Leonard Braithwaite (Primary Source)

Leonard Braithwaite served with the Canadian Air Force as a Safety Equipment Operator from 1943 to 1946. However, he was rejected multiple times at a Toronto recruiting station because he was Black. Read and listen to the story of how Braithwaite overcame adversity and served overseas.

Please be advised that Memory Project primary sources may deal with personal testimony that reflect the speaker’s recollections and interpretations of events. Individual testimony does not necessarily reflect the views of the Memory Project and Historica Canada.

Leonard Braithwaite

"I started to go down to Bay and Wellington. That’s where the recruiting station was. The first time the guy, the recruiting officer, just said, “No, sorry, we don’t take you people.”"


I killed no Germans. I had – no, no, no, you know how these guys like to boast and all that. I was ground crew and I couldn’t get into the aircrew because I had myopia [nearsightedness], that’s why I wear glasses.

I found that, like everybody else, all my friends were joining up, etc., etc., and as a young man, I thought, well, “what would I like to do?” But then I thought about it and being very good in math and that kind of thing, at high school, I thought, well, I’d like to be a navigator. That’s why I wanted to be in the air force. I was sort of surprised. I started going down in, oh, the latter part of, just after – I’m trying to think of the Dieppe [Raid on 19 August 1942] – at that time, around then, I started to go down to Bay and Wellington [in Toronto]. That’s where the recruiting station was. The first time the guy, the recruiting officer, just said, “No, sorry, we don’t take you people.” I came home and I spoke with my dad. He said, “well, you should know” – I was just a kid then, you know – but he said, “In the first war” – he came to Canada from Barbados just around the time of the first war – and he said, “black people had a very difficult time joining the army in those days.” But, in any event, that’s the first time he turned me down.

I was determined and I used to take the streetcar over to Bay Street and take the Bay car down to Wellington, get off and go in there once a month, all through 1942. Around the fall, I finally convinced somebody to let me fill out – in those days, you had to fill out an application – you have all of this by the way – and you fill out the application and you bring it back, etc. But they refused me. This went on every month until, oh, I would say in January I went back again, and just after Christmas, I decided, well, I’m going to keep trying. The recruiting officer had been changed and it was a Ukrainian fellow that – he was an officer, now – but he was from the west. He told me that, it was something I didn’t know, he told me that Ukrainian people and Polish, and the settlers in the west were treated just the same way, which surprised me. He said, as far as he was concerned… and he said, “Well, if you have the form, etc., etc.,” which he did, and I was tested, etc., and oh, he said, “Well, you can’t, I’ll let you in, but you can’t be aircrew because of your myopia, which is short sight.” And that’s basically how I got into the air force and sworn in, I think, in March [1943] and from there on in, that was it.

Mr. Braithwaite with comrades.

First of all, the bombers were in little small groups spread all over the place. It wasn’t one big station, etc. So I’m trying to think of the name of the – we went, we got off, we did disembark in Greenock, Scotland. The train took us all the way down to Bournemouth [RAF Hurn airfield] and then after few days, that was a manning depot area [for personnel concentration] apparently, another train took us all the way back up to Yorkshire where the Canadian air force was stationed, No. 6 Bomber Group. And you didn’t, when you had just come by yourself – well, there was three or four different fellows on the posting – and it’s very, well, it’s confusing, you don’t know where you are. You haven’t the slightest idea what’s happening. You get off the train – I’m trying to think of the name of the station, “Lewden”? But, anyway, it was one of the stations.

And then from the station, you get posted – when I say posted, some truck takes you to the little small [air station] where there’s maybe five or six – I can’t remember how many bombers – but they had satellite stations all around, because apparently, in the first part of the war, the Germans had bombed England. So this is scattering the airplanes around in little sections was for, there was a reason. But, in any event, it was just like after you got it settled, it was just almost like working in a factory. I mean, it’s a job.

Archival Material

Leonard Braithwaite 
Leonard Braithwaite 
Mr. Braithwaite with two fellows in England.

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