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My Memories of the Soo during the War, 1939-1945

Gene Motluk for local2 sault ste. marie
July 22nd, 2012 at 1:58pm

U.S. Army

U.S. Army
Credit: Gene Motluk

U.S. Army

Credit: Gene Motluk

I was ten years old when Canada declared war on Germany in 1939. Although many of the young men and teenaged boys of eligible age that I knew were joining the armed forces and leaving for Halifax, Camp Borden or Toronto, I wasnít aware of what war really looked like since it was over in Europe. Everything was pretty normal in the Soo. I did notice, however, that more people were getting jobs at Algoma Steel especially young women like Stella Chudoba and Ann Kowalchuk from our George Street area. Now this was new where women were getting the non-traditional jobs that were normally reserved for men. I was also made aware that the Soo Locks was off limits.

It wasnít until 1942 that the war became more realistic and a possible threat to me, my family and friends. The United States was now at war and the U. S. Army was assigned the job of keeping the Soo Locks on both sides of the border secure. I was thirteen when a contingent of soldiers arrived and was setting up camp on the Algoma Steel Corporation property near Buckley. Two of my friends and I jumped on our bicycles and headed over the high line bridge onto Algoma Steel property. The camp of tents was being set up when we arrived and the soldiers were as happy to see us as we were to see them as they passed out chocolate bars and gum. They showed us their weapons and asked us what there was to do around the Soo. We couldnít enlighten them since we were only familiar with a few blocks around our street.

Barrage Balloon

Barrage Balloon
Credit: The Sault Ste. Marie Museum

U.S. Army

Credit: Gene Motluk

The following spring, barrage balloons were visible in several locations surrounding the Soo Locks. I can only pinpoint three locations. One was on Cathcart Street near the CPR tracks which I could see from my home. The second was on the east side of the Canadian Lock and the third was near the ACR Administration Building. The barrage balloon was located approximately where the existing Scotiabank is in the Station Mall. That area was built up several years earlier by molten slag from Algoma Steel that was dumped into the St. Maryís River to extend the shoreline to the south. The first barrage balloon was designed with four fins on the back. They appeared to be unstable when the breeze became a bit brisk. On two different occasions, I saw them swaying back and forth ultimately crashing into the ground. Later, shorter, stubbier balloons with three fins in the end were used with greater success.

Residents of the Soo were exposed to night time air raid drills similar to those experienced in the British Isles. All automobiles were required to have blue cardboard headlamp covers that had slots in them reducing the illumination so the enemy aircraft would not spot them. I recall one such air raid drill that was held just after 10 p.m. The air raid sirens wailed signalling that the enemy aircraft were approaching. All street lights went off. Blinds and curtains had to be drawn to prevent any light from escaping. I was standing with my parents in our porch observing the darkness all around us. A fire truck with sirens shrieking and red cardboard lamp covers on its head lamps drove by on Queen Street. Suddenly a loud thud was heard and the fire truck stopped. We rushed to the corner to see what had happened. Two firemen with their flashlights shining were bent over a man on the ground. They carried him into our house and called an ambulance. Apparently he was walking from work and decided to cross the street. He did not see the fire truck and assumed that the fire truck siren was an air raid siren on the tower. The ambulance arrived and drove him to the hospital. In the meantime, an aircraft was flying overhead and suddenly six searchlights beamed into the sky moving back and forth scanning the night sky for aircraft. Several minutes later, the all clear sounded and the lights returned to the city.

One Sunday morning I was awakened by a rumble of trucks outside, but then I dozed off again. I was awakened by my mother about forty-five minutes later and she called me over to the kitchen window. Everything on the other side was white like a heavy fog. I could hear the roar of engines and a hissing noise. Some of the white fog was seeping in through slightly opened windows and under our outside door. My parents explained to me that itís just a smoke screen trail to cover the Soo Locks should an air attack occur during the day. I rushed to my parentsí bedroom which was on the north side of the house facing Queen Street. As I looked out the window, I could see between streams of smoke, trucks and trailers with compressors. After the trial, I could see the trucks lined up all along Queen Street beyond James Street to the west and beyond Hudson Street to the east.

Another significant event that is locked in my mind was the CPR freight train that used to pass across Queen Street toward the U. S. every night between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. Most nights it put me to sleep with the clitter clatter of the wheels over the railway tracks. Then, on October 7, 1941, the train made its last trip for some time. As the freight train moved over the trestle along the Abitibi Paper Company, over the swing bridge at the Canadian Soo Locks and over the bridges spanning the Soo rapids it approached the jack knife bridge over the canal leading to the American Soo Locks. The jack knife bridge was not yet in its final position and locked when the engine started to cross over. The engine and several cars fell into the canal.

Algoma Theatre

Algoma Theatre Lobby and Confection Bar 947
Credit: Archives of Ontario

In 1945 while attending the Soo Collegiate, I worked two nights a week at the Algoma Theatre assisting a student friend, Dorn MacLeod in changing the Theatre marquee which displayed the movie attractions over the next three or so days. People attended the theatre a lot in those days especially Friday and Saturday nights. They didn't have TVs, VCRs, computers, MP3's nor cell phones so the theatres were the big attraction. Long queues formed from the inside entrance door, past the outside door and around and down the sidewalk, two or three abreast all the way to East street. It was times like this that the job had some perks. I felt quite important as I walked by all the people lined up along the street and then as I approached the entrance door, I tipped my hand to my forehead to the door attendant and said, "Hi Joe!" and then entered by walking by the first two or three couples at the front of the line.

"Who's he?" I could hear someone ask.

I didn't get paid for the job, but I could come in and watch any movie. There were numerous good one's like "Mildred Pierce," "Double Indemnity," and musicals like "Meet Me in St. Louis" and my favourite, "The Jolson Story." I saw it seven times.

Jack Knife Bridge Collapses in Soo Michigan Locks

Jack Knife Bridge Collapses in Soo Michigan Locks
Credit: Archives

I remember one night in particular during that summer. It was August 14, 1945. Just after 9:00 P.M. Dorn and I had just brought out the tall ladder and we stood it up along the west side of the marquee. I decided to go up and take down the aluminium cast letters while Dorn went back in to bring the letters for the new feature. As I stood near the top of the ladder, I placed three or four of the cast aluminium letters on the ladder tray when I noticed four or five persons that had just emerged from Capy's Grill down the street to the west of the theatre. They were loud and rambunctious, swinging their arms and shouting a lot. As they approached the ladder, they began shouting at me. I couldn't understand what they were saying. They then began to shake the ladder. I started to shout at them to cut it out. I was afraid that they would topple the ladder which was about twelve to fourteen feet high. I started to climb down, but they left before I got to the ground. Dorn arrived with the cast aluminium letters on a four wheeled trolley. Two or three other groups were now coming out from I don't know where, hollering and shouting. Whether they knew some of the people walking or to get them off the road I didn't know. Another group passed by us and we asked, "What's going on?"

"Japan has surrendered. The war is over. It's VJ Day."

Soon the streets and sidewalks were full of people, cheering, hugging and kissing. It was pandemonium. Dorn and I decided to move the ladder out of the way and return to the job after the crowd calmed down.

"Wow! This will be a night to remember!" I said to Dorn.

We finally got back to the job after eleven P.M.


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