I remember hitting the water and was knocked out for a few seconds. Within minutes, I could feel the numbing cold of the North Sea water. There was little survival time. Even in June, the water was icy cold.
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After 67 years, it takes a small incident to jog one’s memory. I was recently on a shopping trip to Costco in Edmonton and looking around the marine section when I saw the flotation vest that used a compressed air bottle to inflate it. It was similar to the Mae West flotation jacket we used aboard our aircraft in World War II. I was in the RAF [Royal Air Force] and an air gunner on Catalina flying boats, 202 Squadron, Coastal Command, Gibraltar.
I looked at that vest for some time and the question constantly came to mind – could I be sure it would inflate if I needed it? Although it was probably perfectly safe. However, my mind could not come to grips with the fact that it might not work. I am now eighty-seven and still do a little fly fishing, for which I have a small pontoon-type trout boat. Of course, I only use it in very sheltered waters and still use the standard type flotation vest. I could not bring myself to purchase that compressed air bottle type.
June 1943. RAF No. 4 Operational Training Unit, Invergordon, Northern Scotland. We were a new crew and for the first week, had instructional staff with us on our daily training flights. This day for the first time, we were on our own. Our aircraft were moored to buoys in the Moray Firth. The pinnace took us out to our aircraft and then left. The time came to start the engines; problem. The port engine solenoid was not working. We had to hand-mesh the engine. This meant me climbing onto the port wing, lying alongside the engine cowling, then opening the small panel to get at the lever that actuated the meshing mechanism.
There was quite a heavy chop on the water at the time and undoing the studs on the panel took time. I had on a leather flying jacket and trousers, Mae West life preserver, helmet and glasses. Just as well, for my head was not far from the huge exhaust when the engine kicked over. The flight engineer gave me plenty of time to get ready. As soon as I heard the whine of the generator, the drill was to count to fifteen. By then, it would reach its maximum revs, then pull sharply on the lever and whoosh, the engine roared to life.
Working in such close proximity to the exhaust pipes, one had to be careful. Closing the panel presented me with another problem. Three of the four studs closed easily but the fourth one seemed to have made up its mind that it was not going to close. I had completed the job and was started to climb down from the wing when I noticed that we had slipped our moorings and were heading out into the Moray Firth, our aircraft picking up speed and prop revs at the same time. By now, I had managed to get off the wing and was standing on top of the fuselage. We were now really barreling along and the slipstream from the huge props was beginning to tear at me.
In the bottom of the wing, were two retractable handles which I managed to lift out and hang onto. By now, we were heading down towards the point where the skipper would turn into wind to take off. My first thought, have they forgotten about me? Then I noticed that both of the huge blisters on the side of the aircraft were closed. These were my only way in. Not that I would have been able to let go of the handles, for by now, the slipstream was strong enough to carry me off into the water.
Now, I was starting to panic a little and felt very much alone. I started to pound on top of the fuselage with my boots but nothing could overcome the noise of those two huge Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp radial engines. We were now going at such a speed that I could not hang on any longer. The last thing I remember was hooking my thumb in the strap that actuated the compressed air bottle on the Mae West lifejacket. I remember hitting the water and was knocked out for a few seconds. Within minutes, I could feel the numbing cold of the North Sea water. There was little survival time. Even in June, the water was icy cold. Yes, you guessed it. The compressed air bottle did not work. I was saved by the large kapok pillow behind my head. It kept my head up out of the water. It was not part of the inflatable portion of the Mae West.
Swimming was impossible in all that clothing. All I could do was just tread water. Suddenly from nowhere, an RAF pinnace came screaming towards me and I was plucked from the water, stripped of my flying clothing and wrapped in blankets en route to our base. I had noticed on previous occasions that an old coal freighter, the King Cole, had been anchored in the middle of the Moray Firth. Apparently two of its crew members were watching this, one with field glasses. They had seen me fly off the top of the aircraft and sent up two distress flares. Our pinnace had immediately responded and rushed over to the freighter. While one of the crews kept the glasses on me, the other directed the pinnace to me.
Little time was lost getting me out of the water. Thank goodness for the old King Cole. But for the swift action in which crew members, this story could have had a very different ending. My flying days might have been over before they had really begun. Three days later, I was back on duty, no worse for wear. Now, you can understand why I did not purchase that lifejacket from Costco. I guess there are some personal things about World War II we never forget.