"From Goose Bay we had to fly – and this was really an amazing flight – into Greenland. It was up a long fjord and of course Greenland is just a series of fjords and to get the right fjord there’s a little island out at the tip and it had a 10-watt radio station that we could apparently get. And once we flew over that and heard that station we knew we were in the right fjord."
Well I joined the [Royal] Canadian Air Force in March of ’42 and came to Edmonton [Alberta] from Calgary [Alberta] for manning pool. I’d enrolled as a pilot or observer. That was our choice. You couldn’t be one or the other, you had to be both. They would decide what you were going to be. So we all wanted to be pilots of course. We didn’t know what an observer was. So I ended up taking my elementary pilot course at Virden, Manitoba and I was very successful flying with Tiger Moths. Very, very cold though, November, December in Manitoba. And started the service flying on Cessna Cranes at Dauphin, Manitoba in January. And I just barely got past the solo flight and my instructor got posted overseas. So four of us were instantly turned into observers, but the insult was they didn’t turn into observers, they called us Nav[igator] Bs. And I thought, “Well if I’m going to be a Nav, I wanted to be an A class, not a B class.” But they meant a navigator bomber, which was an observer. So I trained as an observer to bombing and gunnery and navigation at Chatham, New Brunswick and graduated with an observer’s flying in September of ’43 and then took a reconnaissance course at PEI which led invariably to Coastal Command [a branch of the Royal Air Force, tasked with protecting shipping convoys from German U-boats and aircraft, the RCAF also contributed squadrons].
We didn’t realize it when we went to Debert [Nova Scotia] we were primarily being trained for Coastal Command which is flying over water. And the big thing we were doing there was learning how to decode and code messages and we had to learn all the ships in the world. We’d already learned all the planes in the world, so we learned all about ships and ship identification. But we didn’t know that that was also the source that Dorval [Quebec] was looking for, people trained for flying over water. Because it’s amazing the fear that a lot of people have about flying over water. But nearly all my flying, other than the pilot training, was over water at Chatham so I thought nothing of it.
They [RAF, Transport Command, 45 Group] originally hired all airline people to fly and they got some marvelous pilots. And that’s all they thought of at the time was pilots. And it started at a $1000 a month and after a couple of trips, they were getting $1500 a month. But then as the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan [joint military aircrew training program created by the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand] was turning out air crew at a great rate, faster than they could use them, most of the crews then became Air Force. As an NCO [non-commissioned officer] navigator with an allowance for my wife I was getting $125 a month flying with a pilot getting $1500 a month. And most of the flights, they were straightforward. He’d take off, put it on George [nickname for an aircraft’s autopilot system] and adjust his course whenever I told him, but I did all the work and very little pay. And then of course once we were away from Montreal [Quebec], our allowance for Montreal stopped. So we still had to continue paying rent on our apartment or we’d lose it. And it was rather difficult making ends meet.
I married in April and the first phone call I got was in August and I went out to the base and I met the captain and radio operator and we were taking a [North American] B-25 [medium bomber] across, which meant that we left Montreal the next morning. And in the morning we got our briefing and the weather report and they’d do anything to get us out of Dorval because it was just piling up with aircraft coming in. And we flew out of Montreal heading for Goose Bay [Newfoundland and Labrador] but we couldn’t get into Goose Bay so we landed at Three Rivers [Trois Rivières, Quebec]. It was a bombing and gunning station and so we just landed at that station. And then the next day into Goose Bay. From Goose Bay we had to fly – and this was really an amazing flight – into Greenland. It was up a long fjord and of course Greenland is just a series of fjords and to get the right fjord there’s a little island out at the tip and it had a 10-watt radio station that we could apparently get. And once we flew over that and heard that station we knew we were in the right fjord. I never once ever heard that little 10-watt transmitter. But you headed up this fjord and there was a marker. There was this freighter that had been sunk there and it’s mast was sticking out of the water and once you saw that mast, you knew you were in the right fjord. And at the end of the fjord you took a sudden left turn, on the right was a little native village, Narsarsuaq [Greenland]. And then you turned left and then an immediate right and up a runway. The runway was just uphill. And then you take off down the runway and then you take off and you have to go over the top of Greenland, so you had to go over 10 000 feet. But from there we fly over to Iceland. And Greenland isn’t green and Iceland isn’t ice.
I know one time I was taking a B-25 across and we go to Greenland and the Americans told us we were cleared to fly straight to Scotland. Well our standing orders were that we’re not skip any stops because our planes had no de-icing equipment, the B-25s. The Americans put in on but when the British bought them, that was one of the extras they didn’t need. So they had no de-icing equipment at all. So we weren’t allowed to skip any stops. And the weather report they gave us was just deadly. Sure there was layers and layers and layers of clear but where do you define it? We could have been running into ice. There were about five of us there and I was the only one who thought this was a little odd and I went to them and I said, “Where’s the Canadian liaison officer?” And they said, “We don’t know if we have one.” I said, “I’m sure you have one. Find him.” And they found him, he was a ground crew officer. I said, “We’ve been told we can fly directly and I’d love to fly directly but the weather is such we’ll never make it.” So I said, “Our standing orders are we have to go through Iceland.” He said, “I didn’t know that.” I said, “That’s true.” So he got in touch with Dorval and they said “Yeah we couldn’t do that.” So I figured I saved the lives of four or five aircraft because the officers were all prepared to chance it.
My last aircraft was a [Consolidated] B-24 Liberator, which I flew to Bermuda, to the Azores, to Rabat, Morocco, and we stayed there several days while they changed the engines for warm weather conditions. And then we delivered it over to Algiers [Algeria], Maison Blanche [former name of Algiers’ airport]. And this was right at the end of the war. They knew the war was going to end imminently, but they were afraid that the way Stalin was that he might just keep on coming west. He hated us as much as he hated the Germans. So we were building up aircraft ready to fight back if he decided to keep coming. Fortunately he didn’t.