Mayor John Henderson: “I consider her a hero and a Canadian who made a difference”
Article and images by Bill Hornbostel
In the southeast corner of Victoria Park, where the greenery meets the beach, a small, socially-distanced group unveiled a new statue of Fern Blodgett Sunde on Saturday, October 17. Sunde was a native of Cobourg who served in World War II as a radio operator (a “Sparks,”as they were nicknamed) on a Norwegian merchant ship in the Atlantic Ocean. The memorial of Sunde was put up by the Cobourg Museum Foundation. Among the group were members of the Canadian Armed Forces and the Norwegian ambassador to Canada. Not far away on the lake bobbed the Coast Guard rescue vessel, CCGS Cape Rescue.
Helen Vari, Honourary Colonel of the Toronto Scottish Regiment and Honourary Chair of the statue committee of the Cobourg Museum Foundation, spoke about the importance of memorials. “Memorials are an important source of information for young generations in understanding the enormous sacrifices made by past generations.”
Vari also spoke about Sunde’s record during World War II during the Battle of the Atlantic. “Fern heroically crossed the Atlantic seventy-eight times in the same Norwegian vessel during the Second World War. This is an extraordinary accomplishment, and our Fern was decorated personally by His Majesty the King of Norway.” King Haakon VII presented Sunde with the Norwegian War Medal; she was the first to woman to receive this honour.
Cobourg Mayor John Henderson talked about Sunde’s trailblazing career. Despite initial rejections from training programs because she was a woman, on her third application she was accepted for training. “She was the first woman to graduate in June 13, 1941, with the professional wireless radio operators certificate.”
At the time, both the Canadian and British navies forbade women from serving aboard ship; Norway, however, did not. “Fern, as we know, became the first Canadian wireless radio operator, the first female to serve deep sea on the Norwegian merchant navy vessel known as MS Mosdale, a veteran of World War Two,” said Henderson. “I consider her a hero and a Canadian who made a difference.”
“This statue would not have been possible without the committee that took an idea of great merit and saw it through to this moment,” Henderson said.
Fern Blodgett Sunde ended up marrying the Mosdale’s captain, Gerner Sunde, and they settled in Norway after the war. Jon Elvedal Fredriksen, Norway’s ambassador to Canada, spoke about Sunde’s service. “She risked her life on numerous occasions for the same reasons, I think, that people in uniform risked their lives, and that is to keep our country safe, to keep our democracy safe, to keep our allies safe.”
“We should honour the merchant sailors,” Fredriksen said. “They made a huge sacrifice, and they were crucial and important to make sure that we all managed to overcome the great challenge that faced us all those years ago.”
Fredriksen also conveyed a statement from Sunde’s daughters, Fern and Solveig Ann, who were unable to attend due to pandemic restrictions. “Our mother was no doubt a hero in our eyes, she was very brave and she was determined that women should be able to serve in wartime, side by side with men,” they wrote.
“Our mother was a modest woman and was not keen about too much attention. She had done a job, like so many others, she did not think it was much it was such a big deal,” continued her daughters. “Nevertheless, we think she liked the idea that she was a trailblazer for many other women who served at sea.”
Commander Stéphanie Bélanger, professor at the Royal Military College and the Associate Scientific Director of the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research, spoke about how Sunde was a trailblazer for women. “Fern Blodgett Sunde paved the way for twenty-two other female Sparks at the time,” said Bélanger. “Her story is part of a legacy that extends to the countless numbers of women who have enlisted to serve.”
Dr Richard Gimblett, recently retired as the Navy Command Historian, spoke about the Battle of the Atlantic. “It was during the longest single campaign of the Second World War, the Battle of the Atlantic, the RCN came of age,” he said. “During the 2,075 days of this battle, the Royal Canadian Navy would escort more than 25,000 merchant vessels across the North Atlantic, constantly beset by some of the worst weather ever experienced by mariners and the determined wolfpacks of the German Kriegsmarine.”
“This vital link between North America and the United Kingdom was the foundation upon which the invasion of fortress Europe depended,” Gimblett said. “Without victory in the Atlantic, the average 90,000 tonnes of supplies that arrived in Britain daily, there could not have been any victory in Europe.”
“Success does not come without a price,” stated Gimblett “And in the war at sea, that price is paid by sailors and their ships and airman and their aircraft. through the end of the war, thirty-three warships and 1990 sailors of the RCN were lost. In the maritime commands of the Royal Canadian Air Force lost more than 350 aircraft and over 900 aircrew in the Battle of the Atlantic.”
“The Canadian Merchant Marine lost more than seventy ships and some 1700 sailors,” continued Gimblett. “That is the context within which Fern Blodgett… made her contribution to victory.”
Gimblett also quoted Gordon Woods, another local Canadian veteran of the Battle of the Atlantic, on sailing into port after the war in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, and seeing the numerous surrendered German submarines along the banks of the river: “Oh God, there were still that many U-boats out there.”
Rear-Admiral Jennifer Bennett, a senior officer in the Canadian Forces Reserve, spoke about Sunde’s role in paving the way for women in the military. “The fact that women now serve in all aspects of Naval Operations and seagoing occupations in the Royal Canadian Navy, Canadian Coast Guard and commercial shipping is due in large part to the hard work and adventurous spirit of women like Fern and her incredible confidence to make waves to seek opportunities, seeing the possibilities rather than the obstacles and proving that when given the chance she would excel and open the door for others to follow.”
“Today, Canadian women are fortunate to be following in the footsteps of successful women who have led the way and now have less pressure to demonstrate that women can do the job,” Bennett said. “While we continue to have firsts, they aren’t subject to the same level of scrutiny, and it’s taken us a long time to arrive at this point.”
The sculptor, Tyler Fauvelle, spoke about his work. “Today we see Fern stepping forward with one foot emerging from an impressionistic wave. But she also looks back with her hand just grazing the top of that wave. Forward persistence and breaking down barriers; looking back is in remembrance.”
“The wave she touches symbolizes the wave of social change that came for Canadian women in the storm of war. The wave also represents radio waves and the waves of the sea as a battlefield,” stated Fauvelle. He spoke about the relief on the inside of the wave, commemorating not only the building of ships and aircraft for the war effort, but also the sinking of the SS Athenia, a passenger ship sunk by a U-boat on September 3, 1939.
For more information on the Cobourg Museum Foundation, you may visit their website, cobourgmuseum.ca, or follow them on Facebook (facebook.com/Sifton-Cook-Heritage-Centre-Cobourg-153555487994142) or Twitter (@CobourgMuseum).