Aside from enlisting in the armed forces, thousands of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians also volunteered for various charitable organizations during the Second World War. These men and women provided for the social and physical welfare of troops serving at home and overseas. They helped recruit servicemen and women, supplied them with material comforts, cared for the injured, visited the bereaved, and raised large sums of money to buy military, medical, and other supplies.
Civilian morale also benefited from the existence of charitable organizations as individuals unable to enlist in the armed forces for medical or other reasons could still actively contribute to the war effort by joining the Women’s Patriotic Association, the Newfoundland Patriotic Association, the Red Cross, the YMCA, the St. John Ambulance Association, and similar groups.
Women’s Patriotic Association
Spearheading the large civilian volunteer movement in Newfoundland and Labrador was the Women’s Patriotic Association (WPA). This organization – which had been active during the First World War, but disbanded in 1921 – was revived by Lady Eileen Walwyn, wife of Governor Sir Humphrey Walwyn, at a public meeting in St. John’s on 11 September 1939. Its mandate was to support troops, assist the Red Cross and other charitable organizations, and provide for the country’s poor.
From an initial membership of 300 women (all of whom were based in St. John’s), the WPA steadily grew until the end of hostilities, when it boasted 409 branches scattered across the country. Most volunteers spent their time knitting sweaters, socks, gloves, hats, and other woolens, which the association distributed to troops serving overseas or at home. Between 1 October 1942 and 30 September 1943, for example, the WPA dispensed 65,562 woolen items. Volunteers also sent a variety of other supplies to troops overseas, including khaki handkerchiefs, razors, cigarettes, playing cards, and bathing trunks.
At home, the WPA did much to provide for the social and physical welfare of visiting or returning troops. Volunteers often donated clothes to survivors of torpedoed vessels who arrived in St. John’s, or transported them to a hospital. The association also provided meals, accommodations, and entertainment for servicemen and women at the Caribou Hut and other hostels.
Additionally, volunteers worked in coordination with other charitable organizations to support the war effort. Most prominent among these were the Red Cross and St. John Ambulance Association, which often delivered sweaters and other WPA woolens to troops overseas. The Red Cross also received regular donations of swabs, surgical dressings, surgeon’s masks, and other medical supplies from the WPA.
Supporting all of the WPA’s efforts were its many fundraising drives, which each year brought in roughly $60,000. Most of this came from door-to-door collections, government grants, and donations from local businesses. The association also operated a Silver Thimble Fund, which asked the public for pieces of silver to be sold on behalf of the war effort.
By the time hostilities ended, the WPA had helped approximately five million men and women. After the war, it continued to supply hospitals and visiting ships with medical supplies and woolen items until it eventually disbanded in 1948.
Newfoundland Patriotic Association
Like the WPA, the Newfoundland Patriotic Association (NPA), also known as the Men’s Patriotic Association, had been active during the First World War, but later disbanded. On February 26, 1940, a group of prominent citizens and politicians, including Governor Walwyn, revived the NPA at a public meeting in St. John’s. The group’s objectives were to help recruit volunteers for military service, to ensure that pensions, work programs, and other social services existed for returning servicemen and women, and to help care for dependents of troops fighting overseas.
During the war, the association became well-known for its creative and effective fundraising campaigns. The One Per Cent Scheme, for example, asked all full-time workers in Newfoundland and Labrador to contribute one per cent of their earnings to the NPA. A second campaign, the Fish-a-Man Fund, appealed to the country’s fishers for one fish each season. By the time hostilities ended, both programs had earned the NPA $300,000, which it put toward the war effort.
The Red Cross
Workers with the Canadian and British Red Cross Societies were also active in Newfoundland and Labrador during the war, and spent much of their time caring for the survivors of torpedoed vessels. It was demanding work – in the 18-month period between January 1942 and mid-1943, approximately 5,000 survivors arrived in St. John’s aboard Allied rescue vessels; many of these men and women needed immediate medical attention.
“Their tales were agonizing,” wrote Red Cross worker Mona Wilson in her wartime journal. “In one group of 53 men, 46 were hospital cases and 8 had to have feet amputated. They had spent thirteen days in open boats off the coast of Iceland before being picked up by a British naval ship.”
Throughout the war, Red Cross workers welcomed all survivors into the country’s ports, provided them with clothes, razors, shaving soap, brushes, and other supplies, and brought them to a hospital whenever necessary.
In addition to this, the Red Cross donated beds and operating supplies to local hospitals, offered home nursing and first aid classes, and assisted at blood donor clinics. Volunteers were also quick to respond in the case of emergency, and on December 12, 1942, helped dozens of burn victims following a fire at the Knights of Columbus Hostel in St. John’s. The organization also arranged movie nights, picnics, and other forms of entertainment for wounded soldiers convalescing in local hospitals.
Following the war, the Canadian Red Cross withdrew from Newfoundland and Labrador, but donated its warehouse space and St. John’s office to the WPA. It also divided all of its excess medical supplies among local hospitals.
Aside from the WPA, NPA, and Red Cross, numerous other charitable organizations also worked in Newfoundland and Labrador to support the Allied war effort. The YMCA, for example, opened a hostel in downtown St. John’s for servicemen, and periodically took orders from visiting ships for WPA woolens. The St. John Ambulance Association helped deliver supplies to troops fighting in war zones and to Newfoundland and Labrador prisoners of war being held overseas. The Girl Guides also participated by wrapping Christmas gifts for hospitalized servicemen and women.
Despite the many stresses of war, the volunteer movement in Newfoundland and Labrador did much to unite all parts of the country, as hundreds of communities and thousands of civilians worked together for the common goal of supporting the country’s soldiers, sailors, and airmen.
Article by Jenny Higgins with additional research from Sarah Doran. ©2007, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site.