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Third Christmas Apart

Toronto, Dec. 25, 1945
Being employed at the Toronto Transit Commission, Helen has had to work day, night, weekend and holiday shifts, as the buses and streetcars ran into the early hours of the morning. But she didn’t mind working odd hours, as it filled in the time until Harry’s return.
On Christmas Day, 1945, Helen worked the day shift and went over to Harry’s parents’ apartment for supper, arriving about 6:30 p.m.

“I’m sorry to be so late, I had to wait a long time for the Bloor car, they’re on a reduced schedule because of Christmas,” she exclaimed, taking off her coat.
“Not to worry, we’ve been snacking on peanuts and pretzels, and playing with David,” said Harry Sr.
Helen rushed over to the baby, who was sitting on a blanket near the tree. He gave a little squeal when he saw her.
“Merry Christmas my little man, and what did Santa bring you?” Helen said, giving him a kiss.
“He did quite well, didn’t you love,” said his mother Elaine. “A little toy elephant on wheels that he can pull when he starts to walk, some blocks, a jack-in-the-box, but he puts everything in his mouth! He must be getting a new tooth. We’ve been trying to distract him from the little Santas on the tree.”
Helen looked up at the felt and wire Santas perched jauntily on the branches of the most beautifully decorated tree she had ever seen. Large, colourful lights were set amidst star tin reflectors. Atop them sat fan decorations with blades that spun around from the heat of the lights. Finally, she felt that she was into the Christmas spirit.
“You just missed Ross – he ate early and went off to play with Bert Niosi at the Royal York,” said Ida, bustling in from the kitchen. “Dinner’s ready now, so let’s all sit down.”
Before digging in, they all pulled at the Christmas crackers, donned the funny hats inside, and read the jokes. Then they settled in to a sumptuous feast.
It was quite late when Helen got up to go home, but Ida wouldn’t hear of it. She insisted that Helen stay overnight, sleeping in Harry’s old room.

Toronto Dec. 26/45  12:00 noon
My Sweetheart,
Well, It’s all over honey, and I haven’t gone home yet, isn’t that terrible? You see, I worked yesterday, and I came here for dinner. When I talked of going home about eleven your Mother started coaxing me to stay for the night. I wasn’t going to and she started asking me for reasons why I wanted to go home and said this was my last chance, etc. etc. so I finally gave in. I tried out your bed, it’s pretty soft. All your suits are hanging up waiting for you. Gee! honey, it was a nice feeling to sleep where you’ll be sleeping.
            Did you enjoy yourself fairly well, sweet? I hope you went to Bournemouth  with the boys. We were thinking about you. I wish you could have seen the table when we sat down and had your share of the goodies. The turkey was very tasty. Did you have some?
            Your letter of 15th came Monday, I wanted one before Christmas. I bet you didn’t feel much like writing with your sore muscles. I do appreciate your effort. It’s no fun getting up at 6:30 is it? It shouldn’t take much longer than a week for the mail to get to you. You should be getting it all right now.
            I did well for presents – a scarf from you, a nightgown from your Mother and Dad, white slippers from Elaine and Ross and a box of powder from Santa. Mother made me a nice colored bag with wooden handles, also had a bridge table set, hankies, stationery and candy, so I did pretty good didn’t I?
            We had drizzly rain, just like you’ve been having, and two days before it was five below. Changes fast, doesn’t it?
            Those little kids sound cute singing carols. They have quite a nice choir at Wychwood [Presbyterian Church where she attends], and I enjoyed listening to the carols Sunday night.
            I go in at 4:30 so that’s how I happen to have the time off now.
Telegraph from Harry
[Dec. 20]  Oh yes, darling, your cable came yesterday [the cable sending her Xmas wishes] and it was dated 18th – quick service, wasn’t it? Thanks for your loving wishes. I can do with all of them from you.
            Well, so long my sweetheart, wouldn’t it be super if I could see you the first month of this year?  I love you and I’m yours. Helen

Bournemouth, December 23, 1945
Harry decided to go back to Bournemouth to see his bandmates for Christmas along with three others who had been sent to Torquay. As soon as the bus got in, they headed down to the Beach Café where their former dance band was playing.
During the break, Ken looked up to see Harry in the audience and went down to greet him.
“Good to see you Harry – how are things over at Torquay?”
“Not bad if you like construction work, that’s all there is to do over there.”
“Well the band hasn’t been the same without you. Listen, can you sit in with us on Christmas Day? We have to play at the Bowling Green and those songs don’t seem any good without you, especially ‘I’m in the Mood for Love.’”
“Sure, I’d love to. I hope I’m not too out of practice.”
“Good to see you Harry,” Smitty said as he came over to shake his hand.
Al Smith (left) & Harry Culley
“Smitty’s been in the sauce a bit too much lately – I think he misses his best buddy,” said Ken.
“Well, I don’t have anyone to drink with over in Torquay, so let’s make up for lost time,” said Harry.

Tues., Dec. 25/45 “R”Depot R.C.A.F. Band, Overseas
My Dearest Helen,
Needless to say, I’ve been thinking about you more than ever to-day darling, and the more I think about you the more lonesome I get. I’ve been putting the clock back five hours all day and have been trying to imagine what you would be doing. This has been the quietest Christmas I’ve spent over here as I had practically nothing to drink outside of a couple of mugs of beer at noon with my turkey. I scrounged two meals out of the Bowling Green at noon to-day and they were both wonderful. I never saw a menu like it, there was literally everything on it from soup to nuts and of course I made a pig of myself, but I was so hungry. I went over to the Westover to-night intending to have a dance but didn’t. I just sat around for a couple of hours and listened to the Streamliners – it’s a nice band. The weather was perfect this afternoon and I could hardly realize it was Christmas. I still can’t imagine Christmas without snow.
            I think I’ll stay in B’mouth until the 3rd of Jan. unless they wire me to come back before that. I have three jobs this week which will pay my expenses for the week, so that’s not bad.
            I wish I could give you some more news on when I expect to get back darling but I haven’t heard a thing. They’re closing all these stations up pretty soon now so until then I guess we’re frozen. Everybody will be glad to see Boundy gone this week, but I don’t know whether he’s to blame for the hold-up or not. The other fellows expect to leave next month some time. I’m afraid I’ll faint when they tell me I’m going home at last, I hope you don’t when you get the telegram sweetheart.
            Well, angel, I’m very tired to-night (maybe because I ate so much) so will close for now with all my love and kisses forever, yours Harry xxxxx

I'm in the Mood for Love, Song by Jimmy McHugh, lyrics by Dorothy Fields

I'm in the mood for love
Simply because you're near me.
Funny, but when you're near me
I'm in the mood for love.

Heaven is in your eyes
Bright as the stars we're under
Oh! Is it any wonder
I'm in the mood for love?

Why stop to think of whether
This little dream might fade?
We've put our hearts together
Now we are one, I'm not afraid!

If there's a cloud above
If it should rain we'll let it
But for tonight, forget it!
I'm in the mood for love.

Harry Culley (left), Ossie (centre) on board Queen Elizabeth
Canteen queue on board Queen Elizabeth


Last Letters and the Long Trip Home

After enjoying the Christmas break in Bournemouth with all of their old friends, Harry and the others were ordered back to Torquay, where they worked at labouring jobs, attended concerts, went sightseeing along the coast, and generally put in the time.
On January 19, they played their band leader Steve Vowden   going home.
RCAF bandleader Steve Vowden waving goodbye
and the others who were leaving, onto the train at the Torquay railway station. Harry was becoming despondent, seeing so many of his comrades
On January 21, Harry decided to take matters into his own hands. He arranged to have his leave in London so that he could go right to the top, to nail down when his turn would come. Four days later, at a meeting with Sergeant Worthylake, Harry learned he was a “cinch to go home.” Upon hearing the news, he rushed down to the Rainbow Corner, the American Red Cross Club at 23 Shaftesbury Ave. near Piccadilly Circus, and booked a call to Helen.

American Red Cross Club, January 26, 1946

“Is there a Harry Culley here?” the sergeant’s voice boomed through the room.
“Yes, that’s me,” Harry said excitedly.
“Your call is connected – you can take it in my office.”
Harry rushed over to the desk and lifted up the phone. The line crackled with static.
“Is that you Harry?”
Her voice sounded as far away as she actually was, but he knew it was Helen.
“Yes, it’s me – how are you darling?”
“Fine – but what about you – do you have any news?”
“Yes, I’ve just been approved to go home on February 15!”
“Oh, that’s wonderful. I can’t believe it.”
“Well it’s true – finally after all these long months. How is the weather there now?”
“It’s quite cold here, below zero in fact. Winter has set in.”
“Well, I don’t care how cold it is, you’ll keep me warm darling. I can’t wait to hold you in my arms again.”
“Me too. I hope it’s not too stormy on the north Atlantic – the ships have been taking about six days or so.”
“Yes, that sounds right. I can hardly hear you.”
 “I can’t hear you very well either, but I love you and I can hardly wait to see you again.”
“I love you too dear, bye for now.”

“R” Depot Band RCAF Overseas, Sunday, Jan. 27/46
My Darling Helen,
Well, it was a short three minutes wasn’t it sweetheart? They can communicate with the moon faster than it took them to get through to you but it was worth waiting six hours and £3 to hear your voice again. It was very clear but kept fading away and I couldn’t tell when you were finished speaking. I could tell you were very excited at the beginning darling. I put the original call in at 1 p.m. your time at your home but the lines weren’t operating; when New York accepted the call through there I gave them your business number. About 11:30 p.m. here I told the fellow I’d take the call from the Club and it wasn’t 10 minutes after I got here that they got through to you. After that I went straight up to bed with nothing but you on my mind darling. I dreamed everybody came over here to see me – that is everybody but you – how about that!
            Yes, when Worthylake told me I’d be leaving next month I rushed down to Shaftsbury Ave. to reserve a wire to you sweet. The operator said I could phone right away to New York but the Canadian wires were never dependable as I soon discovered.
            I’m leaving on the 9:30 to-morrow for Lincoln and I should be back the same night. I sure hope those books [the volumes of Household Words by Charles Dickens that he saw in a used bookstore there that we still have] are up there yet, but maybe I’m expecting too much. It’s much milder now so it won’t be any hardship travelling. I shivered when you told me it was below zero darling. I went for a short stroll along the embankment before the concert to-day and it was very nice but awfully lonely darling. I had a glimpse of St. Pauls from Ludgate Circus and went up Fleet St. to the Aldwich – but you don’t know one street from another do you darling. I do so much wish you were here angel. I was opposite St. Dunstans Church on Fleet and there are two iron figures in a tower who strike the hour and ½ hour on two bells and wiggle their heads. It was so funny to watch.
Well sweet I must close this before my eyes close before I finish. I heard you say you love me angel and I’ll never forget it as long as I live.
My love is yours.   Harry     xxxxxx

[This was Harry’s last letter from England.]

On January 31, Harry and the others returned to Torquay, which was practically deserted.
Waiting for the train at Thirsk
Corporal Hart had their clearances all signed and they were told to leave for Topcliffe the next day. “Oh Joy!” he wrote in his diary.
They loaded all their kit bags, and then left again on the midnight train back to London. They reached Paddington station at 5:30 a.m., spent four hours in the city, then departed from Kings Cross Station at 9:30 a.m. for Topcliffe, a village in North Yorkshire where an  RCAF airbase was located. They arrived at 4 p.m. They needed to go there to go through the official decommissioning process.
Boarding the train at Thirsk
In his diary, Harry wrote, “We drew blankets and walked 1 mile to AMQ 7 [I think the base was about 1 ½ miles from town.] The longest mile I ever walked, ready for bed at 6 p.m.” [as they wouldn’t have slept at all the previous night, except a bit on the train.]
On February 3, Harry wrote, “Parade at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Kit inspected.”

Toronto, Feb. 5, 1945
My Darling Harry,
I was happy all over again last night when I received yours of 27th, to know that you heard everything I said – I was so afraid you wouldn’t. I didn’t hear you say good bye darling. You never did like saying that, did you?
            I hope you get this in ten days, and also all the others before you leave. I don’t know just when to stop, because I haven’t heard it confirmed about 17th. It wouldn’t be any fun getting them [her letters] after you got back here, but I wouldn’t care about a trifling thing like that I guess. The last week I’ll be lost [i.e. the week he is on the ship and she cannot write to him] and going around in a daze. Well, I’m praying that you’ll get here safely, and that all will be well with us.
            They are planning to have “twice a day” mail delivery next month, so they’ll have all the ex-postmen back, not that it will do us any good at this late date. I could have had lots of your letters a day sooner if that had been in effect.
[Feb. 3] If you’re still going to leave on the date mentioned, I shouldn’t write after next Sunday, [Feb. 10], should I? After that, I’ll begin to realize that you’re really coming. It’s a week already since you phoned me; I was thinking of it last night.
Helen in her room on Winnett Ave.
            I’ve cleaned my room as best I could. It needs redecorating, that’s why it’s hard to see much improvement. I washed the curtains, waxed the floors, etc. I hope you find it comfortable enough to relax in and enjoy yourself – with me here of course! It’s a long walk, [from St. Clair] and I expect to hear complaints about that [from him].
            I hope they see fit to send you on the next trip of the Queen Elizabeth. It would be nicer to dock at New York than Halifax anyway, wouldn’t it? The Queen Mary is all set to bring British War Brides
            When you come in we’ll be as close to the front in Section “C” as we can get so look for us there. And remember, get there the quickest way possible.
            Yes, I guess I should have joined the W.D.’s and gone over there with you, honey, or maybe I could have stowed away. Anything to have shared some of the times you had, but I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.
            Do you have to reserve wires, sweet? Will you send me one when you’re leaving? Just before you go aboard. I’ll be waiting for it. I know I’ll single you out of that crowd so quickly – be seeing you.  Best love,
Helen xxxxx
[This was Helen’s last letter.]

On February 14 the bandmembers took the train from Thirsk, the nearest railway station, down to Southhampton, on the southern coast of England, where they boarded the Queen Elizabeth* ocean liner.
Sun deck, Queen Elizabeth
On February 15, a tug boat pulled them out of the docks. They took numerous photos on the various decks of the ships – the promenade deck,
the main deck, the boat deck (where the lifeboats and other equipment are stored), and lining up for meals.

*The Queen Elizabeth was a luxury ship that was used to transport troops during the Second World War. During that time, the ship carried 750,000 military personnel and sailed approximately 500,000 miles.

New York harbour

Six days later, on February 20, 1946, as Helen had predicted, they arrived in the harbour at New York City, where a ferry took them to their trains. Harry’s Aunt Catherine and cousin Betty met him at the station, the first relatives to greet him in North America after his long two and a half years away, and they had a visit, prior to his boarding the train to Toronto.


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