Gwen Settle in training

Abbotsford’s Gwen Settle recalls top secret seaside navy job

Former Wren shares her story of helping to protect Canada’s east coast from enemies

From 1962 to 1965, Abbotsford resident Gwen Settle could not talk about what she did at work.

She was part of an elite group of enlisted personnel protecting the east coast of Canada and North America from Russian advances in the Cold War.

It was in that nondescript building in Nova Scotia that she and her colleagues monitored our waters, and it was those years that helped transform her into the community-minded person she grew into.

Life and adventure on the sea with the Royal Canadian Navy was instilled in Gwen Settle’s mind from an early age.

As a child living in Nova Scotia, she idolized her father and would sneak out of bed and listen to him and his buddies tell their tales from the ships.

“I was supposed to be asleep and I’d sit at the top of the stairs and hear them speak and I just thought – wow! – what a lot of adventures,” she said.

Her father joined the RCN at the tender age of 14 and travelled across the globe, eventually working his way to the rank of lieutenant. He also served as a gunnery officer who protected convoys in the North Atlantic.

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It was her father’s exploits that motivated Settle to enlist in the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service or Wrens as they were called.

The Wrens were established in Canada in 1942 to aid in the Second World War, and by the end of the war nearly 7,000 women had served in 39 trades. The group was disbanded in 1946, but was then revived in 1951 to assist with the Korean War. The Wrens were disbanded again in 1968 when both they and the RCN were unified in the Canadian Forces.

Settle said her family was happy when she made the decision to join the Wrens.

“Mom and Dad were thrilled,” she said. “My dad and uncle were in the navy, my brother was in the army and my aunt was in the Air Force in the war. Everybody thought it was a great idea.”

She turned 18 in August 1962 and officially signed up on Oct. 15, 1962. She was then sent to Cornwallis, N.S. for training and it was there that it was decided what trade she would work in. Fortunately she ended up with exactly what she wanted – naval operations, where she would learn radar, sonar and everything associated with that type of work.

Her official title was “oceanographic operator” and one of her main tasks was to search for hidden Russian submarines.

She and a group of 11 other young women were sent to Florida for top-secret specialized training in that task. Following that training, she was stationed in Shelburne, N.S. and worked inside a secret building where they searched for the submarines remotely using a sound surveillance system or SOSUS.

“It was a system of hydrophones on the ocean seabed that was connected by cables to a land facility,” Settle explained. “And these hydrophones picked up sounds in the ocean.”

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Settle and her colleagues learned how to detect two-cycle and four-cycle diesel engines and the signature sound for nuclear submarines. Machines containing rolls of thermal paper would detect the sounds and burn the images of the soundwaves onto paper. It was through those images that Settle and her colleagues could determine what was in the waters.

However, Settle said the Russians were evasive, often moving at the same time as other vessels to confuse the machines. By doing that, they could hide some of their movements. If they found anything suspicious, the Naval Air Station in nearby Greenwood, N.S. would be contacted to send out a surveillance plane to check out the situation.

One of the more memorable days at work was Nov. 22, 1963 – the day U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. She said inside the building was a map with North America and the known positions of enemy vessels, including a Russian mothership that was always legally stationed in international waters off the east coast of the USA. She said on the day of JFK’s death, that mothership slightly moved in and it was alarming for everyone.

“On the day of his assassination the mothership moved on, and both us and the U.S. had no idea what was happening,” she said. “It was interesting times.”

She added that another memorable moment was her training in Florida during some of the tense days after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Settle said she loved her time with the Wrens, but an opportunity for further education presented itself in 1965 and she couldn’t pass it up. She went on to work in cattle breeding, at a wine-and-spirits agency and at a couple of steel plants before starting her own legal secretarial business. She has done bookkeeping, payroll, human resources and administrative work.

She made Abbotsford home in 2000 and has become an active member of the community, including volunteering with the Abbotsford Farm and Country Market since 2004. She is also the current president of Friends of the Abbotsford Libraries and the past hospitality chair for Operation Red Nose in Abbotsford.

Settle has also been involved with the Abbotsford Chamber of Commerce, is a member of the Royal Canadian Legion and now serves on the board with Abbotsford Agrifair.

Both her daughter and granddaughter reside in Abbotsford, and her granddaughter (who has the same name as her) graduates in 2021 from Abbotsford Senior.

She said Remembrance Day is a special day for her and everyone else who has served.

“Whenever possible, I participate in it,” she said, noting she will be laying the wreath at the Abbotsford Legion this year. “To me the day means showing respect, not just for those who have given their lives, but also those who are still serving or served in any capacity. They’ve all sacrificed for and it’s about showing respect for what people did to give us the freedoms we have today.”

Settle said she will always cherish her time in the Navy and is proud of the impact she and the Wrens had.

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