During the Second World War, Isabel McDonald decoded encrypted enemy communications in Canada at a Pacific Coast outpost of Bletchley Park, the famed code-breaking station in Britain. Rather than fielding German messages, the listening post at Gordon Head, part of Saanich, a suburb of Victoria, was established to intercept Japanese radio traffic. Ms. McDonald, who took the surname Mauro when she married after the war, died recently, just four days shy of her 96th birthday.
"As a wireless telegrapher, she was specially trained to intercept high-speed encrypted Japanese radio messages in Morse Code,” her husband, Rudy Mauro, said. “She believed she was selected for the job because she was a trained elementary school teacher before enlistment. She and her classmates knew from the typewriters they worked with that they would be doing intelligence-related work.”
Like their counterparts at Bletchley Park, the dozen members of the Women’s Royal Canadian Navy Service who worked at the Gordon Head facility signed the Official Secrets Act.
"They were reminded daily never to speak to anyone about what they did. They worked in shifts, mostly at night. The work location was secret, and they were transported there after dark in canvas-covered trucks,” Mr. Mauro said. His wife told him many stories about her time there during the war.
The facility at Gordon Head, known as a special-wireless station, opened in June, 1940. It was fully operational when Japan entered the war the following year after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The messages that Ms. McDonald and her colleagues captured and decoded there were valuable not only for their content, but also because they allowed the Royal Canadian Navy to identify the broadcasts’ points of origin.
One of the most dramatic periods at the Gordon Head facility was when Japanese forces occupied two of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, from 1942 to 1943, and were driven out by a joint American-Canadian force.
"Canada’s West Coast was an operational theatre during the war, especially when Japanese forces were as close as they were when they were occupying the Aleutian Islands,” says Steve Harris, chief historian of the Department of National Defence. “There was a need for secure communications to allied ships, as well as reading enemy traffic.”
Ms. McDonald left the Navy in December, 1945, and the Gordon Head facility closed in 1946. The building now stands on a corner of the campus of the University of Victoria. In 2005, her collection of personal service memorabilia, including the training manual for her Kana keyboard – which translates Japanese characters into Roman letters – was chosen for display to mark the Year of the Veteran at the Military Communications and Electronics Museum in Kingston. Her collection is now a permanent part of the museum.
“Isabel was trained to read the special Kana Morse symbols that constituted the Japanese naval radio language,” said Annette Gillis, curator of the museum, by e-mail. "The Station was a part of an extensive network whose efforts in code-breaking and other forms of radio intelligence made a major contribution to the successful outcome of the war. It monitored foreign diplomatic and other radio transmissions, and, most importantly, those of the Japanese Navy. This activity provided both direction-finding information and intercepted messages, first to the Royal Navy and later to the United States Navy primarily, as well as to Canadian Naval Service Headquarters.”
Ms. McDonald was deeply affected by the war, in particular, the death of two first cousins who joined the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). She helped her husband write a history of RCAF airmen from the North Bay area who died during the war, and she wrote profiles of her cousins.
Isabel May McDonald was born in North Bay, Ont., on Aug. 26, 1922. Her father, George, was a prosperous hardware merchant and her mother, the former Edna Milne, came from a family that owned the Milne Lumber Co. in Northern Ontario. Isabel went to King George Public School in North Bay and graduated from Normal School, the old name for a teacher’s college.
She taught school for a short while in Kiosk and Cache Bay, two remote Northern Ontario towns. She then attended business college, where she learned touch typing, which was an essential skill for her wartime work. In 1942 she joined the Women’s Royal Canadian Navy Service (WRCNS, whose members were known informally as Wrens) and trained in Galt, Ont., and Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., before being posted to the secret outpost in British Columbia.
After the war, she returned to Ontario, studying at the University of Toronto as a war veteran. After her graduation, she worked for many years at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) and lived in Uranium City, Sask., and Vancouver. She and her husband lived in various places in Ontario before returning to her hometown, North Bay, where she lived for the rest of her life.
She and her husband shared an interest in history. They spent time visiting graveyards in southern Ontario looking for information on the Milne and McDonald families for her family tree.
Mr. Mauro also had a deep connection to Northern Ontario: He was born in Callander, Ont., the birthplace of the Dionne quintuplets, where his father was a railway telegrapher with the CNR.
The couple once made a trip to Labrador to retrace the route of early explorers. Ms. Mauro was a keen bridge player and investor, and had many hobbies. For her work at Gordon Head, she received a Bletchley Commemorative Badge in 2016.
Ms. McDonald, who died at a hospital in London, Ont., on Aug. 22, leaves her husband, Rudy, and her nephew, Grant Lake, and his family. She was predeceased by her sister, Ruth Lake.