans left who can share their stories. West Vancouver's Joyce McKay is now telling hers.

Joyce McKay was there.

At 18 years old, growing up in the North of England, McKay and her best friend volunteered to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, or WAAF, in 1942. At its height in 1943, more than 180,000 women were enlisted the WAAF in support roles on the ground that kept the Royal Air Force bombers and fighters in the air.

McKay was put to work as a driver at an airstrip near Alnwick, which the Royal Aai Force used to train dive bomber pilots for night missions.

In the years after, McKay didn’t tell a lot of stories from the war. She thought they would age her, her daughter Karen says. Now, 98 and living with ALS, McKay has lost most of her ability to speak, though with the help of her family, McKay can still share her thoughts with a pen and paper.

McKay recalls long days driving everything from staff cars to five-tonne trucks. When there were crashes at the training facility – and there were many – it was McKay’s job to quickly get RAF brass and investigators to the scene.

“It was something you had to do and was upsetting but you have to carry on with your duty. There was a war on,” she said.

Often, McKay would have been one of the last people the pilots spoke with before taking off on a mission from which their safe return was doubtful.

“I joked with a pilot about his warm jacket and he said ‘If I go down, you can have it.’ Well, he did go down,” McKay recalled.

Another pilot insisted that McKay hang onto his boots for safekeeping. When he did not return from his mission, she passed the boots on to her father, a veteran of the First World War.

There were moments of levity too.

Once, while driving fighter pilots back to base, one airman joked that he felt safer in a dog fight over London than he did riding in the back of her truck. Almost eight decades later, the anecdote still makes her chuckle. And she was friendly with the mess hall staff who would sometimes sneak her some extra tea or sugar, which were tightly rationed during the war.

Women like McKay were incredibly important to the outcome of the war, said Jerry Vernon, president of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society. At the time, women were, for the most part, not allowed to fly and the military was seeking out every able man for war.

“They really were brought in to do jobs that men didn’t have to do – parachute packing and being drivers and 101 different things,” he said. “They were employed to all sorts of duties like that where it wasn’t necessary to have a man at all and they really did a very good job of it.”

At the time, McKay said she didn’t feel like her contributions were terribly significant, particularly when others were sacrificing so much more. In retrospect, McKay said she understands the importance of WAAF veterans like herself to the war effort.

“Short answer is yes, and part of the importance I feel was in the importance of providing and showing support to all my fellow service people. Especially the aircraft pilots who really put their lives on the line,” she said. “I did my duty but wished that I would not have been in that position. I still feel a great sadness for all the men / people who lost their lives.”

McKay was formally discharged from the WAAF after the war, in 1946. By then, her military experience transformed her from a young woman unsure of herself and her direction in life to someone with confidence.

Like a lot of young Brits after the war, McKay felt a need to get away and see the world. She travelled around Australia, the United States, Bermuda, Egypt and Canada and settled eventually in West Vancouver where she and her husband Doug raised their family.

But McKay’s story of the war wasn’t quite over. As a veteran, she was entitled to war medals from the British government, ones that she never received.

Recently, her son Steven decided to rectify the situation. He contacted the British Ministry of Defence and went through the process of confirming his mother’s service history and arranged for the medals to be sent here.

On Monday, Nov. 14, McKay will be the guest of honour at a ceremony at West Vancouver municipal hall where RAF Wing Commander Adrian Mellors will formally present McKay with the medals she earned.

Mellors said he frequently has the privilege of presenting medals to veterans but McKay’s situation is something different.

“When I discovered that we had a [Second World War] veteran in Vancouver missing a war medal and other awards from her service during the war, changing my travel plans to come and present these to Joyce was a no-brainer,” he said.

The number of dignitaries planning to attend the event has been growing. Among them will be Royal Canadian Legion officials, Royal Canadian Air Force members, the mayor, and the British Consul General Thomas Codrington.

“Her contribution, and that of many other women in the UK, Canada and around the world, was critical to the Allies’ success and deserves our continued thanks,” Codrington said.

McKay was taken aback when she first learned about the medal, at first, not believing she was deserving of one. But she’s grown excited for the occasion. Asked by her daughter if it will be an honor for her, McKay nods knowingly.

“I was not aware that I was due to receive this medal, but it has now sunk in and I feel very honoured to be receiving it,” she said.

McKay is now just one of a handful of Second World War veterans still around who can share their story. It’s something she doesn’t mind doing, given the occasion.

“It is important to remember the war as a time when democracy and freedom were in serious threat and the West rose to the challenge and kept the world safe for people to decide their own destiny,” she said.

As Remembrance Day approaches, there’s another message she hopes others will take away from her story – one upholds the memory of young men she saw take off from Alnwick and not return.

“It is so important to have this solemn day as a way  to keep us thinking ‘never again.’ We must learn to avoid wars,” she said.