Ken Maslen, Toronto, Ontario, August 25, 2009.Historica Canada
Ken Maslen, Toronto, Ontario, November 16, 2010.Historica Canada
"So we would wait out there until those aircraft came back. And if there was one missing, if it was in our area, we would get a distress call and we would go look for him."
My name is Ken Maslen, M-A-S-L-E-N. I was born in London, England in March, 1924. Well, the RAF [Royal Air Force] were looking for men with sea experience for their newly founded RAF Air/Sea Rescue service. And I thought, that looks pretty good to me. Away from big ships, onto small ships. People asked me, I always say, [I participated in] 73 [rescues], but I think it’s more like 53. You know, as the years went by, I went up one or two. But it was about, in the 50s anyway, I was on rescues for.
Now, in 1943, there was great big air raids with big four-engine bombers going over. Well, in the early days, it was all fighters, fighter aircraft. And we would go, stationed on the south coast of England, we would get a time to be out on what we call a rendez-vous in the English Channel. That would be before dawn. We would be out say 20, 25 miles out in the Channel and we would switch off our engines and just wait. And then at a certain time, these fighters would sweep right over us towards the coast of France or Holland or Belgium. And we would be on guard there just waiting until they came back. Now, every little while, we would switch our engines off and then go back to our original position. But we were there on what we used to call on rendez-vous.
Now, usually a fighter sweep [an offensive seek-and-destroy mission by fighter aircraft] took about an hour and a quarter, hour and a half. So we would wait out there until those aircraft came back. And if there was one missing, if it was in our area, we would get a distress call and we would go look for him. And usually they were fighters, just like one pilot in the aircraft. And that’s when the fun would begin, to search.
Well, we would get a position where this pilot allegedly went down. Well, the English Channel was very fast running at one time. It would go up and down. So if we got a position, we would steer three or four miles off that position and then go as though we could meet the pilot. And then we would go in to find him. If we couldn’t find him, we would start what we call a square search. We would go to position, we would go east, we would go south, north, west, like in a square. And as the time went on and we didn’t find him, the square would get bigger and bigger and bigger. And if we didn’t find him, we were very very unhappy. And that happened of course many times because a pilot can give a signal that he’s going down and maybe he doesn’t survive the crash. We would pull him out, put him on the afterdeck, put a little tarp or a blanket over him and took him home. We wouldn’t leave him in the sea.
Sometimes, the weather was so bad, we were rough rough rough and you couldn’t pick people up. Even if they were in a dinghy, you couldn’t get them. So you stayed with them until you could. The big problem was sometimes you’d find a merchant seaman that a ship had blown up and they got off and they were on a rather large wooden raft. And the sea was rough; you had a terrible time to come alongside to pick them up because the raft would smash against our boat and probably put a hole in us. So we used to hold off and wait for the weather to calm down or wait for a bigger ship, like a big naval ship to come and get them. But we would stay with them, we wouldn’t leave them.
They usually weren’t very talkative but we would strip them down, put them in warm clothing, wrap them in blankets and give them a nice hot drink of something, maybe rum we would give them. Rub them down, massage them really good, get some circulation back and then they would talk. Usually the first words they would say is - we were going back to base and they would say - where are you going? And we would say, we’re going to Newhaven. Oh, can’t you go to Littlehampton, that’s where my airbase is. They wanted to get back to their airbase immediately.
We were attacked about eight miles off the coast of Littlehampton once. Wee got strafed by a Focke-Wulf fighter [German aircraft]. We were on our way home and out of the sun, it was actually two fighters came down, one of those gave us a good burst, set us on fire and he turned and went home, the German. And we had some casualties.
As a matter of fact, I’m going to tell you something right now, this very minute, because I’ve had this thing. I’m now looking at a very old Waverley fountain pen. It was black - black colour. It is now a greeny colour. I’ve had it since the middle of 1942 and it belonged to our wireless operator named Johnny Thomason that was killed that day. Although a couple of others were killed that day as well.
But it, he was my particular guy. We used to go out together, we used to sleep in the same cabin and you know, you always have someone that you lean on and he was the wireless operator, he got a 20-millimetre canon all to himself. And the other two guys, well, they were part of the crew but you get shook up when you lose someone, and our boat was sunk anyway and you’re shook up but you soon get over it because you get back and you’re assigned to another boat and they send you out right away. You don’t spend any time in harbour crying or sobbing. Out you go.
Well, we went to Singapore. We did a lot of searching. Our job in those days then, there was not much air/sea rescue but we were engaged in what they called the Malacca Strait which is down in between Indonesia and Malaya, a lot of islands. And we visited all these islands to find out if there were any Allied prisoners of war there. We would then pick them up and bring them back to Singapore. We did that for, oh, three or four months right after the war. We did find a few Australians, British, a couple of Americans.
They were not as bad as some that we saw in … jail but they were, they were not in good shape at all. They were happy that we came there; they were all skinny of course. Not had any decent food. But we told them that their diet was fish, we used to get a lot of fish. So that wasn’t bad, was it? Sometimes two, three hours, we were back in Singapore and we would radio a message and there’d be ambulances waiting for them, to take them to a hospital.
Nobody died on our boats before, they were all alive. And they were, they were happy to be with us. You see, it made them feel good when we got them. They were actually waiting for us because the Japanese had told them, the war over. Every time you look at a Japanese, he would stand and salute and call you Master, yes Master, no Master, you have cigarettes Master for me? All that old junk. Which we didn’t give them any cigarettes, we didn’t give them anything.