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Monday, April 17, 2006

Caribbean Woman Broke the Color Barrier in the RAF

By Jim Farrell

A slim, elegant woman in a Royal Air Force officer's uniform entered a tea room in the British town of Windermere. All conversation stopped. Teacups froze in mid-air.

In 1943, female officers were a familiar sight, but Joyce Cyrus was black.

"When I walked in, I was quite dark because it was summer," Cyrus recalls, a sly smile crossing her face. "You could have heard a pin drop. They were curious. Because of my colour, they wondered if I could handle a knife and fork."

Ignoring the stares of the good ladies of Windermere, Cyrus ordered tea and toast. When it arrived, she picked up her knife and spread jam across her toast.

Cyrus is now 84 and a resident of St. Joachim's Manor, a downtown retirement home. A half- century ago, she may have been the only black officer in the Royal Air Force. Except for the occasional stare from otherwise-polite townsfolk and the rare cry of "momma, there goes a darkie" emitted by an amazed British child, she says she was treated the same as every other officer.

Her life story is a unique blend of adventure, opportunity and frustration. She was born in Panama, the child of a Trinidadian mother and a Panamanian pharmacist. Her father died while she was still a child so her mother moved the family to Port of Spain, Trinidad.
After a sheltered life of cricket games and clay-court tennis in what was then a pleasant and tolerant British colony, she moved to New York City.

"The next step was a job, which was then rather limited to certain races," Cyrus recorded in her memoirs.

"Yours truly ended up by scrubbing a floor as a domestic."
In Trinidad, the Cyrus family had hired help to do that sort of work, so she wasn't very good at it.

On Dec. 7, 1941, news of the bombing of Pearl Harbour filled the front pages of the New York papers. Cyrus was a citizen of a British colony and she wanted to do her duty and enlist, but first she had to get a British passport. That took months. It wasn't until Jan. 2, 1943, that she boarded a steamer, part of a convoy of 10 ships, and sailed to England, where she joined the Royal Air Force.

Cyrus was soon contacted by the British Broadcasting Corporation and asked to participate in occasional radio broadcasts that would be beamed to the West Indies.

"A young West Indian lady, who was the head of this particular section at the BBC, took me in hand and gave me the initial background.
"It was the most thrilling episode of my life."
Some of Cyrus's friends back in Trinidad were amazed when they tuned into the BBC and heard her voice. They were more amazed when they heard she had joined the RAF.
The RAF selected Cyrus to be a safety-equipment worker. After learning how to parade, salute and pack and maintain parachutes, she was assigned to 139 (Jamaica) Squadron, based in Upwood, England.
It was a prestigious posting. At the beginning of the war, the squadron had been based in France, where it lost virtually all of its planes and most of its aircrew. It was then based in England and later Malta before moving back to England where its obsolescent Blenheim bombers were replaced with 640-km/h Mosquitoes, the finest light-bomber of the Second World War.
The British, Australian and Canadian bomber crews in the squadron soon bestowed nicknames on the black woman who had been posted to their base.
Behind her back, they occasionally referred to her as "the brown bombshell," Cyrus says. To her face, they called her "Trinnie." At 26, she was older than most of the men.
That earned her a measure of respect, but there was more to come.

Within months, Cyrus applied for officer training. After a knee-trembling interview before six stern RAF officers, she was accepted. During her officer's training, her biggest problem proved to be her Caribbean exuberance.

"I did have to control my manner of expressing myself with my hands," she later wrote in her memoirs. "Latin Americans and negroes always have gestured a great deal with eyes, hands and elevation of voices to get across their points. I fought that temptation by holding my hands behind my back."

For the remainder of the war, Cyrus helped represent the British West Indies on the BBC and at official functions such as a 1944 wreath-laying at the Cenotaph in London.
She remained in the RAF until 1946, then returned to Trinidad where she trained as a medical records librarian. She worked in Trinidad, Germany, the U.S. and England before settling in Canada.

(Reprinted from the Edmonton Journal of October 29)

Posted by jebratt :: Monday, April 17, 2006 :: 0 comments

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