RCAF Station Winnipeg, Manitoba, May 1955. Nursing Sister (F/O) Marian Neily. She is one of the RCAF's Para Rescue nurse stationed at Winnipeg during International Airshow.  PL-87666

                       A Tribute to the Brave Men and Women of Para Rescue

In 1944 the Canadian government initiated its first efforts in creating a national search and rescue effort. This was placed under the authority of the Royal Canadian Air Force and mainly involved assisting victims of air and marine accidents. 

The concept, as developed in Canada, can be traced back to the efforts of WW1 fighter Ace Captain Wilfred Reid "Wop" May. After returning to Canada after the war, May became a talented bush pilot. He was soon given the position of General Manager of the No. 2 Air Observer School in Edmonton. This school operated from 5 August 1940 until 14 July 1944. Canadian Airways ran the school until 1942 when Canadian Pacific Airways took over. May remained manager during this period. In addition to his earlier days flying over remote areas of Northern Canada, his experiences at the School prompted May to fight to establish a search and rescue system. He was involved with countless searches for crashed aircraft in remote and inhospitable areas of Canada's vast northern forests and tundra. May knew that any chance of survival in such areas meant a rapid and appropriate response. 

To achieve this, a special team of experts had to be raised and trained. He also knew that while some types of rescue could be achieved by landing aircraft near the site of an accident, other methods had to be developed to reach areas where planes could not land. This primarily meant hilly, mountainous terrain or forests.  Therefore those taking on this challenging proposal had to be trained to drop by parachute. To begin, May sent two civilian volunteers from his school to the US Smoke Jumper School at Missoula, Montana. There they not only learned basic parachuting but also the more hazardous skills of parachuting on to forests and mountains. This meant learning how to mountain-climb and rappel. Smoke Jumpers were experts in safely extricating themselves from tree tops and branches to the forest floor. 

Upon graduating from the pioneering Smoke Jumper School in the US, they returned to Edmonton to train additional personnel. Soon a four man Para-Rescue team was established. In 1944 these efforts were recognized by the Government and it was established that Canada should raise a national search and rescue capability. The authority was placed under the Royal Canadian Air Force and the four civilian volunteers were soon in RCAF uniform. In 1945 the first Para-Rescue course (Rescue Specialist Course 1) took place in Canada. In 1947 a course of 21 more volunteers were trained at Jasper and stationed at points across Canada. Graduating from the expanding course members were permitted to wear an unofficial Para-Rescue Badge.  

In an unusual move, the RCAF added the talents of female nursing personnel to the Para-Rescue teams. This was unusual because women had never really been permitted to undertake such hazardous duties. The training involved was, and still is, considered some of the toughest training in existence and only fell short of combat itself. The nearest comparison is the training of women para-militaries for Special Operations Executive during WW II. Sadly, unlike their SOE counterparts, female Para-Rescue personnel are practically unknown to Canadian history. The first women to graduate from the course proudly wore the unofficial Para-Rescue badge in 1951. They were known as “Para-belles”. 

An officially authorized Para-Rescue badge was not available until December of 1953. This badge did not retain the word RESCUE, found on the unofficial badge; it only had the acronym R.C.A.F. embroidered below a St. Edward's Crown. Below that is an open parachute and outstretched gold coloured wings.

Today the heroes of Para-Rescue (Search and Rescue Technicians or SAR Techs) continue their vital life-saving work. 

Although the RCAF did not acquire the Douglas C-47 Dakota/DC-3 until 1943, it mainly functioned as a workhorse of air freight. The Lockheed Lodestar was used for airborne training and operations and aircraft like the Norseman for rescue. The Dakota was not widely used for airborne and rescue work until the post war years. This was mainly due to the backlogs of orders for the vital aircraft. Throughout WW II there was a shortage of transport aircraft for all allied nations.  LAC, PL-77813 & PL-77817

The Noorduyn Norseman, an 8 seat aircraft first flew in 1935 and became Canada's premier bush aircraft in the 40's and early 50's. It performed well on wheels, floats and skis. It was replaced by the CSR-123 de Havilland OTTER in 1953. The Norseman was retired in 1957. Both the Norseman and Otter were extensively used by rescue crews. The Norseman pictured above was converted to carry stretchers.

In Memory of One Brave and Selfless Lady

                      An RCAF Nursing Sister in the classroom

Photos (Copyright) and Info Courtesy of Ruth's Daughter Karen

Station Trenton, 11 March 1954, Northern Ontario. Nursing Sister Ruth Kelly with Station Medical Officer attends to a member of a simulated crashed aircraft. PL87149

Station Trenton 17 March 1954. Nursing Sister Ruth Kelly pulls in her chute after a practice jump.

The Boeing Vertol H-21 was acquired by the RCAF in 1954 specifically for search and rescue. It remained in service until replaced by the Boeing CH-113 Labrador/Voyageur in 1963. PL 87401

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Right- Para Rescue Jumper beside Norseman with walkie-talkie

Land Search Equipment Readiness Room RCAF Station Patricia Bay, British Columbia, 7 September 1944. PGB 5302

Air Sea Rescue Equipment Readiness Room RCAF Station Patricia Bay, British Columbia, 7 September 1944. PBG 5301

Station Trenton, 11 March 1954 F/O Nursing Sister E.R. Kelly at RCAF Hospital Trenton checks  her jump mask after a safe landing. The Smoke Jumper suit and helmet were designed to prevent being cut or impaled on tree branches. Note high collar to protect the neck and cage on the leather helmet to protect the face.

                                           Rescue HQ at Trenton

The Sikorsky H-5 first flew in 1946 and was acquired by Canada at the end of the 1940's for training and rescue work.

Note the wearing of the US Parka Fur Trimmed as worn during the war by the 1st Special Service Force.

Ruth passed away on 8 March 2016 just shy of her 90th Birthday. A true inspiration to women everywhere.

Station Trenton, 29 March 1954 Prior to search, the para rescue team study a map of the area assigned to them. They are from left to right, LAC W.A. Cameron, LAC "Bud" Saunders, LAC "Bert" Tremblay, F/O Nursing Sister E.R. Kelly and LAC C.L. Hegadorne.

Getting suited up at Trenton in the rescue equipment room.

RCAF Station Winnipeg, Manitoba, May 1955. Nursing Sister (F/O) Marian Neily. She is one of the RCAF's Para Rescue nurses stationed at Winnipeg during the International Airshow. Note the knife at the ready to cut tree branches, shroud lines etc. to get out of a tree and for survival purposes.   PL-87667

Sportsman Show Toronto, Ontario 17 March 1955. Display put on by the RCAF Para and Ground Rescue personnel  from various units throughout the RCAF. Long shot of half of the display. Note the colours of the parachute rescue parachute. These colours were used on the parachute embroidered on to the modern search and rescue technician insignia. PL-87494

RCAF Survival Kits dated May 1944.

Air-Sea Rescue Display circa early/mid 1950's showing Para-Rescue team jumping from a Grumman HU-16 Albatross ( Canadian CSR-110)



Sportsman Show Toronto, Ontario 17 March 1955. F/O Cliff Hatch Flying Instructor with No.1 Flying Training School and  OC Ground Rescue at RCAF Station Centralia with LAC Joe McMullan Pararescue at RCAF Survival Edmonton discuss an over and under shot gun used in one of the dropable survival kits used by rescue throughout Canada.  PL-87502 Herron

Mr. Alfred "Wop" May with Bellanca "Pacemaker" aircraft of Commercial Airlines Ltd. delivers air mail along the Mackenzie River N.W.T. in 1930. This photo shows the extremes encountered by these brave pilots and thus the need for some sort of rescue system. Post Office Dept. /LAC/ PA-059984

The following story by Jill St. Marseille was published on the Royal Canadian Air Force Website (http://www.rcaf-arc.forces.gc.ca/en/history-heritage/index.page) and tells the story of Canada's first female Para-Rescue graduate.

                                                                              Grace MacEachern, Para-belle
                                           by Jill St. Marseille
Grace "Gracie" MacEachern (née Gagnon) was a pioneer for women at a revolutionary time for women's roles and rights. She was a ‘para-belle’, a romantic term coined for pararescue nurses from the 1950s in the Canadian Forces. That not only made her an asset in redefining gender roles, but also in what would become modern day search and rescue (SAR) in Canada.

In the words of her son, Bruce MacEachern, a major in the Air Force, “she really blazed a trail for women and for the Air Force itself.” Her career as a nurse started as a nursing sister for the Grey Nuns in the Pembroke, Ont., area. Following the death of her first husband, Cranston Woodward, she enrolled the Canadian Forces in 1951, where she received a commission as a pilot officer just prior to joining the pararescue course at the age of 32.

The pararescue course offered in the 1950s was attended by nurses and doctors, who at the time were the only medical personnel to jump out of airplanes on rescue missions. And they did so on a volunteer basis. The course was the foundation, and at that time the only equivalent to today's vigorous and demanding SAR technician training course. (It was only a month long, in contrast to the current one-year training course). Either way, says search and rescue technician Master Warrant Officer Gavin Lee, “you’ve got to give a hats off to whoever makes it through [the
training]. It’s tough.”

While the ground-breaking achievements of all the para-belles are worthy of commemoration, Mrs. MacEachern is especially noteworthy for the fact that she is the first woman to do an operational jump in pararescue. This first jump was in Mount Coquitlam, B.C., one month after she took the pararescue course, to rescue a geologist. She ended up landing in a tree and, due to an ill fitting harness, "she was left dangling by one foot and it took her about two hours to right herself and get down. She used her let down line, or nylon rope, which was 100 feet [30.4 metres] long, however it was still 20 feet [6 metres] short. She had dropped her gloves during the time that she was trying to right herself, and on the descent down the line she got severe rope burns on her hands," said her son.

It was dark by the time the 95-pound (43 kg) woman reached the ground but she carried her two kit bags, which weighed 60 pounds [27 kg], up the mountain. She had to spend the night in the wild as she could no longer see anything. She caught up with with the other rescuers in the morning and the geologist that they were rescuing was saved in the end. The equipment that the para-belles used was crude; the helmets had cages (much like hockey masks), the boots were similar to those worn by Boy Scouts, the harnesses did not fit the smaller frames of the women, and “the parachutes were basically enough to get you to the ground,” said MWO Lee.

“[The parachutes] weren’t the big competition chutes that we have now, that get you safer in tighter places,” he continued. “You were going to get to the ground quite hard. It was antiquated equipment at the time; and in these times no one would jump in that stuff.”

Mrs. MacEachern eventually had to have several surgeries as a result of numerous jumps, including three knee replacements and a spinal fusion.She left the Forces in 1955 for a mission of a different kind. She was going to remarry and at the time women could not be married and be nurses - so she pursued a career in the public health sector.

In 1965, she moved to Trenton, Ont. She retired from public health in the 1970s, but she and her husband continued to visit veterans and the elderly in homes from Kingston to Brighton, Ont.
"She was really a caring individual, very determined, bordering on stubborn, and she really had an adventure side to her," said her son. "Nursing came first. She was determined to go and do some trailblazing.”

Grace MacEachern passed away on Feb. 17, 2010, seven months shy of her 90th birthday.For her funeral, six SAR techs in their orange jump suits were her pallbearers and 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron from 8 Wing Trenton lined up to pay her homage. She was well respected in the SAR community and affectionately known as ‘Gracie’ to many.MWO Lee attended her recent funeral in Trenton, where he overheard people say that “she would be so proud” of having techs in jump suits carry her.“And we were as proud of her,” he said. “She is part of an elite unit in the world. She was an explorer, a pioneer.”

The Parachute Folding and Inspection Certificate of B. Wilkens ( no rank ) from 1939 

Station Trenton 2 March 1954 Nursing Sister Ruth Kelly in full jumping kit practices landing procedure with the aid of swingaroo.

Station Trenton, 26 April 1954 Cpl. R.E. Crawford, F/O Nursing Sister E.R. Kelly and J.F. Bourdon. PL-87043



Station Trenton, 26 April 1954 The MK III Portable Medical Kit used in search & rescue. Closed up ready for drop. Note it contains a folded stretcher/back board. PL-87047.

   The above two pages (Click on the bubbles) are from the Parachute Rescue Association of Canada Publication That   Others May Live: 50 Years of Para Rescue in Canada 1944-1994. These pages show members of the R.C.A.F. that took part in a US Para Rescue Course in Desert / Jungle Survival and the Canadian Parachute Rescue Course 6 of Mid 1952 which included Nursing Sister Ruth Kelly. The first Parachute Rescue Course that included women was Course 5 in 1951. Courtesy Karen Bentham

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