By Matt Chung
Ron Latham came to Ryerson in 1943 to learn how to fly.
He had just turned 18 when he signed up for the Royal Canadian Air Force in his hometown of Ottawa. He arrived in Toronto in December while overseas other young Canadians were bombing enemy territories for the allies. Latham intended to join them.
“When I signed up, I expected to go and fight,” he says. Latham, now 71-years-old, attended a very different campus at a centre few students know existed. Ryerson wasn’t called Ryerson then.
The campus was a couple of stone buildings surrounded by hastily constructed wooden structures on Gould Street known as the No. 6 Initial Training Centre of the RCAF. More than 71, 000 men and women came to the Toronto location Egerton Ryerson had established as Ontario’s first Normal School, to train teachers, in 1852.
The student teachers had been moved out in July of 1941 and been replaced by teachers and students of war. Some recruits received instruction in wartime industries. Other young men, like Latham, slept, ate and received lessons in air combat in these buildings. Latham learnt the basic elements of navigation, some meteorology and basic math skills at No. 6 Initial Training Centre.
He slept in a bunk bed and had his buzz-cut and his uniform inspected by sergeants (soldiers were kept in detention at night if they failed the inspection). And Latham remembers the Link Trainer – a machine that resembled an airplane cockpit and simulated flying. The machine sat in a circular room, painted sky-blue, like a horizon.
It would jolt him back and forth, side to side and even spin him 360-degrees while he tried to keep it steady by moving a joystick. “You’d get in and have a joystick and the instructor would say, turn left, 90 degrees.’ It was easy for him to say that, but the mechanisms that controlled it were very, very sensitive, so if you turned it just a bit too much the bloody thing would spin.”
Latham says just about every young man that signed up wanted to be a pilot, but not everyone could be. He learnt to touch the joystick with just his fingertips. He mastered the basic elements of flying and passed his pilot tests with ease. But he was never sent overseas. “If you joined in 1939 until ’41, everybody went overseas. But there was a backlog when I was ready,” Latham says. “Some of the fellows who signed up with me that took navigation did go overseas. But pilot training was most in demand, so it got backed up.”
Latham spent about four months on Ryerson’s future campus before moving to Vernon, Man. to actually fly a plane. He says the experience he got at No. 6 Initial Training Centre was excellent. “It was a good development in any career,” he says. “Even though you don’t want to see people like yourself go off to war, it was an opportunity to get out and see things differently, a good place to get an education.”
Latham says it was also a place where boys could be boys. If they weren’t in detention, the pilots would go out to play on Yonge Street. “We had things we could do in the evening, so it wasn’t all work,” he says. “When you were off hours, you could go and play pool or you could go to dances and see if you could see some pretty girls.” Latham now lives in Stratford, Ont.
He came back to Ryerson in 1999 to visit the archives “It was interesting for me to walk around Ryerson and see what little was left of the stonework,” he says. All that’s left of the Normal School is the front wall of the building. It stands at the entrance to the RAC. But the end of the war wasn’t the end of the war-time buildings.
The barracks and mess hall became classrooms for returning war veterans. They took high school crash courses in grades they’d missed, or they learnt a trade. This was called the Re-establishment and Training Program. When the veteran re-establishment program was no longer needed, Ryerson Institute of Technology emerged.
The early classes were held in the same wooden structures where Latham had learnt how to fly. John Downing former editor of The Ryersonian and President of the Student Administrative Council in 1957 came to Ryerson Institute of Technology to study journalism and printing. He says the course used printing presses left over from veteran’s courses.
He also says the first Radio and Television Arts courses were held in old Link Training rooms. Now, just five pictures and a couple artifacts remain in the Ryerson archives to commemorate the many young men and women who prepared for the Second World War effort on Ryerson’s grounds.
Ryerson history professor Arne Kislenko says we have the luxury of being ignorant about the sacrifices made during the World Wars. “They fought and made history so we wouldn’t have to care about history,” he says.
Kislenko says that he will not forget the sacrifice young Canadians made for him. He thinks that university students should especially want to commemorate the sacrifices made by men and women who — if they had lived now — would be attending university, but who went to fight for Canada.
“Except for a few ethnic and racial differences, you are the same generation as those who fought,” he says. “Without their great sacrifice, the world would be entirely different.”